“I’ll go back a fighter — a fighter,” said Ahmed al-Kadi, talking from his hospital bed, despite the sniper bullet he had taken to the chest days before.
His hometown of Qara was overrun by the Syrian army on Sunday, part of a larger bid to drive the FSA from the strategic route linking Homs to Damascus. Syrian aid volunteers said that at least 30,000 refugees had arrived to Arsal, a key town on Syria-Lebanon smuggling routes, over the past five days.
To rebels, the regime advance is a major threat: the Syrian army and Lebanese Hezbollah are are working to close off the mountains of Qalamoun to the east and cutting them off from Arsal, a critical lifeline for supplies and men.
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According to his brother, Abdullah, loyalist government employees living in the town had tried to arrange concessions to the regime.
But the terms were harsh: they would have to give up 400 wanted persons in the town as well, as all every army defector and his weapon. The army would be allowed to enter, with 40 local men provided as protection, and plant the regime flag in the center of the town for state television cameras.
“We were willing to allow the flag for the sake the civilians,” said the brother. “But the rest was impossible.”
Ahmed, 35, said he had been helping to evacuate remaining civilians from Syria on Sunday, when regime troops targeted his motorcycle with a shell.
He went sailing through the air and was unconscious on the ground for 15 minutes, leading fellow fighters to take him for dead. Then a sniper shot — meant to kill him — actually jolted him to life.
“The guys were able to rig a hook and drag me from the road out of the sniper’s range,” he said. “The doctor said I need a week to heal before I return. I will die in Qara.”
Qara, a small town in Syria, had become home not only to its own 25,000 residents, but also to some 20,000 displaced people from Qusayr, Houla, Rastan and other towns throughout Homs province successively devastated by regime assaults. When the offensive reached Arsal, it was disastrous.
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Another patient, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was impossible for opposition supporters to return to towns retaken by the regime, potentially leaving them trapped in Arsal. He said that several friends had attempted to go back to Qusayr, but “disappeared” on the way.
“It’s clear who took them; the army has full control of that road,” he said, adding that the only remaining residents were pro-regime and he could “count them on two hands”.
In a sparse Arsal parlor, a group of women sat discussing their flight from Qara over tea. Um Mohammed, a 37-year-old mother of five, decided to flee to Arsal last Thursday. When she saw state television label Qara residents “terrorists,” she knew the worst was coming.
Her sister, who waited an extra day to leave, told her of the horrors she had missed.
“She told me there was an insane amount of gunfire on Friday, beginning in the afternoon. Then the army shot down the power lines and all the electricity and Internet was cut off. By Sunday, they were dropping barrel bombs loaded with TNT and firing surface-to-surface missiles.”
She said that the army was steadily encircling the town for some time, and that residents had been saving up stocks of food. “Now the army has all that food,” she said.
“It is hard to make negotiations with the regime,” she continued. “Everything that happened in Homs or Qusayr affects us. And it was clear they didn’t want us to stay in Syria… we had no where else to go but Arsal.”
‘Animals Lived Here’
On Thursday, Arsal was abuzz — animal stables being converted into houses, children playing amid the rocky terrain and volunteers organizing meager distributions. All were fearful of the winter cold to come.
One of the workers was shy Abdel Elah, 22. Originally from Qusayr, he had been displaced to Qara.
“The road [here] was very hard,” he said. “Some people were burned alive in their cars when they got hit by tank fire.”
He was busy converting a donkey stable into a home suitable for people. “You know what this was yesterday? It was for animals,” said an elderly man, watching the young men work.
Further down the road, Roweida Abdel Wahab walked with purpose in a shimmering red abaya, touring her camp with a walkie-talkie on one hip and her toddler on the other. She had winterized the settlement by replacing tents with stone, now home to 33 families.
Roweida and her husband had used their savings (they owned a brick factory back in Jurajir, a village near Qara) to complete the work.
“No one helped, it was from my own pocket, praise God,” she said.
A short drive up the hill, new arrivals to Arsal were not faring as well; what was once a grand wedding hall is now serving as a dormitory for hundreds, mostly children.
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Thin mattresses lined the floor.
“The children are already getting sick,” one mother said, gazing at the mass of people sitting in groups, recounting their flight in shock and heating tea on the flaming tops of gas canisters.
They all told the same stories of frazzled escapes from town to town.
“There are families where the father is a martyr, the son is in prison. There are others who fled so fast that people were left behind,” said one aid worker. “I met a mother forgot one of her sons in the bathtub. Is there anything worse than that?”
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But a larger threat looms: if the road to Qalamoun is cut, Arsal and its tens of thousands of refugees will be left with scarce options of escape or return.
On the journey back to Beirut, a microbus driver confided that the checkpoint on the edge of Arsal prevents Syrians without papers from leaving. “But if the soldier is against the regime, he waves them through,” he said, adding, “Whenever the people get turned back I tell them to wait three hours until the next guy comes on duty.”
He confessed his fears that the Syrian army and Hezbollah would take their campaign to the pro-opposition town. “If the regime strikes Arsal, it will be a massacre. The people are living like this,” he said, taking his hands from the wheel to interlock his fingers.
He continued driving in silence, whizzing past posters of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and the young martyrs who had died fighting the rebels in Syria.