As defeated rebel fighters pull out from villages around the decimated bastion of Baba Amr, civilians who supported the Syrian uprising are escaping their homes in fear of reprisals.
For months the border town of al-Qusayr, and the villages aound Homs have housed units of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Emboldened residents joined growing the protests. Now they fear the regime will turn its tanks on them with the same “scorched earth” revenge it took on Baba Amr.
In the past two weeks, humanitarian organisations have estimated thousands have crossed into the Lebanese mountain villages of Al Qaa and Aarsal escaping government shelling.
“I participated in demonstrations against Assad,” said Abu Hassan, a farmer from near Homs, now in Aarsal. “Now the regime is back. Soldiers at the checkpoint to my village threatened to burn down my house. They knew my name, they knew where I lived”.
Panic pervades the Homs countryside. Rumours of throat slitting, rape, bodies found mutilated swirl.
In Aarsal, I spoke to refugees who had crossed hours before. Poorly dressed for the bitter temperatures a woman pulled her thin cardigan around her and wept. “We have done nothing. God, why is this happening to us?” she sobbed.
Aarsal is a Sunni town, isolated in the Shia heartland of Hezbollah. Surrounding villages are dotted with Syrian flags and portraits of Bashar al-Assad Many of the Sunni residents are relatives of the refugees, and provide housing and food. But the refugees exist in fear of persecution, convinced that the region is crawling with spies. “We left everything behind. All we want is to stay alive” one mother said.