BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Residents of Baba Amr who fled to Lebanon said the smell of decomposed bodies, sewage and destruction filled the air in the Syrian city of Homs as troops seeking to crush a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad bombarded it into submission.
With aid workers still blocked from reaching the former rebel stronghold and most foreign journalists banned from Syria, witness accounts from residents who fled across the border portrayed a grim picture of conditions in Homs.
“The smell of death was everywhere. We could smell the bodies buried under the rubble all the time,” said Ahmad, who fled to Lebanon last week.
“Bodies are in the streets, many are decomposed but we could not bury them,” he said, speaking at a relative’s house in Lebanon, looking tired with dark circles around his eyes.
“We saw so much death that at the end the sight of a dismembered body of a relative or a friend stopped moving us.”
Residents knew the end was near when, after a month of shelling, the Syrian army blew up a 3-km (2-mile) tunnel they had used to smuggle in essentials keeping them alive.
After that fighters of the Free Syrian Army, citing lack of ammunition and many casualties, urged people to leave.
Men fled to Lebanon, women and children to villages in Homs province. But some did not make it. Activists said last week at least 62 people were killed when they tried to leave Baba Amr.
Those who left said heavy bombardment had razed most of the neighbourhood. Many buildings and houses were flattened, water pipes were blown up and sewage and litter filled the streets.
“I stopped feeling anything when I see people I know dead… Many people started feeling like that – the atrocities we saw were beyond our imagination,” said another former resident, speaking from a secret location as his presence was illegal.
Syrian state television reported residents were returning to Baba Amr, airing footage on Tuesday of dozens of men, women and children walking through grubby streets, passing pock-marked and semi-destroyed buildings.
Syria says it is fighting armed militants funded and armed from abroad while residents say the crackdown is aimed at crushing pro-democracy protesters and those opposed to Assad.
A convoy sent by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Red Crescent to provide aid and evacuate the wounded was still awaiting approval to enter Baba Amr. Activists said the army may have stalled the convoy to remove traces of destruction and take bodies from the streets.
A man who fled a day after the army went in said soldiers raided houses, arresting men who remained in the district and executed some of them. Activists say at least 60 men were executed since Friday.
“They are cleansing the neighbourhood, they are robbing houses, arresting people then executing some. Baba Amr is besieged from all sides. It is a disaster,” said Omar, speaking by phone from inside Homs the day he fled Baba Amr.
“They said they have a list of 1,500 men and they want them all… They are shooting everything that is moving, even animals. There are bodies in the streets, some are swollen and carry signs of torture,” he said with a trembling voice.
An activists who was speaking to Reuters from Homs province said on Tuesday that there were at least nine rape cases reported to the activists and that the army continued killing young men in the district.
For a month of continuous shelling, residents felt abandoned by a world which left them without food or water and at the mercy of an unexpectedly severe military onslaught.
“We were surprised to see how long it lasted. We were not ready for all of that. We thought: ‘Now Baba Amr will break the back of the regime,’ and we thought: ‘OK, let them come,'” said another resident called Omar who fled to Lebanon last week.
“After the third day of shelling we felt we were alone, the world has abandoned us, and that even if (Assad) uses his planes against us nobody will move,” he said with a faint broken smile.
Many of those in Lebanon have lost contact with their families. They said in one month they buried a thousand people but many were left under the rubble and the death toll was impossible to ascertain.
“In every house there is a martyr if not more. It is impossible to know the exact number of those killed, we have to go back to Baba Amr and gather in a square to count each other in order to know how many are missing,” said Omar.
Despite their losses, the men said they would return to take back their neighbourhood and bring down Assad.
“This is just one round. The war is not over. We are going back and we will not stop then. The army will leave Baba Amr whether they like it or not,” Ahmad said.