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.

Syrian soldiers deploy on the northern border with Lebanon, erecting tents to prevent the flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon in the northern Wadi Khaled area, Lebanon, Tuesday, July 19.

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.

“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.

“There are many wounded people in the village but the army won’t let them out to be treated so they are dying in their houses. Soldiers and the shabiha walk the streets shooting at anyone they can see,” says Ahmad, who is staying with relatives in Knaysse.

Knaysse residents describe ties with Syrian soldiers

Knaysse lies in a hammer-shaped enclave poking eastward into Syria and is surrounded on three sides by the border. The village consists of a few homes built from blocks of black basalt. Basalt boulders litter the surrounding arid plain and the strong hot wind whips up clouds of dark gray dust. A few hundred yards south of the village is a newly established Syrian army encampment, the white canvas tents a clear contrast to the drab monotone landscape.

Residents of Knaysse and the neighboring village of Wadi Khaled say Syrian Army deserters are in the area, but they are in hiding out of concern that they will be arrested by the Lebanese authorities and transferred back to Syria.

In calmer times, the residents of Knaysse can enter Syria via one of the many informal border crossings manned by Syrian troops to purchase staple household goods such as bread and rice, which are cheaper than in Lebanon. While Syrian authorities try to act against the endemic smuggling along the border, they turn a blind eye to local residents crossing over to visit residents or do a little shopping.

“The soldiers tell us we can buy what we want but must not smuggle diesel fuel into Lebanon or guns into Syria,” says Ali, a portly figure in a white dishdash and red-and-white keffiyah wrapped around his head. Ali, who along with other residents did not want to be named, sat on a cushion on the floor of a large unfurnished room and chatted to several other elders who had gathered in his home.

They discussed the dramatic events of the previous night when Syrian troops had opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades just a few hundreds yards from their homes.

“The bullets were hitting our homes and we turned off the lights and hid on the floor,” says Ali.

He and his guests say that the gun battle was between Syrian troops and a group of Syrian diesel-fuel smugglers during which one of the gang members was killed.

'So long as the regime exists we cannot go back'

But the Syrians from Heet tell a different version of the story.

“They were not smugglers. They were citizens trying to cross the border when they were attacked. One of them was killed and he is being buried today in Heet,” says Mustafa.

Meanwhile, the few hundred residents of Heet taking refuge in Knaysse and surrounding villages, say they have no intention of returning home for the time being.

“So long as the regime exists we cannot go back because they will kill us all,” says Ahmad.

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