(This story was reported by a visiting journalist whose name has been withheld for security reasons)
HOULA, Syria (Reuters) - The dark, murky waters of Houla Lake erupt daily when struck by the bombs of Syrian fighter jets and shells fired from the surrounding hills.
Besieged by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad for more than a year, residents of central Syria’s Houla region smuggle food, fuel and medicine across the lake from government-held territory in Hama province, evading checkpoints on the roads which make ground transport impossible for men from rebel areas.
Cattle, weapons, cars and people also make the short but perilous trip across the lake, using canoes and other makeshift vessels to reach the stretch of rebel-held territory north of Homs city.
But residents and rebel fighters worry that their precarious existence is under threat after Assad’s recent military gains in Homs, 30 km (20 miles) to the south east, fearing an assault on their villages once the army controls the city.
Homs, which links Syria’s north, south and Mediterranean coast, has been one of the worst-hit regions of the uprising-turned-civil war which has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
The scale of fighting there reflects the symbolic status of Homs as one of the centres of the uprising which broke out in 2011 and the city’s strategic position between Damascus and the mountain heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
The army, backed by pro-Assad militias and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, has retaken towns and villages near the Lebanese border and tightened its grip on Homs last week with the capture of the city’s Khalidiya district.
The predominantly Sunni valleys of Houla, sitting below hilltop districts controlled by Alawites, may be next in the firing line, local people say.
The entire region, site of a May 2012 massacre in which dozens of Sunni families were killed and thousands fled, has been under attack for more than a year and the government has placed tanks, missile batteries and sniper posts in the Alawite villages, threatening the Sunni population below.
“We’re certain that after Khalidiya the regime will come after us here,” said Jalal Abu Suleiman, an opposition media activist based in the village of Taldou.
“But a lot of people don’t want to flee. They want to stay. And the FSA will fight,” he said, referring to the Free Syrian Army rebel force.
Mohamed al Muntasir Billah, a spokesman for Al Miqdad ibn Al Aswad Brigade, said the rebels were readying for a government offensive on Houla by preparing “our spirits and our weapons”.
“And we’ve been preparing our shelters for the past three months with our own hands,” he said. “But of course, when the regime sets its mind on an area, it will eviscerate it.”
Until two years ago, Houla was a major source of agricultural products for the Syrian market and for export, particularly wheat. Most villagers own the land they farm, but for the first time in memory they are going hungry.
“Even the cows go hungry these days,” said Abu Suleiman. “It’s cheaper for farmers to sell their cattle than keep them, so now we’re left with less and less cattle.”
On a recent trip there, villagers coerced three cows into Houla Lake, each animal on a leash, then persuaded them to swim behind an aluminium canoe which had previously been used to carry bags of flour. In government-held territory on the other side of the lake, the cows will fetch several hundred dollars, a handsome sum considering the rising cost of keeping cattle.
Acres of farmland have been burned in recent weeks in what locals say were acts of arson by government troops and loyalists from the surrounding Alawite villages.
“They shoot tracer bullets at our fields,” said Muntasir, an FSA rebel based in the Houla village of Samaalil. “And those bullets are meant to be fired on concrete structures. So why shoot them at the fields if not to purposely ignite a fire?”
Many farmers are too afraid to harvest their land if it is within range of the snipers or shelling originating from the surrounding Alawite hillside. Um Ahmad, Abu Suleiman’s mother-in-law, counted three villagers who were recently shot dead while tending to their crops, including a 30-year-old mother.
Even the livestock endures grave losses.
“In our village, most of the cows have been killed this way,” said Um Hassan, whose family owns several acres of land in Houla. “The bombs fall in front of someone’s home and their cows get blown up.”
Acres of farmland in Houla now lie abandoned by villagers who are frightened to venture into the fields or who have fled to refugee camps in Turkey.
Though bombing has become a daily occurrence, women in Houla still panic when they hear warplanes overhead. Armed rebel fighters rush outside to determine the pilot’s target.
“Before he drops his bombs, he has to descend, so we can tell generally if he’s coming for us or another village,” explained Abu Omar, an FSA rebel.
“If he descends over us, we can shoot at him with this,” he said, meaning the heavy machine gun and its belt of 15 mm calibre bullets that he is holding.
“LET US DIE HERE”
During a trip through several Sunni and mixed villages in Houla, a Reuters reporter found most homes destroyed, their furniture and appliances looted. Collapsed ceilings and blown out walls exposed remnants of a once normal life: a shattered wall clock, a deflated soccer ball, the broken leg of a wooden armoire.
The destruction is indiscriminate. Battered homes belong to people from various sects including Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmen, Alawites and Shi‘ites.
Residents blamed Assad’s air force for the damage, which appeared consistent with the kind of destruction caused by air strikes.
Villagers lament a time not long ago when they lived, farmed and sometimes married across sects.
“This is what the regime wants, to plant sectarian hatred,” said Muntasir, the FSA rebel.
Anti-government Alawite activists, many of whom live in exile, complain that the slightest dissent within the Alawite community can result in severe punishment.
Locals are keenly aware that they could soon be in the way of forces loyal to Assad.
At sunset one day last week, activist Abu Suleiman’s family gathered on the floor to break their day-long fast, a tradition of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Fried eggplants served with fresh tomato and cucumber were all grown in the garden outside, but the bulgur wheat and potatoes were smuggled in over the lake. The bread, which Um Ahmad baked earlier from smuggled, unprocessed flour, was brittle and flat, unlike the soft pita bread that is a staple in every Syrian household.
Asked what they planned to do if government forces advanced toward them, Um Ahmad said, “In my own house, I do what I want. I nap. I eat. I wear my house dress. In the refugee camps, there is only humiliation.” Everyone agreed.
“I say let us die here. It’s OK. It’s our home.” (Editing by Giles Elgood)