Escaping Syria’s crackdown

Thousands of Syrians have crossed the border into Lebanon’s impoverished Wadi Khaled region.

Al-Masri, left, says he was imprisoned for two weeks after taking part in anti-government protests (Cajsa Wikstrom)
Al-Masri, left, says he was imprisoned for two weeks after taking part in anti-government protests (Cajsa Wikstrom)

Wadi Khaled, Lebanon – Thousands of Syrians are sheltering in northern Lebanon, saying an armed crackdown by security forces in their home towns made them fear for their lives.

Most of the refugees have crossed the border from Talkalakh, a town just a few kilometres away from the frontier. 

Officials in the border region of Wadi Khaled say about 2,500 refugees are currently registered there, but since most of the displaced enter the country illegally, it is difficult to determine the exact number. As violence peaked across the border in May, an estimated 5,500 refugees were in the area.

While the majority have found shelter with relatives, local families or in deserted buildings, hundreds have taken refuge in two schools run by Islamic charities.

“This is our home now, we do everything in here” a woman says about the classroom where she is staying with her grandchildren. “We sleep, we eat, we even have to wash in here.”

In August, at least 190 displaced people returned to Syria, according to the UN refugee agency.

Mohammed, a taxi driver from Talkalakh, Syria, who did not want his full name used for fear of reprisal, spent two and a half months in the al-Iman school in Wadi Khaled, but chose to go back home just before the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holidays. 

“I couldn’t stand it any more,” he says about life as a refugee. “There’s nothing better than home, even if it’s
not safe.”

Cemetery ‘surrounded’

Many Muslims visit the graves of their loved ones on Eid, but anticipating that such visits could turn into anti-government protests this year, security forces were reportedly surrounding cemeteries in several towns across Syria.

“There were almost two security personnel per grave,” Mohammed says about the situation in Talkalakh. “It was impossible to go”.

Talkalakh and other Syrian villages can be seen from the Lebanese side of the border (Cajsa Wikstrom)

The predominately Sunni town of about 30,000 people is located on the hills just about 4km from the Lebanese border and visible from Wadi Khaled. It is surrounded by Alawite villages, populated by the minority Shia offshoot which President Bashar al-Assad and much of the ruling elite belong to.

The army and security forces entered Talkalakh on May 14 and besieged the city for a week. Activists say the operation was a response to big protests calling for the downfall of the regime. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims 12 people have been confirmed killed and “tens” more are missing. Hundreds were arrested, the group says.

The military operations were reportedly followed by campaigns of looting and destruction of private homes carried out by security forces and regime thugs known as shabiha.

Al Jazeera has been barred from entering the country and cannot independently verify these accounts.

‘Became enemies’

The refugees in Wadi Khaled, who all are Sunni Muslims, say that in addition to security personnel, the Alawites also turned against them.

“When we asked for freedom, we became their enemies,” says an old woman with traditional facial tattoos.

“They get paid 5,000 Syrian pounds [$100] per day to join the shabiha. That means they earn a month’s salary in three days.”

Refugee from Talkalakh

The refugees seem to agree that before protests began in March, there were no tensions between the two communities.

“We used to drink coffee with them,” says one woman, while a man adds “we used to get drunk together”.

As unrest spread across the country, some Syrians have accused the government of arming the Alawite minority.

“Now all of them have guns, even 10-year-old boys”, a woman who fled from Talkalakh says. “They get paid 5,000 Syrian pounds [$100] per day to join the shabiha. That means they earn a month’s salary in three days.”

It seems that many of the refugees are using the terms Alawites and shabiha interchangeably. Yet the shabiha are not exclusively Alawite – they also have Sunnis and people belonging to other sects in their ranks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other sources. 

Lebanese blamed

Abu Ali, an Alawite resident in Talkalakh, vehemently denies claims that weapons have been distributed to his sect.

He says the Lebanese Future Movement, headed by anti-Syrian former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, had paid some people to stir unrest in Talkalakh to prompt a crackdown which would put the Syrian government in a bad light.

“People were burning a police station, a courthouse and a customs station,” he says. “They blocked roads and killed a policeman. Then the state intervened.”

He says outsiders have tried to raise tensions between Alawites and the Sunni but that attempts to create a split have failed. Many of those who fled across the border are wanted by authorities for smuggling of drugs and other goods, according to Abu Ali.

Al Jazeera contacted Syrian authorities to get an official version of events but failed to get a response. 

However, as army operations were under way, SANA, the state-run news agency, quoted Talkalakh residents as saying that armed gangs from the Future Movement had “stormed several houses in the town to force us to leave to their region on the other side of the border as if we were displaced people who need help”. 

The UN fact-finding mission which was deployed to Syria in August visited the public hospital on the outskirts of Talkalakh.

The hospital management could not confirm any deaths, but said a “manageable” amount of injured, “not in the hundreds”, had been admitted, according to Rashid Khalikov, who led the team from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Unguarded border

Refugees in Wadi Khaled insist that the Syrian uprising is peaceful and rejected government claims that “armed terrorists” or “religious extremists” have infiltrated the protest movement.

However, one man says: “If I tell you there are no weapons, I’d be a liar. But it’s not real weapons, nothing that can stand up to the government forces.”

Food parcels provided by Qatar are distributed at
the two schools housing refugees [Al Jazeera] 

He says that he personally doesn’t believe in vengeance, but that without doubt, some of the relatives of those killed in the uprising would be seeking revenge.

The Lebanese and Syrian border regions are closely linked to each other. Most Wadi Khaled residents are originally Bedouins with tribal ties across the frontier and cross-border marriages are common. 

Wadi Khaled is a poor area, but Aref al-Khalaf, the mukhtar, or local community leader, of one of the villages where locals have opened up their homes to Syrian refugees, says the community has not hesitated to help.

“We’re Arabs, Bedouins, we believe in old traditions,” he says. “When a stranger comes to your house, he’s a prince. Even if you’re poor.”

There is no fence or visible security forces guarding the frontier and the region is known to be a well-established smuggling route.

Many of those fleeing Syria came wading through the narrow Kabir river which is the natural boundary between the two countries.

‘Free to be a Muslim’

Mohammed al-Masri says he left Syria because he was wanted by authorities after taking part in protests.

The 23-year-old says his desire for freedom, or more specifically religious freedom, was his motivation to take to the street.

“I want to be free to be a Muslim,” he says. “In Syria, if you have a long beard and go to the mosque to read the Quran, they assume you’re part of the Muslim Brotherhood and you can go to jail.”

“The imams in the mosques are told what to say in their Friday sermons. Every week, the regime gives them a paper, telling them what to read, things like ‘God save Bashar'”. 

Al-Masri says he was arrested randomly in his home on May 15 along with his brothers. Security forces pushed him into a car, blindfolded and with his hands tied and took him to a restaurant, which served as a temporary detention centre.

“We were laying on the ground, without food, without water,” he says. He was later brought to a jail in Homs, where he claims to have been subjected to torture, having being hung upside-down by a kind of winch used to lift cattle.

“They burned my long beard with a lighter to humiliate me … They asked me ‘who is the chief of your gang, who gives you weapons?'”

Two people who were in prison at the same time died in custody, al-Masri says.

“I was dead too, but God brought me back”.

According to a report by rights group Amnesty International, 10 men from Talkalakh died in Syrian jails after being apprehended during security operations in the village in May.

Rights groups say more than 2,300 people have been killed since the uprising began. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 473 people were killed during Ramadan, including 360 civilians and 113 members of the Syrian military and security forces.

Source : Al Jazeera


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