The smuggler’s radio crackled into life as shadowy figures emerged from a thicket on the Syrian side of the river, faintly illuminated by a full moon whose light barely penetrated the cloud and drizzle.
The men were army deserters escaping Bashar al-Assad’s Syria with the help of rebel sympathisers, and smugglers who demanded hard cash in return for arranging the dinghy that ferried them across
“I had to get out, I had no weapon to fight with and if they caught me they would have cut off my head,” said Abdul, a gangly 18-year-old who stepped out of a dinghy to be embraced by a fellow rebel.
Like scores of other refugees interviewed by The Sunday Telegraph last week – villagers and townspeople, soldiers and civilians, doctors and activists – they brought with them stories of an unfolding horror in the north of Syria.
In a frightening escalation of the Assad regime’s war on its people, helicopter gunships now hang in the air above the countryside, shooting at civilians on the move, or turning their fire on rebel villages – in addition to the armoury of tanks and artillery already punishing those who dared to oppose.
Witnesses who crossed into Turkey last week described the killing of 82 people in Idlib province in six major incidents over recent days; the total figure across the whole area is likely to be far higher. One terrified man had counted up to 40 bodies after helicopters and infantry attacked his village, just a few miles from the border.
As the world’s attention has been fixed on Homs, the scene of siege and slaughter earlier this month, 100 miles to the north a new offensive has been unleashed, largely unreported.
Yesterday there were growing fears that the offensive was a prelude to an attack on the city of Idlib, the stronghold of the revolution in the north – described by activists as a second Homs in the making.
A column of 42 tanks and 131 troop carriers was reported heading for the city, as shelling of rebel-held districts was stepped up, escape routes cut, and the siege tightened.
Those who crossed into Turkey last week had dodged snipers and army patrols, watched as civilians were shelled, and felt utterly powerless to defend themselves.
A rake-thin 20-year-old, Muhammed, said he ran for his life when his village, Kabani, was attacked by three helicopters at dawn on Wednesday. Like most Syrians in Turkey he did not want to give his full name for fear of reprisals against his family.
“The attack lasted six hours. They circled and buzzed, firing machine-guns at the buildings, coming back again and again,” he said.
“I was watching from the forest. Then the infantry stormed in. When it was over I went back. I saw 30 or 40 bodies in the streets, including children. Some of them were people I knew. Some had been killed by helicopters, some by the soldiers. I ran away when I saw it: I was too afraid to go to my own home.”
His family only escaped because his father and brother were in prison, and his mother and sisters had left the day before, when rumours started that Mr Assad’s forces were coming.
In the mountainous terrain of Idlib province, where soldiers can easily be ambushed on winding roads and rebels can sometimes blow up tanks, helicopter gunships are a brutally effective terror weapon, almost impervious to ground fire and armed with dozens of rockets and several heavy-machine guns firing hundreds of rounds per minute.
The air force has about 40 Soviet-era Hind gunships based near Damascus, the same formidable aircraft that wrought terrible destruction in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
They were first used last year at the town of Jisrash Shogour in Idlib province, and then again briefly last month at Homs. But Syria’s Russian-armed air force seems to have held back on using its most devastating firepower until now, probably out of fear of giving Nato an excuse to declare a no-fly zone.
Kabani is only about 10 miles from the border, so Muhammed was able to get away. For most of those now being hunted in Syria, escape is much more difficult. Soldiers who have poured into the northern part of Idlib province, attempting to seal it off and shooting anyone moving around.
Territory which until a couple of weeks ago was in the hands of rebels is now back under regime control. As the revolution turned to arms at the end of last year the northern Idlib’s rugged terrain was talked of as a possible base for training and organising the Syrian Free Army. That option now looks increasingly unlikely.
Abdul, the defecting soldier who arrived in Turkey by boat, described travelling north from the city of Hama for nearly 100 miles last week through an almost empty landscape.
“People are terrified everywhere,” he said. “Thousands have fled their homes into the countryside where they are hiding, without food or shelter although it is freezing and raining. We passed through villages which were ghost towns. Everyone had left.”
Anti-government fighters had been growing in strength. But after provoking the wrath of the regime they were powerless to put up serious resistance when the regime launched its new offensive.
There were claims last week that the Gulf state of Qatar would soon arm the opposition with £63 million worth of weapons, much as it armed anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya last year. However, Syrian fighters interviewed by The Sunday Telegraph said to a man that they had received no significant foreign help to withstand the onslaught.
Abu Jamal, a 19-year-old army defector, said: “Last week a Saudi businessman came and gave us $10,000 to buy weapons. There were so many families with no food or heating, we had to spend it on them.”
Another rebel in the Turkish border town of Guvecci, Abu Ali, had been wounded in the stomach by an explosion as his unit came under ferocious government attack.
He admitted that he had no idea how many rebels were fighting the regime, and said he had never seen the FSA’s leadership.
“Of course we have a strategy,” he said defensively. “The problem is we lack weapons, money, and everything. The civilians are getting some help but we get nothing.”
For the past five months his job had been to help about 5,000 civilians escape from a town about two hours walk from the Turkish border.
“It is impossible now,” he said. “There are snipers watching that route and nobody can use it. The regime is doing everything it can to kill us. We are constantly fighting back.”
He admitted that he felt depressed by what was happening a few miles away, adding: “We will beat Assad somehow, but for now we are only getting God’s help.”
Their desperate situation, and the slaughter of the people they swore to protect, does not seem to have brought unity to the ranks of the rebels. Riad al-Asaad, the leader of the FSA, is effectively a prisoner in a Turkish refugee camp near Antakya, unable to leave for fear of assassination by Syrian agents.
Splits between his army and at least two other groups — the Free Officers, and the Syrian Liberation Army – make a coordinated campaign difficult. Without an effective organisation, would-be foreign backers may not even be able to find rebels to give arms to.
Most of the fighters on the ground are uncoordinated bands of guerrillas fighting their own private wars against Mr Assad’s 300,000-strong army, which is equipped with the most modern weapons Russia can sell. Turkey is wary of allowing weapons through its territory, partly for fear that Syria will arm Kurdish rebels on Turkish soil in revenge.
If the rebels do receive foreign weapons they may take revenge by attacking villages lived in by Alawites — the minority community to which Mr Assad belongs and which dominates his regime. Meanwhile nobody is sure whether there are religious extremists among the ranks of the rebels.
Astonishingly, the regime’s brutality has not crushed the will of Syria’s revolutionaries, even though the opposition claims that at the moment around 100 people are being killed every day by the security forces.
Samer, an accountant from the border town of Darkush, insisted that the repression is only making people like him more determined.
He brought his four children across to Turkey on Thursday, paying bribes to drive his family through army checkpoints, after the Syrian army overran the town. He decided he had to get his family out after the army seized the 15-year-old son of a well-known demonstrator, abducting him from his school.
“They took the boy hostage and demanded the father hand himself in. I can’t take the risk of them doing that to my children,” he said.
With his family safe in the Turkish city of Antakya, Samer planned to return to Syria to rejoin protests. His wife sobbed constantly as he described his plans. “I may die but at least my children will know freedom,” he said, eyes burning with defiance.
Samer, plainly an intelligent man, couldn’t afford to finish his law studies 20 years ago and blames the regime. He is one of those Syrians whose lives have been transformed by the revolution and its promise of change, and he is clearly prepared to pay any price.
He took heart from reports of high-level defections last week — the deputy oil minister, two generals and a colonel.
“Eventually Assad will go,” he said. “These are dark times we are in now. But the regime is like a building, and now we can see the foundations of the building are crumbling.”