The city of Homs is a virtual ghost town. Its medieval fort has been transformed into a garrison and checkpoints have been established around the city.
But in its back alleys groups of armed men have formed units to defend the population from the military onslaught.
Some are local revolutionaries, known as thwarr, who have joined the protests against President Bashar al-Assad that have convulsed the country for six months. Others are defectors from the armed forces who have now turned their guns on their former comrades.
The seven deserters at the safe house proudly display stolen weapons, including rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and grenades.
One, a 19-year old conscript, had been shooting at protesters a week beforehand. “The [secret] security would stand behind us and make us shoot,” he says.
“Anyone who refused would be shot right there, as a lesson to everyone else. The snipers were there to shoot at us as well as protesters.” Another was in air force intelligence – a feared branch of the security apparatus – but left in disgust. “I was a prison guard in Damascus,” he says.
“I watched as men had their fingers cut off with pliers, and as cattle prods were pushed down people’s throats.
“Women were raped and murdered in front of me. I saw one young man – he was 18 – as his stomach was cut open and his intestines ripped out whilst he was still alive.”
Another incident could amount to an account of a war crime by the Syrian government. “I saw 100 people being loaded onto a bus to be taken away. We all knew what would happen to them. I never saw them again – they were killed and buried in the hills. After this I knew I had to join the opposition. Many of us guards knew the truth, and I think many are willing to leave the regime. It is just so hard to do.’
Another is an Alawi – the sect long assumed to be totally loyal to the regime. He says: “Not many of us have left, but they will. It is just so obvious that they are lying to us. We are offered privileges the others don’t get, like better barracks and equipment. But it’s not worth it.”
The Daily Telegraph toured Homs and saw the bullet holes, smoking rubble and graffiti that the conflict had left behind. One message scrawled by regime forces reads “This is Assad’s Syria”.
Citizens reply with the simple statement: “Islam. Syria. Freedom.”
Abu Ali, a demonstrator who volunteered to act as a guide, says most people have fled or are confined to their homes.
“People are afraid to leave their homes and they are not even safe there,” he says. “The army enters into these small streets and just opens fire randomly. One 65-year-old woman was killed when a shell hit her house – she had been mourning her dead husband who was killed the previous week.”
Scenes in Homs’s Charity Hospital show the brutality of the crackdown. A man of 26 lies semi conscious in his bed, barely breathing.
His father produces an X-ray showing a bullet still lodged in the man’s chest. “I lost my 12-year-old son two weeks ago. Now my other son could die. I have nothing left,” he says.
Another 28 year-old lies in the next bed, a mass of tubes and cords attached to machines keeping him alive. “These men can only stay here for two or three days,” Abu Ali continues.
“Their families are worried about security coming and taking them away. When their situation is no longer life threatening, they will be taken home.”