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Syrian rebels fight to keep route to safe havens in Lebanon

The Syrian Army's pounding of the territory between Homs and the Lebanese border has sent hundreds of Syrian fighters and civilians fleeing to the Lebanese town of Masharih al-Qaa.

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Safe haven

The northern Lebanese town of Masharih al-Qaa has become a de facto safe haven for the FSA engaged in daily battles against the Syrian regime across the border. Hussein, Ismael and their colleagues in the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade were resting from the fighting in a large tent erected beside a small farmhouse a mile from the border and surrounded by fields of cabbage, lentils, and potatoes. 

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The Lebanese authorities generally have turned a blind eye to the FSA activities here. In return, the FSA militants say that they leave their weapons behind before crossing the border and do not launch attacks from here against Syrian troops.

As the sun sank behind the towering mountains to the west, a generator clattered into action, providing some light inside the tent and power for a small television that flickered images of news updates on the war in Syria. The generator was not so loud, however, that it drowned out the crump of artillery shelling just across the border.

During the night, the fighters from the Jusiyah Martyrs Brigade tried to snatch a few hours sleep in the tent, lying on foam mattresses on the floor and ignoring the distant artillery fire. Occasionally, ringing cell phones informed the fighters that some more of their colleagues, friends, or family were attempting to slip into Lebanon through the mountains just to the east.

“It seems everyone’s leaving the area tonight,” says one fighter donning a jacket and heading outside.

Bursts of heavy machine gun fire from a Syrian army position on the border a mile away to the east punctured the night air. Red dots of tracer flew slowly through the darkness as the Syrian soldiers attempted to intercept militants and refugees scrambling across the adjacent barren mountain slopes in a dash for the cover of the orchards in Masharih al-Qaa.

By dawn, an estimated 500 to 700 people had escaped Jusiyah overnight. A group of a dozen women and small children sat wide-eyed with exhaustion on the floor of a small room, having walked in the darkness for 10 hours.

“It was a very hard journey. We had to walk and then stop for cover to avoid the machine gun fire,” says Abu Ahmad, a thickly bearded Lebanese militant who had accompanied his wife, two children, and mother from Jusiyah. “I had to get them out. But my father is still in Jusiyah. He refused to leave.”

Jusiyah and several other villages just inside Syria are populated by Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites. 

His cellphone rang. A friend on the line told Abu Ahmad that his group was lost somewhere on the border.

“Are you near the peach trees or the plum trees?” Abu Ahmad asks.

“I don’t know, wait,” says a tinny voice over the phone’s loudspeaker. “I think the plum trees.”

“Okay, we are coming to get you,” Abu Ahmad said.

“Please bring some water with you. We haven’t had any since yesterday,” the voice replied.


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