Syria crisis: Fear and abandonment in under-fire Homs

The BBC's Paul Wood reporting from inside Homs: "There's been pretty constant shelling"

Residents in the restive Syrian city of Homs are suffering one of the fiercest assaults from government troops since the uprising began. The BBC's Paul Wood is one of the few journalists in the city and describes their fear and sense of abandonment.

Mortars began to fall, steadily, a few minutes after 06:00. Each blast echoed around the narrow streets.

At first, that caused defiant cries of "God is great". But then heavy artillery was used; then airburst bombs.

Now this part of Homs appears deserted. There are no voices outside, only the din of shells coming in and exploding.

Occasionally a frightened resident peers quickly out of a window before disappearing.

"There is rubble in everywhere," said a local cameraman, running back inside, breathless, a moment ago. "Power lines are down. There is not a single person on the street."

Under the constant shell-fire, people were becoming slightly hysterical: The army was "about to attack with chemical weapons"; The army was "already invading with ground troops".

Neither was true, though one credible eyewitness said he had seen troops moving up to the edge of this area.

The security forces seem to be about one kilometre away. There is no invasion yet - and perhaps there won't be one - but that is what people fear and expect.

No safe place

In the first hour or so, we heard a lot of gunfire from rebel fighters of the Free Syria Army. It was a futile gesture - Kalashnikovs against artillery.

Now their commanders have given an order for ammunition to be preserved. It will be used later, either to counter-attack or if the regime's forces enter, they say.

Start Quote

Everything we do is to defend our people. The regime can't get to us - so it retaliates against civilians instead”

End Quote Captain Mohammed Idris Free Army

Opposition activists have counted more than 25 dead in Homs so far on Monday (though there is no independent confirmation of that figure). The houses here don't have basements. There is nowhere safe to hide.

Syrian state television denied that there had been any bombardment. It said residents were setting fire to piles of rubbish on the roofs of their homes to trick the world into thinking that there was an attack.

There is no doubt, however, from what we have seen and heard, that hundreds of shells and mortars have been fired at this place during the day.

As I write this, the windows of the house we are in are still reverberating from the impact of a shell, probably in the next street.

It is true that people have been setting fire to rubbish in the streets. They believe it will confuse the guidance systems of rockets apparently being fired at them. They are probably mistaken.

People in this part of Homs say these are the worst days they have known since the beginning of the uprising, almost a year ago. The bombing has been going on for several days now.

Most of the casualties we have seen were civilians. We were at a field clinic on Sunday during a mortar attack lasting several hours. A teenaged boy was brought in with horrific injuries, most of his face gone.

In the corridor, a woman was screaming. Her only son had just been brought in on a stretcher, his left foot severed by the blast. She was hysterical, but not incoherent. "Give us guns, we cannot defend ourselves," she shouted, before someone led her away.

Start Quote

The UN abandoned us. Who's going to help us now, who's going to help us now?”

End Quote Homs resident

It is also true that some of the dead are fighters. We went to the prayers for one on Sunday, a member of the Free Army, as the rebels call themselves. His body was laid on the carpeted floor of the mosque, flowers on his chest. Two men - perhaps brothers - knelt over him, kissing his forehead, and weeping.

The man had died a couple of hours earlier while attacking a government base said to be used by snipers.

The regime accuses the Free Army - "terrorists" or "armed gangs" in the language of official spokesmen - of causing most of the violence.

I put that to the Free Army commander in this part of Homs.

"No," said Captain Mohammed Idris, who defected from the regime's army only in December. "Everything we do is to defend our people. The regime can't get to us - so it retaliates against civilians instead."

Little dignity

Civilians are certainly paying the price. In the field clinic, a man was carefully wrapping the body of a seven-year-old girl in a white sheet. She had been killed when a mortar fell on her home. They wrote her name on the shroud, Nuha al Manal.

Like all the dead in this part of Homs, she was buried in darkness. They have been doing that here for many months; daytime is too dangerous. In the pitch black, a volunteer ran across the graveyard carrying her body.

There was no family; no prayers, and little dignity, just a hurried burial. Even as they covered her body with earth, there were shots fired in their direction.

"The UN abandoned us," one Homs resident told me. "Who's going to help us now, who's going to help us now?"

People said that to me over and over; that they felt abandoned, alone.

After the failure of the vote in the UN Security Council at the weekend, they have lost hope that the outside world will help.

They expect the worst from a regime they fear can now act without restraint.

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