'Syrians shot trying to get away'
The haunting memories of savage violence and loss are fresh in their minds. Now, with the vengeful forces of the regime closing in, the terrified and exhausted stream of the dispossessed fleeing Syria's strife await an uncertain fate.
More than 10,000 people have headed for the Turkish border in an attempt to escape the onslaught unleashed by Bashar al-Assad. They were living in squalor with little food and water and no shelter. But they were prepared to suffer that to reach a place of relative safety away from the tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships, and the death they bring.
It is not known just how long this respite will last. The regime's forces are less than 15km away, and yesterday Damascus announced that the current offensive in Idlib province, which saw the storming of Jisr al-Shughour – a city which had become a symbol of militant opposition – will continue to roll on until the "criminal gangs" are crushed.
The Independent met some of these victims of a war waged on them by their own state by crossing over from Turkey across valleys and ridges on a smugglers' route. Our guides were young men carrying in meagre supplies by hand: bottles of water and loaves of bread. This is the only aid of any kind getting through to a humanitarian crisis which worsens by the day.
The tales we heard were harrowing – of indiscriminate shootings and casual killings, of hurried burials and burning houses. One needs to be cautious of these accounts because they can be embellished. But there was a sense of bewilderment among those huddled together about what has happened. There was also the sight of the very young and elderly swathed in bandages. On a sloping hillside were a series of graves of those who, without medical help, had succumbed to their injuries.
Among the crowd were soldiers who had changed sides. They acknowledged serving a repressive regime without questions. But they had stopped doing so, they insisted, because of the vicious nature of the current military operations. Surrounded by people who have suffered at the hands of their fellow troops, the soldiers were nervous. Ismail Sher Saleh, a 25-year-old former sergeant of infantry, had deserted just before troops of the 4th armoured division led by the President's brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Maher al-Assad, had launched their attack on Jisr al-Shughour.
"They could kill me if they caught me," he said, twisting a black-and-white checked keffiyeh [scarf] in his fingers. "It could be the Mukhabarat [secret police] or even people I had served with. Some terrible things are being done: I have seen people getting shot for no reason. They would kill me because they would consider me a traitor and because I know what they had done."
Cradling three-year-old Sabia in her arms, Halima Um Qais traced her finger along the three elastoplast strips on her daughter's forehead. "Something large exploded near our house and she was cut by metal which came through the air. We are poor people, farmers – I do not know why they wanted to bomb us," she said. "We are going to try to take her to a hospital. We are worried because it is in the head and it could be serious."
The family is among the hundreds who are crossing into Turkey every day. Officials have put the figure so far at around 6,000, although many more have slipped in. The wounded are taken for treatment, but the rest are sent immediately to holding centres. The number of these camps has increased from one to three in seven days, with a fourth one under construction, away from contact with local people and, more specifically, the media.
Turkey's Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, whose party won national elections held two days ago, has watched the chaos in Syria with growing alarm. He has called on President Assad, with whom he had built up strong links, to rein in his troops, and has denounced the "barbaric" actions still being taken.
On Sunday evening, while receiving a congratulatory telephone call from David Cameron, he gave his backing to a proposed Anglo-French resolution at the United Nations condemning the actions of the Syrian regime.
Meanwhile, Turkish troops at the border have stopped the media from venturing into Syria – The Independent had to take a detour to avoid patrols and reach families strung out along a river valley. There was suspicion in the camp, rumours of intelligence agents sent to collect information and seek out targets for future reckoning. A tall man with a bulge under his blue jacket scrutinised the identity card of our Turkish guide and questioned me about our journey. "Please excuse us," he said. "We have to be careful about spies. The [regime's] soldiers are not very far back. They may come this way; I am looking after security."
There had been reports that some of the "refugees" had come armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which would give credence to claims from Damascus of armed groups moving among the protesters. "No, we are just ordinary people," said the security man. Was he carrying a pistol? "No absolutely not," he shook his head.
The vast majority of those present were sleeping under trees offering scant cover from the rain; a few have managed to drive pick-up trucks cross-country and use the trailer to sleep; others have built makeshift tents out of rags and plastic sheeting. A small well could not cope with the demands of the growing numbers. A pond with floating rubbish and the waters of the river, with animals wallowing in the shallows, was being used for washing and drinking.
"I know this is bad, but we are alive" said Siraz Abdullah, a 19-year-old student from a village near Jisra al-Shughour. "We have nothing left there. We had big guns used [against us] and then there were helicopters. They were flying low, so they could see they were shooting at people. They shot people who were not fighting but trying to get away. I saw two men getting hit as they were running away."
There were repeated claims that fighters from the Shabiha, a militia from the Alawite community from which the Assad family and country's élite belong, had taken part in atrocities. Mohammed Hafiz, a carpenter from a hamlet south of Jisra al-Shughour, said: "They were not the army, but they came just afterwards. These men were very aggressive: they enjoyed shooting people.
"They went up on rooftops and shot at demonstrations. No one knew who sent them. We found out that they were this militia everyone was frightened of. It was they who started the real trouble by firing on a funeral."
Ahmed ibn Abdurrahman was too tired to carry on. Sitting with his wife and brother on a rug laid on the dust, he sighed, "I need to go home. I have a house and I want to go back to that." Mr Abdurrahman's home was in Maarat al-Numan. A military spokesman in Damascus announced that city will be "dealt with" in the next few days.