More cries for help as shells fall on Homs

Struggling to survive after two weeks of withering bombardment by Syrian forces, people in the Baba Amr district of Homs are packed four or five families to a house, relying on collected rainwater and watching their wounded friends and relatives die for lack of medicines, residents say.

Some say starvation is a real threat and accuse the world of abandoning them to army shelling they claim has killed dozens of people and wounded at least 2,000 in the rebel stronghold during an 11-month uprising against president Bashar al-Assad.

Activists reported 21 people killed and 340 wounded in Baba Amr yesterday as a fresh artillery barrage shredded the beleaguered suburb.

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With no chance to flee, many families have left their homes on the outskirts and retreated into the heart of the battered neighbourhood in the central western city, cramming dozens into small houses and flats.

Those who survive the shelling face food and water shortages which they say have been worsened by government snipers shooting at water tanks. They are terrified to go out.

“We are collecting rainwater in jars and casseroles,” said Abu Bakr, a resident of Baba Amr sheltering with 25 people in a two-room house.

“We take turns sleeping – some during the day and others during the night – as we do not have enough space,” he said.

Women who recently gave birth are unable to feed their babies because their breast milk has dried up from shock, he said. “Some women have volunteered to breast-feed those babies but until when? Their lives are in danger.”

The shelling has destroyed many houses in the poor neighbourhood of 80,000 people and the few field hospitals erected months ago are in ruins, activists say. At least two doctors and two nurses were killed in the shelling, leaving Baba Amr with just two or three doctors, they say.

Some houses were turned into makeshift hospitals but the lack of medical supplies and staff mean there is little for the wounded. “We are watching the wounded die. All we are doing is using pieces of clothes to cover their wounds then watch them die,” said another resident of Baba Amr, who declined to be named. “We have lost many people and every day we have friends and relatives dying before our eyes, there is nothing we can do.”

The government says it is fighting armed militants intent on overthrowing Assad funded and armed from abroad, while the residents say the crackdown is aimed at crushing pro-democracy protesters and those opposed to Assad.

In some areas of Homs, Free Syrian Army rebels have set up checkpoints to try to block access to soldiers and Shabbiha militia loyal to Assad.

In Baba Amr, where many residents are farmers and traders, the massed troops on the outskirts mean farmers are prevented from harvesting crops.

“If people do not die of the shelling they will die of starvation soon,” said one activist.

Markets are closed after running out of supplies and residents are living on pickled aubergine, olives and dried bread. Vegetables and meat have become a luxury. Phone lines and the internet are cut off.

Anger is also rising against the Syrian opposition, who residents say have stood by and watched the slaughter.

“We feel that the opposition has let us down … Everybody is fooling us and using us for their own interests and we are the ones paying the price,” said one activist.

Khaled Abu Salah, an activist in Baba Amr, sent a distress call to the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, comparing his city’s suffering to the suppression of a 1982 Islamist uprising in Hama, when forces loyal to Assad’s father Hafez killed at least 10,000. “We are being bombarded and we are dying. We are living the 1980s with all its scenarios, and until now you have done nothing,” he said in a YouTube video, standing in front of a shelled house.