Under cover of darkness, Assad's enemies take up arms as their foe closes in

Kim Sengupta in Syria sees refugees desperately fleeing regime

The Kalashnikov was held in nervous, shaking hands. The face above peering into the gathering darkness was drawn and tense. The guard for the refugees, barely past his teens, was on anxious alert for the pursuing forces of the regime.

Sitting and lying in huddles behind Fouad Al-Habsi, with only the branches of trees and clumps of bushes for cover, were the most recently dispossessed in Syria's bloody conflict. Exhausted and fearful, uncertain of the future, they were trying to reach the relative safety of the Turkish border.

The Independent had chanced across the group north of Ghassaniye after going into Syria through a smugglers' route from Turkey.

More than 12,000 people are now camped in a state of squalor and degradation on this side of the frontier. Another 8,500 had made it across only to be herded into camps and locked away with no access to the outside world, by the authorities in Ankara. Yesterday, these inmates held a protest demonstration during a visit by foreign minister Ahmet Davoutoglu to one of the holding centres.

But, for the desperate travellers on this dusty road, anything was better than the savage retribution they were seeking to escape. The violence, however, was never very far behind. The journey had been a perilous one with gunmen of the secret police, the Mukhabarat, and the Alawite militia, the Shabbia, tracking them and carrying out attacks.

"They had looted all they could and they had burnt our homes. But still they were not satisfied, they want blood," Issa Abdullah shook his head. "These men like killing, they are like wild dogs."

Ahmad al-Arabi, 49, came forward, his bandaged right hand thrust out. "I was shot as I was walking along the road away from our village, the bullet came from far. Other bullets went over our heads, but one hit Abu Haitham in the back, he had to be carried back to his home by his sons. We don't know what has happened to them. We hope Allah will protect them."

Most of the group of around 40 on the road north of Ghassaniya were children, women and the elderly, families of farmers from villages around the city of Jisr al-Shughour, which had been stormed by the troops of Bashar Al-Assad 48 hours earlier. The Syrian regime had announced that "army units had restored security and tranquillity to the city of Jisr al-Shughour". The state-run SANA news agency gave progress reports on "eliminating armed terrorist groups" who carried out a "massacre" in the city.

Suppression of protests, with claims that military action was only being directed against violent Islamists, has been a common feature of the Arab Spring. The opposition in Syria, as with protest movements in other countries in the region, vehemently denies allegations of terrorist links.

The families trying to get away could hardly be called the face of al-Qa'ida. Apart from Fouad Al-Habsi only one other among the dozen men carried arms – a shotgun used for hunting said the owner. But half an hour later, moving further on, we came across a band of eight men on a bend in the road with Kalashnikovs and ammunition belts strung across their shoulders.

The watchful man who appeared to be their leader, denied they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation, which has strong roots in this region. He said: "We are protecting these routes because the [regime's] troops and the Mukhabarat had been carrying out ambushes. They are using snipers. We need to get our people away safely and that is what we are trying to do."

Two of the men wore green bandanas with inscriptions from the Koran. Another man pulled open his gray shirt to show an olive green vest with regimental markings.

"I am a soldier. I used to fight for Bashar Assad, now I fight for the people. There are many of us and more are joining us. But we are soldiers and we are Syrians, we are not terrorists.

"We are prepared to continue fighting, but we all want a settlement. We want peace."