Syrian refugees in Lebanon tell of horrors at home

By Rima Marrouch Families who fled Homs during the bombardment report executions and rapes at the hands of Bashar Assad's forces

By Rima Marrouch

Syrian refugees who fled the violence in Homs shout slogans against Syrian President Bashar Assad as they gather in front of a building in Arsal, Lebanon, where they are temporarily settled. (Wael Hamzeh, European Pressphoto Agency / March 7, 2012)
During a pause in the shelling, Um Mahmood and her 9-year-old son ducked out of their house together in Baba Amr, the most contested neighborhood in the Syrian city of Homs.

Their entire family of nine had been waiting for a chance to flee the government onslaught, and rebels had just sent word that they should use the lull to get out.

But as Um Mahmood and her son hurried along a dirt road, several shells landed nearby, knocking them to the ground. Other family members scattered. The boy got up and ran, but Um Mahmood couldn’t. For 15 minutes as the shells fell, she lay frozen to the spot, afraid that moving would make her a target. Finally, a rebel came to drag her to safety.

More than 2,000 Syrians have fled into Lebanon in the last week alone, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The exodus came as a month of government shelling, which activists said killed hundreds of people, culminated in a rebel withdrawal from Baba Amr.

The pullback appears to have emboldened President Bashar Assad’s forces, who now are said to be planning an assault on the Idlib area to the north.

Some of the Syrians have since returned home, but Um Mahmood, rescued that Saturday two weeks ago, and her relatives are among about 80 families that found refuge in this hilly Lebanese village. About 130 injured Syrians have arrived as well, and were sent to the nearest hospital, a village leader said. Four injured men died along the way.

Families taking refuge here tell of tense army searches, killings in the street and dramatic escapes.

Two days before her family fled, Um Mahmood said, her brother-in-law was killed by a sniper. Like other families, they buried him at night in the backyard because it was too dangerous to go out.

There also are multiple accounts of summary executions and rape by government forces, most of them secondhand and unconfirmed.

Cut off and uncertain about what is happening back home now, many of the refugees fear the worst.

Both sides in this conflict, which is largely being fought out of sight of foreign journalists, are believed to have committed abuses. Claims and counterclaims cannot be independently verified. The government says more than 2,000 members of its security forces have been killed.

Human rights groups say they also have heard stories of rape by members of the army but have not been able to confirm them. Rights groups, like journalists, have had very limited access to Syria.

As she told her story, Um Mahmood, 40, rubbed her eyes with exhaustion: The family left so quickly that her 7-year-old daughter didn’t even have time to put on her shoes.

She and other women interviewed here asked to be identified not by their full names, but by traditional nicknames derived from the names of their eldest sons.

Before the long bombardment of Homs began, families said, the army regularly entered neighborhoods to raid homes.

Um Ayman, from Qusair, a town in Homs province, said that when about 20 soldiers stormed her house two months ago they threw all of the family’s food — rice, bulgur wheat, salt and oil — on the ground and smashed the television and computer, cursing them all the while.

Several refugees said the soldiers appeared to take special pleasure in going through women’s intimate clothing. Sometimes they demanded lunch, and many refugees told of theft.

“They put the gun to my head and asked me, ‘Where does your father hide the Kalashnikov?’ ” said Yamen, Um Ayman’s 9-year-old nephew. “I told them I don’t know and I ran away.”

Another woman from the village, Um Amaar, said her children were threatened and asked where the family hid its guns. The soldiers made children open all cabinets and drawers, she said.

Parents said they were particularly worried about rape.

“Do you think people left just for fear of death?” asked Um Mahmood. “Death is better. The father whose daughters are taken away, he can’t say a word.”

Um Mahmood said one of her neighbors told her how she begged a soldier, who was eyeing her 14-year-old daughter as he ordered her to serve him tea, to leave the girl alone. Angered by the mother’s constant pleading, he threw the pot of boiling tea on the girl’s 13-year-old brother.

“Thank God at least they left the girl,” Um Mahmood said, adding that she knew of six families in which a member was raped.

Um Yassin, the sister of Um Mahmood, said her home was burned in another Homs neighborhood. Her nephew was stopped at a checkpoint by the shabiha, a militia loyal to the government, and taken to a house where a newly married couple were also being held. She said her nephew later told her that the woman was raped in front of him and her husband.

The refugees also related cases of summary executions, some they said they had witnessed and some they had been told about.

From her home, Um Yassin said, she saw several men who had been taken from their homes and forced to stand against a wall. Soldiers shot them, she said.

Last week, families who left after Um Mahmood told her and her family what happened in Baba Amr after the army entered. Only women, the elderly and children, including boys in their early teens, were left behind, they told her.

She said one refugee told her that soldiers rounded up 16 boys. Their mothers believed they would be detained only briefly, but instead they were stabbed to death in the street.

“They said, ‘Once these boys grow up they will become just like their fathers, fighting us and hating us,'” she quoted the refugee as saying. “Their mothers drained themselves of tears.”

Despite 20 days of near-constant shelling, Um Amaar, 39, and her extended family had hoped to stick it out in Qusair, a town the army suspected of harboring defectors.

Her husband was arrested months ago because he had a photo of a “martyr” on his phone. He spent a week in prison, and when he came out his face was bloated and puffy from beatings. He soon joined the rebels.

Fifteen of their family members have been killed and seven are missing, Um Amaar said.

A week ago, the family was huddled in the house when a shell hit the second floor and smashed through to the one below. No one was injured. Minutes later the extended family of 22 people fled their homes en masse.

“These are all we brought with us,” she said, referring to her children as she reached out and hugged her young son. “We dressed them in two layers of clothes because we couldn’t bring anything.”

But fleeing is becoming more dangerous. Activists say the government is laying mines along smuggling routes, and on Tuesday a bridge used by refugees to reach Lebanon was shelled.

For hours, Um Amaar said, she and her family walked to the border in cold, ankle-deep mud along smuggling routes, avoiding main highways where they risked almost certain attack, she said. Each adult carried a child, the youngest a 3-month-old boy.

Now they are living in a rented home furnished with donated items and wearing borrowed clothes. The family says it had no other choice.

“We left for the sake of the children,” Um Amaar said.

Los Angeles Times