In the heartland of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad a grinding war of attrition has now become an unforgiving battle to the death.
The Free Syria Army has held this territory of orchards and farmland since September, during which time loyalist forces have never been closer, nor seemed more menacing. as rockets regularly thundered on Thursday into towns that residents could neither defend nor leave, the three months of freedom they had savoured now seemed illusory.
There is little left in the town in which the Guardian was based on Thursday, or in the equally deprived and forsaken villages that dot the hinterland near Homs. Electricity here was switched off two months ago, the phone lines were downed last week. And on Wednesday, contact by road was cut with Homs, Syria’s besieged third city, whose fate is seen as a dire warning of what lies ahead for the rest of the area.
Homs was on Thursday a very difficult place from which to flee. only three seriously wounded residents are known to have made it out of the devastated opposition held sectors of the city into the relative safety of nearby Lebanon. Two of the wounded are unlikely to survive.
The rest face a desperate plight, barricaded in concrete homes that are crumbling in the face of the relentless onslaught now spreading to nearby farmland and villages. some residents of this town say a small number of families from the heaviest hit areas of Homs, Baba Amr and al-Khalidiyeh, have managed to hole up in other areas of the city. however they can no longer speak to those left behind, who they now fear face a gruesome fate.
“We’ll be next,” said a doctor at a makeshift medical centre in the heart of this town. The doctors and nurses on duty here had fled the state hospital, one kilometre away, and set up a triage centre and a surgical ward in a derelict house. All day they were tending to dead and seriously wounded men, many of them members of the badly outgunned rebel army.
The patterned plastic sheets the medics had placed on the floor were slick with blood and iodine as more and more war wounded were brought in by their colleagues.
One hulking man in military fatigue pants was carried in on a stretcher with a gaping wound in his navel. “He’s a first lieutentant,” said one of the clinic’s nurses, Abdul Karem, who like everyone else in this overwrought hub, doubles as a revolutionary. The seriously wounded officer was taken to the improvised operating room, as nurses outside prepped themselves for surgery by washing their hands with kerosene and water.
Among those tending to him was an old French surgeon, a veteran of conflict zones dating back to the Vietnam war, who arrived in Syria on Thursday with a suitcase of medical supplies and a readiness to stay as long as he’s needed.
The carnage of the rest of the day suggests he may be here awhile. Minutes after the lieutenant’s treatment began, a truck screamed to a stop outside and Free Syria Army soldiers bellowed for a stretcher. The triage centre rapidly emptied, as the medics inside grabbed their flip flops – one also reached for his Kalashnikov – and hurried into the courtyard outside. they stopped next to the truck and looked inside and visibly stopped in their tracks. “Finished,” one man said. “Take him to the graveyard.” The dead man was a major, the leader of the Free Syria Army in this town, and one of many wounded by an attack on an outpost not far from here.
As night fell, the numbers of dead and wounded appeared to increase. every massive boom in the near distance seemed to herald the arrival of more patients.
“They’re coming from the hospital that we ran away from,” said one medic, Dr Qassem. “It’s only a kilometre away.”
Regime snipers were also wreaking havoc from a nearby intersection on the road to Homs. Opposition forces, meanwhile for the most part watched from hideouts in apricot and peach orchards and farm-houses dotted along muddy brown laneways.
More wounded were brought in, a rebel shot in the hand, another two with bullets in their back. The television showing footage of the carnage in Homs had by now been switched off as the triage room swarmed with walking wounded, frantic medics and others taking refuge from the shelling.
The first lieutenant inside was fading fast. as other surgeons piled the patient’s intestines onto his stomach, Dr Qassem, who was holding a lamp over the operation said: “They are coming for us now. It is going to be very bad.”
And then he added an optimistic note to a day that had so far offered nothing but misery. “The vote at the UN could be good for us in the future,” he said. “All our students and doctors study in Russia and the standards are not good. “All our factories have Chinese equipment and it’s the same thing. if we win, things will change, God willing.”
He switched back to the dying patient as attention switched to the newest casualty, a man shot in the wrist, his blood streaming over shoes piled at the room entrance.
“There have been more than 100 people killed today,” said one young university medical student as he held an x-ray machine over a patient lying prostrate on the floor. “We all have family in Homs and we are very worried about the situation there. It is much worse than here.
“Every day it has been getting worse here and there. no one is coming for us and we accept our fate.”
Early in the day, a re-supply – of sorts – did arrive for the rebels; three sacks of rockets and rusting mortar tubes. they too were brought into the medical clinic and stored out of sight. It was hardly an arsenal to embolden a clearly struggling rebel army, but it was a sign that some weapons are finding their way across the porous Turkish and Lebanese borders.
“These are old,” said one young fighter. “But they will do. We are grateful for everything that we get.”