In volatile bor­der region, fear grips Syria’s minor­ity

One hot night last sum­mer, Rajaa Taher grabbed a few essen­tials and fled her home in the Syr­ian vil­lage of Saqarja with her hus­band and chil­dren, escap­ing across farm­lands to Zayta just a few hun­dred meters away.

By: Mariam Karouny

Taher, a Shi’ite, said she was threat­ened by Sunni Mus­lim rebels bat­tling Pres­i­dent Bashar al-​Assad in the largely unmarked bor­der region where Syria merges into Lebanon — an old smug­gling area where Syr­i­ans and Lebanese, Shi’ites and Sun­nis once lived together obliv­i­ous to national or sec­tar­ian boundaries.

 

Now the bor­der region has become one of many flash­points in Syria’s increas­ingly vio­lent and sec­tar­ian con­flict, which threat­ens more and more to drag in its tiny neigh­bor Lebanon, where many Sun­nis back the revolt and many Shi’ites back Assad, a mem­ber of the Alaw­ite off­shoot of Shi’ite Islam.

If the blood­shed seeps into Lebanon, where sec­tar­ian fault­lines have been exac­er­bated by the nearly two years of cri­sis in Syria, the coun­try­side around Taher’s vil­lage nes­tled just north of Lebanon’s Bekaa Val­ley may be one of the gate­ways for the spread.

The area is of strate­gic impor­tance for the rebels who would be able to link Homs province in Syria to Sunni areas inside Lebanon for weapons and fight­ers. It is impor­tant for Lebanon’s Shi’ite mil­i­tants Hezbol­lah to stop the rebels from tak­ing over these Shi’ites vil­lages as they will be a stone’s throw away from Her­mel, one of the group’s strongholds.

Already rebels accuse Hezbol­lah of send­ing forces into the area to fight along­side Assad’s army — a charge the group denies, although it says there are Hezbol­lah mem­bers liv­ing and fight­ing among the esti­mated 30,000 Lebanese nation­als in two dozen reli­giously mixed vil­lages but with Shi’ites in the major­ity just inside Syria.

Taher and other Shi’ite and Alaw­ite vil­lagers tell another story, say­ing Sunni rebels have intim­i­dated, expelled and killed Shi’ites as they seek to con­trol ter­ri­tory close to Syria’s third largest city, Homs.

“We were neigh­bors. We lived there together for years and years,” said the 39-​year-​old woman, dressed in black like many oth­ers dis­placed from nearby villages.

“Then they sent us a message…that we are Shi’ites and we have no right to own land or a house or any­thing and we have to leave. They burned the house. They took our cows,” she said.

“They took my brother-​in-​law and we don’t know what hap­pened to him. We left the vil­lage when they started call­ing from the mosque speak­ers for Jihad. We left under bul­lets,” she said tear­fully, adding that her nephew was recently killed.

“What do they want from us? We were all one fam­ily liv­ing together … Do they hate us just because we are Shi’ites?”

TRAN­QUIL FIELDS

There is lit­tle to sug­gest that the dusty road head­ing towards Zayta from north­ern Lebanon is cross­ing into another coun­try, aside from one small check­point where Syr­ian troops sit lazily wav­ing cars through.

The road becomes a tree-​lined avenue, pass­ing through fields green with the shoots of wheat seedlings as it approaches Zayta, the biggest vil­lage in the region. Even though ninety per­cent of the res­i­dents are Lebanese, the vil­lage is Syrian.

A few res­i­dents sit out­side the houses scat­tered on the vil­lage edge. Cows graze and give vis­i­tors a care­less look.

But the tran­quil out­skirts and open fields con­trast with the cen­ter of the vil­lage, where houses are packed close together and res­i­dents tell tales of being forced from their vil­lages nearby and fight­ing back against the rebels.

