• Campaigns

Is there a scorched earth policy in Syria

The road south from the southern Turkish town of Hatay rises steeply through verdant agricultural land. At the small border village of Guvecci I get out of the car and immediately see dozens of men sitting on the edge of the road or otherwise milling about the stone houses, waiting.

Syrians all, few wished to give their full names and some would not specify the names of their villages. They had sneaked across the border so as to be able to pick up food to take it back to their families camped out in tents and under trees on the other side.

It is impossible to verify the exact number. But many agree that a figure of some 10,000 within a couple of kilometres of the border is likely.

Many of the villagers had left a week ago, following killings in the town of Jisr al-Shughur over the weekend of 3-5 June.

Ahmed, 22, from a village a few kilometres from Jisr al-Shughur, said he and his family had stayed on at their village longer than most to look after their homes, until yesterday when they headed up to the border.

A young man in a pink sweater said 400 people from the village of Shughur Kasmiyah had spent one week in the hills.

Shabiha – regime-backed militiamen – had poisoned the water, he said. Several people in the area, another young man added, had died as a result.

The alleged poisoning of the water was agreed upon by all the Syrians I spoke to in Guvecci, all of whom said they didn’t drink it.

How did locals know the water was poisoned? Before I arrived in Turkey, a UK-based man from Jisr al-Shughur told me that a few members of the Syrian security forces who were unhappy with the events had let locals know that drinking the water could be lethal.

Mobile phone lines in the Jisr al-Shughur area had been cut for days, the pink-clad man told me.

One tall young man said he was from the village of al-Sarmaniyah, some 10km south of Jisr al-Shughur, where the army entered on 10 June with “hundreds” of men in tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

“They shelled and machine-gunned the village,” he told me.

“They shot my friend Rafit Deeb and when I or anyone else went to try to save him, they shot at us. We could see he was alive, losing his breath. Five hours later the army left, but by then Rafit was dead. He was 22.

“Not only did they shell houses and shoot people but they also burnt crops and seeds and they machine-gunned the cows. Tanks drove through the orchards, destroying hundreds of olive and almond trees.”

“They are worse than the Zionists,” he said, making a comparison with what he saw to be the nature of the abuses committed by the Israeli authorities.

Ward Khalifeh, 21, also came from al-Sarmaniyah but had been working in Lebanon.

“About five days ago I called home but there was no answer. I travelled to the village and found it completely empty.”

“No one camped by the border knows what happened to the nine other members of his family.”

A group of about 15 people around me, from the towns and villages of Bdama, al-Za’eyniyah, Bataybat, al-Kafir, Sheykh Sendayan and al-Kastun – all in the area around Jisr al-Shughur, said the same had happened where they were from.

One person said that only a few elderly people had stayed behind.

“They are ghost towns now. Only soldiers may be there,” Ward Khalifeh said.

As we speak, there’s a commotion as a delivery of bread arrives. Some of the men and boys walk off with plastic bags of Arabic bread.

A few haggard elderly men invite me to break bread with them. I respectfully decline and walk up onto the roof of one of the houses and look out towards Syria.

Some hundred metres away, beyond the young olive trees and the border fence, are a few dozen tents and some vehicles. In the woods rising up again, and in the woods yet beyond the peak, are said to be thousands of displaced Syrians living exposed to the elements, sleeping on the ground under trees, some under makeshift awnings.

It’s overcast, blustery and at times raining lightly. The sun sears my skin. No wonder these people are hardy.

I write these notes at night in my hotel room. For several hours now there has been heavy rain and thunder.

Listen to the latest audio interview with Neil Sammonds on the situation on the border