When Um Hassan received the call summoning her to the local hospital in the Syrian town of Talbiseh, near Homs, to pick up her eldest son, she knew it was a corpse she would be recovering.
“It was morning when the phone rang and a security officer told me to go and get Hassan from the hospital,” said the 65-year-old widow who fled to eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa region last weekend with her seven other children. “I knew he was dead.”
“When I reached the hospital, they took me to the morgue where there were four or five large meat freezers. Hassan’s corpse was inside one of them, right on top, and he had a bullet wound to the head.”
She said his body had been found in a gutter and was covered with dirt and sewage.
“I collapsed when I saw him,” she recalled in an even voice. “The hospital staff held me up. Then they placed him in a body bag and I took him away for burial.”
Um Hassan insisted that her son, a 31-year-old newlywed who drove farm tractors, was not involved in politics and was looking forward to building a family.
She said he was arrested by security officers who swooped down on their two-storey home in Talbiseh one evening after dinner in February.
“Two of them barred the front door and three others went to Hassan’s apartment on the first floor and dragged him down with his hands tied behind his back and a bandage over his eyes,” she said.
“That’s the last time I saw him alive,” she added. “But I am not alone in this. A lot of families have suffered the same fate.”
She said she decided to flee to Lebanon to save her other children.
According to the UN refugee agency, about 2,000 people have fled to Lebanon in recent days, many from Homs and particularly its opposition stronghold of Baba Amr, which was stormed by Syrian troops last Thursday after a month of bombardment.
A large number have sought refuge in the Bekaa region with family members already living there.
Others headed from the Bekaa further north to the coastal Lebanese town of Tripoli or to the Wadi Khaled area, where the majority of the 7,058 Syrians registered in Lebanon as refugees are living.
The overall majority hail from the province of Homs, located near the Lebanese border.
Several of the recent arrivals interviewed in the Bekaa described hellish living conditions in Homs and its environs with food, water and electricity lacking.
“There was daily shelling and shooting in Baba Amr,” said Mohamed, 30, a resident of the opposition stronghold who fled a week ago with his wife and three children.
“There isn’t one food store left and every house has been hit,” he added. “We lived underground for the most part.
“One child who was three or four months old died because he was undernourished.”
He said security forces in Baba Amr were arresting men arbitrarily in a bid to gather information on opposition members.
“If the guy held doesn’t have any information, they either kill him anyway or if he’s lucky he is released.”
Khaled, 28, who arrived in Lebanon last Sunday recounted being stopped at a checkpoint in January along with a friend.
“I was told I could go since I was from Talbiseh but he was detained because he was from Baba Amr,” he said.
“They told me to leave and that he would be released if they had nothing on him,” he added. “But we haven’t heard from him since and his family doesn’t know anything about his fate.”