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On Syrian border, artillery thumps in shadows of medieval castle

Syrian rebel fighters have taken refuge in an old crusader castle and villages on the Lebanese side of the border, drawing Syrian Army fire.

(Page 3 of 3)



Khaled shows a picture of himself in uniform, holding a light machine gun and standing in a snow-covered courtyard of the Crusader-era Crac des Chevalliers, one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world, lying in Syria five miles north of the border with Lebanon. Eight hundred years after it was built, the castle has reverted from being a popular tourist destination to its original role as a military stronghold, today under the control of armed rebels and subject to repeated artillery shelling and air strikes by regime forces, according to the FSA.

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A car pulls up alongside Ahmad’s house and the driver informs them that the Christians in the neighboring village of Dababiyah also have abandoned their homes this evening. The news is received with a thoughtful silence.

“That’s the first time the Christians have left their homes,” says one man. “Something’s up.”

Foremost in everyone’s mind is the village's proximity to the border just a few fields away. Only a handful of FSA men hiding out in the brush are there to prevent Syrian troops from staging a cross-border incursion to hunt down their rebel enemies.

An hour later, the FSA walkie-talkie crackles and a recording of a sheikh reciting a prayer is broadcast.

“Prayers before fighting,” says one man.

Most FSA operations occur at night when the militants can use the cover of darkness to maneuver and launch attacks. At 9.45 p.m., Khaled, who is listening intently to his radio, announces “It’s started. They [the Syrian army] are hitting Tallet Hosn.” Tallet Hosn is the Arabic name for Crac des Chevalliers.

Sunrise brings a respite

At 10 p.m., the shelling reaches Lebanon – a deep resonant thump of an exploding shell in the Kabir valley just north of the village. Ahmad and his companions move inside and sit on thin mattresses away from doors and windows with their backs to the walls. More shells fall, drawing closer, the blasts strong enough to reverberate through the walls and loosen flakes of paint from the ceiling. Some shells fall three or four at a time in quick succession.

The shelling subsides for an hour then resumes, repeating a pattern that lasts most of the night. During quieter moments, the men move back outside into the cooler air. A convoy of Lebanese soldiers slowly patrols the main road in a humvee and truck, hazard lights flashing.

FSA men in plainclothes and clutching the ubiquitous walkie-talkie occasionally emerge out of the blackness to smoke a cigarette and impart the latest news. One fighter paces up and down in frustration, constantly hitting the redial button on his mobile phone.

“Tel Kalakh has been heavily hit today. They used helicopter gunships against the area where his family lives and now no one is answering the phone,” explains Mohammed.

The fighter later discovers that his brother is alive but trapped under the rubble of his home which was destroyed over his head.

The clashes and shelling along the Lebanon-Syrian border have disrupted the lives of Ahmad and other villagers, especially farmers and shepherds who cannot risk moving too close to the river where some of their fields lie and sheep like to graze. But Ahmad is unrepentant in his support for the uprising against the Assad regime.

“We cannot be with a regime that massacres its own people, whether, Sunnis, Christians, or Druze. It’s not a sectarian thing for me. That’s why I support the Free Army [FSA],” he says.

The last shells explode softly in the distance shortly before the dawn sun begins to peep over the hills to the east. Ahmad and his companions stand up wearily.

“The sun is up. Now it’s safe to go to sleep,” he says.

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