AMMAN: More than a thousand families have taken refuge in rebel-controlled villages in the north Homs countryside after fleeing a regime offensive in southwest Hama to cut off smuggling routes in what one local citizen journalist described to Syria Direct as a flight from “certain death to a slow death by starvation.”
“The fighting was more intense than anything we’ve seen before,” said Abu Shadi al-Hamawi, a citizen journalist in southwest Hama, referring to a regime-led offensive that began last week to close the final gaps in its security cordon surrounding the north Homs and adjacent southwest Hama countryside.
“We are talking about three mortar and missile strikes on the village per minute, 24 hours a day,” al-Hamawi said.
“It was a miracle that my children and I were able to escape the shelling,” said Abu Mazen, who fled his village of Hurbinifsah in southwest Hama with his wife and four children in a pick-up truck.
“Now we are living in the back of our truck and I don’t know where to go,” Abu Mazen told Syria Direct via What’s App from the town of Houla in north Homs, where he and his family are taking refuge. “God help the people here, they were already barely hanging on themselves.”
Houla and its surrounding villages are part of a pocket of rebel resistance in Homs and Hama province completely surrounded by regime territory. For the past two years, Syrians stuck in this island of rebel resistance have relied on smuggling routes from Hama province. As of last week, those routes, on which villages such as Hurbinifsah sit, are now under regime control.
Why would residents flee a battle in southwest Hama only to land in the beginning stages of a total regime stranglehold in north Homs?
“The regime previously cut off all roads leading to Hama, meaning that the residents’ only option was to flee deeper into rebel-controlled territory in north Homs, territory that is encircled by the regime,” said al-Hamawi. “This is like fleeing from certain death to a slow death by starvation."
Last October, regime forces began a drive to cut off any and all corridors leading into north Homs, first capturing a road leading into the area from the south and then driving rebels out of several villages used as smuggling routes in the east.
Regime forces supported by National Defense militias launched an offensive to close the last corridor between north Homs and southwest Hama province last week, capturing the village of Jarisa on Monday before moving on to engage rebel defenses in Deir Ferdeis and Hurbinifsah, Syrian state television SANA News reported last Thursday.
The closure of the smuggling routes running through these villages, considered the last corridor into the area, in addition to the influx of more than a thousand displaced families, has “exacerbated” an already dire situation in villages such as Houla, several citizen journalists told Syria Direct.
Houla "has no electricity and faces a severe shortage of food, water and fuel for heating,” says al-Hamawi, adding that “the situation is worse with each passing day.”
“In the first hours after the regime began its offensive, a number of foodstuffs including sugar and flour began to run out, followed by a series of price hikes on other items,” says Mohamed Rihal, a citizen journalist in the north Homs countryside.
Last week, rebel commanders in the northern Homs countryside told Syria Direct that the regime’s plan "to encircle and starve civilians” would fail. “We will not allow the tragedy of Madaya and other areas to be repeated in northern Homs,” said Harakat Tahrir Homs brigade’s commander Abu al-Baraa at the time.
But the regime’s recent gains in southwest Hama have stoked fears of a blockade on villages such as Houla, said one resident of the town who requested anonymity.
“The images of Madaya and other areas under siege are dominating people’s thoughts here in northern Homs as we wait to see what will happen to us.”