There was an anguished cry: “Tayara Marwahiya!”
The fighter who had looked so confident with a belt of rifle rounds strung across his chest just moments ago was repeatedly yelling the arabic word for helicopter.
The small Free Syrian Army (FSA) unit he had alerted spared no time as they took cover inside a damaged building. As I followed them, I glanced at the sky, but could not see anything.
It was the same every time the Russian-made attack helicopter was used. We could hear it, but it flew too high to be seen. The lethal aerial gunship tended to emerge in the mid-morning, just after a drone had flown its surveillance mission over the town.
We were with the FSA unit, touring the area around the town hall in Al-Qusayr in Homs province, not far from the Lebanese border.
The building itself is no longer standing. In a daring raid, the Free Syrian Army stormed the landmark building, which had been the main base of Assad’s forces in the town.
It was opposition’s biggest victory in sixteen months of battles in Al-Qusayr. It allowed them to take control of the vast majority of the town. They decided to rig the building with explosives, and demolish it, so that it could never be retaken.
Assad forces still control a number of checkpoints dotted around the edge of town, and they hold the town’s hospital. It is no longer a medical centre. The doctors fled months ago. It is now an army barracks.
The only working medical facility is now a small clinic converted into a field h
FSA holding ground against Assad’s Forces [Al Jazeera]
ospital. The only doctor available is not trained as a general surgeon. He is actually a gastroenterologist. With a couple of nurses, he works around the clock. Some of the battlefield injuries are horrific in a town that is being repeatedly shelled around the clock.
But he tells me that civilians are suffering in other ways too, particularly the children. They face malnourishment, disease and illness in a place where supplies of food, medicine and baby milk are scarce.
“We need to stop the killing of people every day” he says. “We want to stop the Assad regime. [They] kill children, women, everybody, and destroy buildings and houses.”
The clinic has a hole in its roof. Most of the buildings around it have been hit too. One bombardment immediately opposite the field hospital was recent – it killed two people.
In addition to the helicopter gunships, Syrian forces are using artillery, mortars, rockets, missiles and tank rounds.
These are all inaccurate “area” weapons – being fired relentlessly into this conurbation, with no regard to the safety of the many civilians still living in Al-Qusayr.
Sometimes, the weapons are fired to create an airburst in the sky – showering part of the town with fragments of shrapnel. It is difficult to sleep. You hear the explosions around the clock.
In the dead of night, it is terrifying. One landed so close to the room where I was sleeping that masonry fell from the ceiling. Sometimes the trajectory of the weapon is directly overheard – resulting in a loud whistling sound before you hear the bang.
It had been so different when I first visited the town two months earlier. Then, the UN ceasefire was shaky, but still in place. Neither side was fully respecting it, but it was safe enough to walk around town, and to meet people who gathered on the streets for regular protest demonstrations.
Since then, many of the townsfolk have fled. But many others are stuck, including women and children who either have nowhere else to go, or not enough money to leave.
Most other parts of Homs province are just as dangerous, the road to the capital, Damascus, is long and hazardous, and crossing the border to Lebanon requires hundreds of dollars in payment to smugglers.
Clutching her baby niece, one woman who wanted to be known only as “Umm Abdullah”, or Abdullah’s mother told me, “Every day it gets worse. There is nothing in the market. Every day and every night, we are shelled and bombarded. We can’t sleep.”
Remarkably, given the continuing onslaught, the FSA seems to have the upper hand on the battlefield. Not only have they retaken the town hall, and large parts of the town, they have also made gains in the countryside. We were taken to one checkpoint, very close to the Lebanese border, which was recaptured in the last two weeks.
With us, there is one FSA fighter with a unique insight of the current state of the battlefield.
Just a few weeks ago, Najdat Ibrahim was serving here as part of the Syrian National Army. He was in the checkpoint when it came under attack and was captured. He was then given the opportunity to change sides. Najdat told me that the troops he served with were all fearful.
“When I was captured, I was terrified and scared because I had no idea what would be my fate. In the national army, all we were told was they were a group of terrorists willing to destroy the country, kill the children and kill the women.” Amah is the name of the FSA fighter who captured Najdat and is now his commander. He told me the national army are only told one side of the story.
“They were told not to watch TVs. No Al Jazeera and no Al-Arabiya. They are not allowed to watch these channels. The only channel they can watch is Al-Donia and we all know about this channel that is very loyal to the regime and only tells lies. The regime used to tell their fighters that we are terrorists and we are part of Al-Qaeda and if we win, we will kill them. But at the end of the day, those fighters loyal to the regime need to know that they are from the Syrian people which means they are our children and our relatives and so on. Believe it or not, yesterday there was an incident in Hama where the loyal father has fought his revolutionary son and killed him without knowing that he was his son.”
Our team had wanted to travel further into the province and intended to visit Homs itself. At first, FSA fighters said there was a way they could take us, but then one commander took me to one side. “Please don’t go to Homs.” He said, “If you do, it is likely at least half your team will die.”
After four days in Al-Qusayr, we decided to leave Syria. With missiles raining down, life in the town, as in so many other places across Syria, is a lottery.
Many civilians do not have that option. They have no option but to cower in buildings that are bombarded with a devastating and murderous tempo.