AL BUWAYDA, Syria -- When the Syrian government stepped up its offensive against anti-government rebels ahead of the cease-fire that went into effect a week ago, the villages and towns south of Homs, including this one, were hit especially hard. Residents say 400 mortar rounds slammed into this town from March 26 to April 10, killing 12 civilians and forcing most of the residents to flee, but rarely touching the rebel fighters who were operating here.
Now, as the cease-fire sputters, the rebels have returned, but not many civilians or any semblance of normal life.
The schools have stopped. Work has stopped. You cant drive at night because of snipers and tanks, said Taysir al Wazir, a former police officer.
Al Buwayda lies in a particularly sensitive area between the Lebanese border and Homs, Syrias third largest city. For months, government troops have shelled parts of Homs heavily in an effort to dislodge the rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army. Theyve also targeted this town and other nearby villages in hopes of cutting rebel supply lines to Homs.
Thats left the rebel fighters, mostly local men, able to move freely in Al Buwayda but forced to take back roads and drive through farmers fields to reach other nearby settlements and to avoid the growing number of checkpoints that the military has installed on main roads.
Wazir left his job with the police shortly after the uprising against President Bashar Assad began last year. As three months of peaceful protests gave way to armed rebellion in the face of a violent government campaign against demonstrators and activists, the area around Al Buwayda became a war zone.
Most of the mortar rounds the government forces fired were ineffective, Wazir said, landing in open fields, though others destroyed houses. In any case, the people of Al Buwayda fled.
The people had heard what happened in Baba Amr, Wazir said, referring to a neighborhood in Homs that Syrian troops shelled for a month before they entered it at the end of February, allegedly executing civilians and fighters they found there.
Now, with the cease-fire in place, the area presents a mixed picture, with a trickle of residents returning to the nearby village of Abl, where government shelling had damaged or destroyed several homes, while smoke could be seen rising from continued shelling in the nearby village of Kfar Aya, the closest village to the south side of Homs.
Just down the road from Abl, the village of Embarkiyeh remains a no-go zone for the rebels. The military remains in control there after ejecting the rebels in March. Rebels from Embarkiyeh said the army had bulldozed and burned homes after taking over the village and was refusing to let residents return.
A cemetery on the outskirts of Al Buwayda hints at the death toll the rebellion has taken here. In addition to 50 marked graves that belong to civilians and fighters, 66 unnamed bodies fill a mass grave, residents said.
The bodies in the mass grave were interred there, Wazir and other residents said, after an agreement between the government and tribal leaders. Residents said they didnt know whom the bodies belonged to, but they think that most of them are those of people the Syrian government killed while they were in prison or of soldiers who were shot for attempting to defect or being suspected of it.
The government came to the sheikhs in this area and asked them to take the bodies for burial, Wazir said. Others are buried in other places.