The embattled Syrian town of Qusayr is badly damaged and the living conditions there are extremely difficult, people crossing into Lebanon to escape the violence have told the United Nations refugee agency.
Refugees describe Qusayr as a “ghost town, heavily damaged and rocked by warfare,” UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in Geneva.
UNHCR has received reports that people are hiding in bunkers or holes dug as shelters. One lady said her family could not leave their hole for a week and had to live off the food they could bring with them, she said, adding that the agency could not verify the reports.
“From the handful of interviews we have done so far, it appears that a new route for displaced people has opened up from the Qusayr area towards Arsal in Lebanon, about 100 kilometres away,” Ms. Fleming noted. She also said that some people flee to Lebanon while others are displaced internally to towns, including Rankous, Dahel, Qara, Flita and Nabek.
The refugees – mostly women and children - said the difficult journey to the border has to be made by foot.
“Fighters are said to be targeting people as they try to flee. No route out of Qusayr is considered safe, and there are continued reports of between 700 and 1,500 injured civilians being trapped in Qusayr,” Ms. Fleming said.
“Those we have spoken to say it is unsafe to flee with men, who are at heightened risk of being arrested or killed at checkpoints along the way. None of the refugees was able or willing to identify those who are manning the checkpoints,” the spokesperson said.
She noted that one woman had told UNHCR staff that people in Qusayr were faced with a stark choice, “You leave and risking being killed . . . or you stay and face a certainty of being killed.”
The UN agency stressed that it does not have access to the city and the refugee accounts are hard to verify. "However, we share the concern of others over the serious humanitarian situation and the risks for the civilian population. It is imperative that people seeking a route out of Qusayr, and other unsafe locations, be allowed access to safe areas,” Ms. Fleming stressed.
Over the weekend, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and UN human rights head Navi Pillay called for the protection of civilians and urged that thousands of trapped residents be allowed to flee the city.
“As preparations for an international conference on Syria intensify, he [Mr. Ban] reminds all parties to the conflict that the eyes of the world are upon them, and that they will be held accountable for any acts of atrocity carried out,” his spokesperson had said in a statement.
Since March 2011, fighting between the Syrian Government and opposition forces seeking to oust President Bashar Al-Assad has killed more than 70,000 people, and left 6.8 million people in need. In addition, the UN estimates that some 1.5 million Syrians have fled their country to escape conflict.