Syrian refugees describe violent crackdown, sectarian clashes
Syrian refugees from a Sunni village near Homs have taken shelter in a Lebanese border town. But their hosts are deeply uneasy about the unrest roiling Lebanon's powerful neighbor.
Knaysse, north Lebanon
This tiny wind-blown village in northern Lebanon has become a refuge for Syrians fleeing a crackdown by Syrian troops two miles away in Heet.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“We had to crawl through rocks and the soldiers were shooting non-stop to try and prevent people leaving and firing flares in the sky to try and see us,” says Ahmed, a teenager who escaped four days ago with most other residents of Heet, using the cover of night to make a dash for the border. “It was very frightening. Small children were crying. It took us an hour to come here.”
Although the residents of Knaysse sympathize with their Syrian friends and relatives from Heet and are happy to shelter them, they are careful to avoid public comment on the turmoil in Syria. They have no wish to jeopardize their cordial relations with the Syrian border authorities who allow them to cross the frontier to purchase cheap household goods in Syrian markets.
Such local ambivalence reflects more broadly the deep unease in Lebanon over the unrest roiling its powerful neighbor – an unease that stands in stark contrast to Turkey's highly organized refugee camps and outspoken criticism of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The opposition protest movement in Syria is mainly drawn from the majority Sunni population, which has cast a sectarian edge to the unrest and won the sympathy of many Lebanese Sunnis. However, the newly formed Lebanese government is close to the Assad regime and has tried to ignore the influx of a few thousand Syrians escaping crackdowns along the Lebanon border in the past four months.
However, Knaysee lies only 18 miles west of Homs, which lately has witnessed a surge of sectarian violence, leaving some 50 people dead since Saturday. While Heet, a mainly Sunni village, has not seen such violence itself, it is surrounded by villages whose residents belong to the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that forms the backbone of the Syrian regime.
Ahmad and other refugees, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, have come to view the struggle between the regime and the opposition in stark sectarian terms.
“The Alawites are trying to eliminate the Sunnis in the area and the Sunnis are trying to eliminate the Alawites. Only the Alawites are winning at the moment because they have weapons and we don’t,” says Mustafa, Ahmad’s friend from Heet.
Deep-rooted opposition to Assad regime, despite crackdowns
Such sentiment strikes a nerve in Lebanon, a country defined by its chaotic sectarian character and where current political divisions follow broad communal lines. Many Lebanese are worried that the longer the unrest continues in Syria, the greater the change that it will seep into Lebanon. Already there have been isolated clashes between Lebanese Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli.
While international attention has focused on the larger urban centers in Syria such as nearby Homs, protests by the few hundred residents of Heet underlines just how deep-rooted and widespread the opposition to the Assad regime has become four months after demonstrations broke out.
Those residents of Heet who have fled to Knaysse say that elements from the Syrian army’s Fourth Division, which is headed by Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the Syrian president, and Alawite militiamen known as shabiha have instituted a reign of terror in the village.