By Rita Daou (AFP) – Sadness is written on the face of 45-year-old Jamila, living in the open-air municipal courtyard of Arsal in Lebanon and still traumatised by her escape from Syria’s former rebel stronghold Qusayr.
Along with her sick husband and three children, she fled the town in Syria’s central province of Homs in the hours before it fell on June 5 to regime forces backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
They had to watch fellow Syrians who died on the way buried hastily by the roadside as they made for the safety of Arsal town across the border inside Lebanon.
Now they are struggling to survive, with no shelter of their own and almost no way to feed themselves. When food is handed out, the refugees queue in their hundreds for rations.
“We left in group after group a few hours before the fall of the town. We were practically running, it was everyone for themselves,” Jamila says, her sick husband lying on a mattress nearby.
“Dozens died of thirst, or their injuries, or just plain exhaustion,” she says, wrapped in a black veil, her voice faltering.
“The men dug graves in a hurry to bury those who died. It was horrible.”
Thirst was a constant companion, with the refugees so desperate that they tried to draw sap from twigs and drops of water from irrigation hoses.
Guided by rebel fighters, they ate fruit from trees along the route, and even raw potatoes dug up from fields.
The conflict in Syria, now in its third year, has changed the face of Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town of 40,000 residents that is now also home to some 35,000 refugees, including 3,000 who arrived from Qusayr in just 10 days.
With nowhere to live, some refugees have set up makeshift shelters in the corners of the municipality courtyard, suspending blankets from trees to provide rudimentary privacy and shade.
“We have no money and no food,” Jamila says.
UN agencies and NGOs from Qatar, Denmark and Norway are trying to meet the needs of the refugees, but their work is “insufficient,” municipal council member Wafiq Khalaf says, urging that tents be distributed.
Some residents have offered up empty rooms or buildings still under construction as temporary shelters.
One group of 17 people are living in a stairwell. In the next building, 30-year-old Mohammad has taken up residence in a garage with his three children, the eldest just five.
“Their mother was killed by a rocket on the road,” he says sadly.
A one-time member of the ruling Baath party, he speaks bitterly about his fate.
“For years, we used to sing ‘Long live Bashar al-Assad’ and this is how they repaid us.”
In the municipality courtyard, a boyish-looking 18-year-old is covered in bandaged wounds that he says were sustained “in combat”.
He fled Qusayr on foot, but insists he want to go back to Syria “in order to bring down the regime”.
For other refugees, daily life and the struggle to survive are a greater priority.
“There’s nowhere to wash… we’ve been homeless for seven days,” sighs another, Rima.
She fled with her husband and their four children, including a baby just 10 months old, in a car.
They say they were turned back at the border with Jordan before arriving in Lebanon by travelling through Damascus province.
The Arsal region shares some 55 kilometres (34 miles) of border with Syria, packed with illegal crossings used by those desperate to flee the violence that has killed more than 93,000 people.
Syrian aircraft have bombed the area many times, the regime arguing that it is “chasing down terrorists”, its description for rebels.
The Sunni region largely supports the Syrian uprising, which is Sunni-dominated, but lies within a mostly Shiite area that is a bastion of the Hezbollah movement, an ally of the Damascus regime.
The flow of refugees shows no sign of slowing, with a truck carrying another 30 people arriving on Friday.
“May God make them suffer as they have made us suffer!” one woman cries as the vehicle pulls up.