A narrow causeway of basalt boulders and steel oil drums stretching across the Kabir River on the Lebanese-Syrian border has become a lifeline for Syrians fleeing a crackdown in the nearby town of Tel Kalakh.
Among those crossing the river on Monday was a young schoolteacher who in recent weeks has emerged as the leader of the protest movement in the mainly Sunni-populated town, which lies just two miles north of the border.
He and other residents struck mixed tones of fear and defiance as the Syrian authorities continued a punishing nationwide campaign of arrests and shootings against key centers of unrest to suppress a two-month uprising that threatens to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Calling himself Nisr min Tel Kalakh (the Eagle of Tel Kalakh), the young opposition leader, who could not be named for security reasons, says that he hopes the uprising remains peaceful. But he predicts that the intensifying crackdown by the Syrian security forces will plunge the country into an armed civil war.
“We are all expecting for Syria exactly what happened in Libya – a revolution against the regime, an armed struggle against the regime. It will happen soon,” he says, in perhaps the first interview of an underground opposition leader based inside Syria with a Western reporter. Until then, he adds, the protesters are willing to die for their cause.
“We will defend ourselves by baring our chests to their bullets and fighting with our bare hands. Our cause is righteous. Even if we lose 2 or 3 million people, we are willing to put up with that high price to get what we want,” he says.
Dozens of residents of Tel Kalakh have used the narrow causeway in the past two weeks to enter Lebanon, where they have sought shelter with relatives and friends. Some spend just the day in Lebanon before making the short journey back to their homes in the evening. One resident telephoned "Nisr," the young leader, inside Tel Kalakh and he agreed to meet for an interview. Thirty minutes later, he appeared on the opposite bank of the Kabir River.
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After discreetly slipping some money into the hands of two unarmed but uniformed Syrian border soldiers on watch at the crossing, he scrambled down the steep bank and stepped gingerly across the causeway spanning the river to the Lebanese side.
A man standing on the Lebanese bank of the river hailed the two Syrian soldiers and jeered, “Why don’t you come over here and we’ll take your picture.”
One of the Syrian soldiers yelled curses before the pair disappeared from view.
Minutes later, sitting in a dusty armchair in a nearby garage and surrounded by local well-wishers, “Nisr” said he was the first to rally people in Tel Kalakh for antiregime protests and since then had become the leader of the opposition in the town.
Using the Internet to organize
“I use the Internet to stay in contact with other activists around the country. It is difficult. Some of them I have not heard from in several days and I fear they are dead or arrested,” the tall, soft-spoken, and relaxed-looking schoolteacher says.
As an opposition leader in contact with other cells, he has been following closely the escalating crackdown in nearby Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, which lies just 25 miles to the east of Tel Kalakh. He said that eyewitnesses from Homs told him that during last Friday’s demonstrations, the protesters had prepared a feast for the soldiers deployed on the scene and were making an effort to win them over.
The soldiers refused to eat the food and ignored the friendly calls of the crowd. When the crowd rejected demands to disperse, more troop reinforcements arrived and opened fire. According to “Nisr,” witnesses reported some 300 people were gunned down.
“The security forces sent trash trucks to pick up the dead and take them away. Then they brought in water tankers to wash away the blood as if nothing had happened,” he says.
Such accounts are impossible to verify given the reporting restrictions imposed by the Syrian authorities. However, reports have emerged from travelers to Homs and from opposition activists that mass graves have been dug in the city.
One woman who arrived in Lebanon from Homs on Monday, who also cannot be identified for security reasons, said that bodies of people shot by security forces in the city were being mutilated and left in the street so that the authorities could blame “Salafists,” or Islamic extremists. But she added that claims by the Syrian authorities that armed groups are responsible for some of the deaths were not unfounded. She said cars full of unidentified men routinely open fire on civilians and security forces alike.
Will weapons soon flow to protesters?
Although the unrest in Syria has fueled a boom in black-market weapons sales in neighboring Lebanon, with many weapons crossing the border, most Syrians remain unarmed. "Nisr" admits the opposition has no arms to speak of presently, and says that it is only a matter of time before weapons provided by “friendly countries” begin to appear in Syria.
“We expect some countries that support our cause to deliver weapons to us,” he says.
"Nisr" says that the Syrian authorities are hunting for him, but he keeps moving from safe house to safe house. He says he is not afraid and that the risks he faces along with other opposition leaders inside Syria is the “price of freedom.”
He cites an Arabic proverb about the difficulty of opposing oppression.
“They say that an eye cannot fight a needle,” he says. “Only now, the regime is the eye and the people are the needle.”