Something terrible happened in the small Syrian town of Tel Kalakh. At the most it was a massacre of 40 civilians; at the least a day of live-firing into unarmed protesters, torture, arrests and panic. Almost half the Sunni Muslim population fled over the river frontier into Lebanon, babes in arms, old people in wheelchairs, pushed through the shallow waters of the Nahr el-Kbir.
Perhaps 4,000 of the Syrian Sunnis made it to the safety of Lebanon to be given food, shelter and blankets by relatives and by strangers and they were there yesterday – 80 living in one house alone scarcely 20m from Syria, desperate to praise the kindness of the Lebanese, fearful of the things they had seen, ferocious in their anger against their president.
One man, having described detainees from the town who had returned home with their nails ripped out and their beards burned off, broke down in tears. "We will never cease our struggle until we bring Assad down," he cried. "For 40 years, we have not been able to breathe."
The men responsible for the killings in Tel Kalakh were members of the Syrian army's 4th Brigade – the same unit, commanded by President Bashar al-Assad's little brother Maher, that is besieging the southern city of Deraa – along with government snipers and "shabiha" thugs from the Alawi mountains. Dressed in black, the latter spent some time, according to Syrian refugee women, tearing the veils off girls and trying to kidnap them.
Tel Kalakh, which lies 20 miles due west of the rebellious city of Homs, had a population of 28,000 – 10,000 of them Muslims, the majority Alawi Shia, the same group to which the Assad family belongs. Even before the shooting started on Wednesday, the military and the plain-clothes gunmen spent some time separating Sunni Muslims from the Alawi inhabitants, telling the latter to stay in their houses – as good a way of starting a local civil war as you could find in Syria. Then they shot into the crowds, firing also with tank-mounted machine guns into homes on both sides of the main streets.
None of the Syrian adults would give their names or have their photographs taken but they spoke with fury of what had happened to them six days ago. Several claimed that their protests against the Assad government started two months ago – an intriguing assertion which suggests the first rural protests in Syria may have begun weeks before the world knew what was happening – but that the protesters, all Sunnis, had been protected because of the intercession of the respected Sheikh of the town's mosque, Osama Akeri.
But last Wednesday morning, armed men seized the sheikh from his home and the Sunni Muslims of the city poured on to the streets. "We were shouting 'independence – give us freedom and independence' and they came in tanks and opened fire, the shabiha shooting at the men at the front; everyone started running but they went on shooting at us from the tanks and people fell everywhere," one man said.
"The tanks completely surrounded the town. People were running away into the fields, the babies screaming, trying to get to Lebanon."
In sight of the village of Arida Sharquia – on the Lebanese side of the border and linked to Syria by a stone bridge – many women and children were stopped by a military checkpoint, but it appears that men from Tel Kalakh set the roadblock on fire.
For three days, the Sunni Muslims fled their town, many creeping from their homes at night as shooting continued across the streets – the entire military operation a miniature version of exactly the same siege that is crippling Deraa – and some men had the courage to return from Lebanon with food for their families. Others did not dare. Tel Kalakh – just like Deraa – is not only surrounded, but all electricity and water supplies have been cut.
So fearful were those who had avoided the killings that they hid in their homes for more than 24 hours, too frightened to attend the funerals of the dead. "We didn't want to risk being killed again," another man said, apologising for not being able to give me even his first name. "The close families of the dead went to the cemetery and some old people. That was all."
One of the 40 dead was Muntaser Akeri, he said, a cousin of the arrested sheikh. Villagers tell different stories of the events. Shooting apparently went on for more than 24 hours and it was only on Thursday that some of the men dragged away in buses and cars by the "mukhabarat" secret police came back.
"Some had had their fingernails torn out and the ones with beards had had them burnt off," another man said. "There were so many soldiers and plain-clothes police and thugs that we couldn't escape. The Alawis didn't join our protest. We were alone."
Arida lies on both sides of the border of Lebanon – Sharquia means "east" and the western side of the town – Arida Gharbia – stands scarcely 20m away across the river, inside Syria.
Along with the refugees, it is also a smuggling centre – indeed,children were bringing barrels of Syrian propane gas across the river yesterday – and it was possible to talk to Syrians on the other side of the water. So close to Syria are the refugees that while I was talking to them, my Lebanese mobile phone kept switching to the "Syriatel" mobile system in Damascus, the message "ping" constantly – and ominously – drawing my attention to the words "Welcome to Syria… for tourist guide, dial 1555. Enjoy your stay."
But the men and women – and the hundreds of children – from Tel Kalakh have torn the lid off any such fantasy. Here at last were Syrians who had just fled their town, talking for the first time of their suffering, free of the mukhabarat, abusing the Assad family. A few had tried to return. One woman I spoke to walked back to Tel Kalakh yesterday morning and returned in the afternoon, shouting that it was a "hostile" town in which it was impossible for the Sunni Muslims to live. Many of the men said that all government jobs were given to Alawi citizens of Tel Kalakh, never to them.
There is, of course, room for exaggeration. No one could explain to me why so many soldiers were being killed in Syria although they said their own protests had been totally unarmed. Shooting is still heard at night on the Syrian side of the frontier, a phenomenon that has persuaded the Lebanese army to send night patrols through the orchards and olive groves on the Lebanese side. Just in case the Syrian military is tempted to chase in hot pursuit of their own refugees.