The four Syrian men came up the river bank, panting with exertion and fear, trousers rolled up, legs glistening wet, carrying heavy suitcases on their backs as they crossed into Lebanon.
“Quickly, move along. There are snipers shooting this way,” urges a Lebanese soldier, motioning the four across an exposed stretch of road within clear view of houses on the Syrian side of the narrow Kabir river.
The four men were the latest refugees to flee from Tel Kalakh, a Sunni-populated town lying two miles west of this village that straddles the border (see map). Syrian security forces and regime loyalists are engaged in a bloody crackdown that residents say is turning into a sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawites, the minority Shiite offshoot that forms the backbone of the regime.
Since Saturday, thousands of residents of the besieged town have slipped into Lebanon, some braving sniper fire to cross the small stone bridge at Arida, others creeping through the rugged stony hills to find fordable reaches of the Kabir River. The refugees are bringing with them tales of bloodshed and terror that, if true, offer rare glimpses into the uncompromising measures used by the Syrian security forces to crush a two-month rebellion that has shaken the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The bullets were falling on us like rain. The children were terrified,” says one young woman wearing a black niqab, a face covering worn by devout Muslim women. The refugees interviewed refused to give their names for security reasons.
“They are killing all the Muslims,” she added. “They are destroying the mosques so that we cannot gather to pray and demonstrate.”
Sunnis targeted by Alawite militiamen
Several refugees described seeing people getting their throats cut in the street by gangs of black uniformed “Shabiha” Alawite militiamen. They said some of the Shabiha militiamen in Tel Kalakh were dispatched from Qordaha, an Alawite town in western Syria that is the ancestral home of the Assad family and consequently a staunch bastion of support for the regime.
In a chilling echo of the early stages in Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, they said that the Shabiha militiamen were stopping people in the street and checking their identity cards for potential victims.
“If they see he’s a Sunni from his family name, they take him away and kill him,” the woman in the niqab said. “They destroyed the Omar bin Khattab mosque because it is named after a companion of the Prophet Mohammed and dear to Sunnis. What we have here is a sectarian war between the Alawites and Sunnis.”
'They're shooting. I have to go.'
Most of the refugees on this side of border have taken shelter with Lebanese family members and friends. One family of 10 was crammed inside a tiny single-roomed building. The women leaned against the wall of unfurnished room while children played on the threadbare carpet that covered the cement floor.
“The town smells of the dead lying in the streets,” says a distraught portly woman wearing a dark full-length dress and a white headscarf. “The wounded are hiding in cellars. They are going in inch by inch and killing everyone."
She even said she had seen Shabiha militiamen catch a group of children, bind their hands, and urinate on them.
'Nothing left but God to protect us'
It was impossible to verify the allegations of killings and destruction inside Tel Kalakh, although most residents interviewed separately told similar accounts.
One young man inside Tel Kalakh who was contacted by telephone said that most remaining residents were in hiding, either locking themselves inside homes or slipping into the woods and fields surrounding the town.
“We are peaceful demonstrators,” he says. “We don’t have an armed resistance. We have nothing left but God to protect us. We are the martyrs for freedom. That’s all we have left.” He paused for a moment, then the crackle of rifle fire could be heard over the telephone line.
“They’re shooting. I have to go. We’re under fire,” he said. Then the line went dead.
Booming black market for weapons
Although the residents of Tel Kalakh insist that the opposition is unarmed, there have been numerous persuasive reports indicating that some of the protesters at least are shooting back. On Sunday, a Syrian border post in Arida was attacked and overrun and a soldier captured.
Sales of black market weapons in Lebanon have skyrocketed in recent weeks driven almost entirely by demand in Syria, according to arms dealers.
A group of young men from Tel Kalakh scrutinized the Syrian side of the river, looking for the hidden snipers that every few minutes fired a round or two into Lebanon, keeping nerves on edge. They suddenly became animated upon spotting a Syrian armored fighting vehicle belching gray exhaust fumes and trundling across a distant hill of lush knee-high grass peppered with piles of black basalt boulders.
“Look! It’s the enemy,” yells one man. Several Syrian soldiers could be seen standing on the roof of house that apparently had been turned into a temporary operations center.
Coils of razor wire were stretched across the road in front of the bridge over the Kabir river. Several Lebanese soldiers and orange-uniformed medics from the Islamic Medical Association sheltered from snipers beside a wall.
“It’s been quieter today, because it is too dangerous for people to enter Lebanon here,” said Walid Dinnawi, the chief medical officer.
“Sunday was terrible. There were bullets, smoke, shelling. We received eight casualties. One of them died. All of them were shot in the chest and above.”
A nationwide general strike has been called by the Syrian opposition for today in support of the beleaguered residents of Tel Kalakh.
“It will be a day of punishment for the regime by the revolutionaries and the people of free will,” said a statement posted on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page.