In Zayta, where pic­tures of Assad hang in schools and pub­lic build­ings, peo­ple describe the fight­ing as self-​defense against rebels dri­ven by hard­line jihadi ide­ol­ogy who used to drive into the vil­lage, wav­ing their guns and threat­en­ing the res­i­dents. Res­i­dents say they formed armed groups, known as ‘Pop­u­lar Com­mit­tees’, to defend their lives and their land.

“The Syr­ian army had greater pri­or­i­ties than these small vil­lages so peo­ple sold their land or their cat­tle and bought weapons,” said Abu Hus­sein, regional head of the Pop­u­lar Com­mit­tees. He declined to say how many fight­ers were involved, but said they were enough for the task.

“Most of the peo­ple here have rel­a­tives inside Lebanon who offered help but we refused… So far we have been capa­ble of push­ing back the attacks so we do not need help,” he said.

Last month clashes erupted between rebels and the Pop­u­lar Com­mit­tees and at least two Shi’ite fight­ers and five rebels were killed.

Despite his insis­tence that the vil­lagers were fight­ing only in self-​defense and with­out out­side assis­tance, rebels have repeat­edly accused Hezbol­lah — an ally of Assad’s which has relied for years on weapons from Syria — of tak­ing part.

They point to recent funer­als in Lebanon for Hezbol­lah fight­ers who the group say were killed per­form­ing “their jihadi duties”, with­out spec­i­fy­ing where or exactly how they died.

Abu Hus­sein said the pow­er­ful group, which fought the Israeli army to a stand­still in a 34-​day war seven years ago, was nei­ther help­ing “for­mally nor in secret”.

“But it can­not at the same time stop its sup­port­ers or even those among its ranks from defend­ing them­selves, their land and pos­ses­sions,” he said.

His com­ments echoed those of Hezbol­lah chief Sayyed Has­san Nas­ral­lah, who denies send­ing guer­ril­las into Syria but says that the bor­der vil­lages are home to many Hezbol­lah fighters.

“They took up arms and bought weapons. We used to send them food rations the way we sent them to other peo­ple, but they sold the rations in order to buy weapons,” he said in Octo­ber. “I can­not pre­vent them if they decide to stay and fight.”

KID­NAP­PINGS, DISPLACEMENTS

The poor con­crete houses now embrace more than one fam­ily as res­i­dents wel­come Shi’ites and Alaw­ites dis­placed from nearby vil­lages. They share their food too.

With rebels and Islamists dom­i­nat­ing the town of Qusair, Saqarja and other Sunni vil­lages in Homs, the nearby city of Her­mel on the Lebanese side has become essen­tial to Zayta and nearby vil­lages. Some res­i­dents take the 15-​minute jour­ney into Lebanon to buy their basic goods.

Those dis­placed in Zayta say they were pushed out of their homes in Homs or Qusair by rebel forces and fear that Sunni fight­ers may soon tar­get Zayta.

Already young men have been kid­napped from Zayta, spark­ing a wave of tit-​for-​tat kid­nap­pings, they say.

Free Syr­ian army fight­ers used to drive into the vil­lage from neigh­bor­ing Saqarja in pickup trucks to snatch young men. At one point the rebels took 21 men from one fam­ily, the Jaa­fars, who then kid­napped vil­lagers from the other side, lead­ing to a pris­oner swap.

Abdul­lah al-​Zain, a young man in his 20s, was snatched by rebels along with a friend from out­side his hard­ware shop in Zayta and taken to Saqarja.

“I was stand­ing right here with my friend at around noon when they came,” he told Reuters from out­side the shop. He said they blind­folded him and his friend and held them in Saqarja for six days.

“They used all kinds of tor­ture on me. All the time I was blind­folded, a man would come to me and out the edge of the knife on my neck and tell me: Say your prayers am going to slaugh­ter you now,” he said.

“I would say it and then he would laugh and remove the knife. He would do this at least eight times a day,” he said. “All the time they wanted me to say that I am a shab­biha (fighter) of Assad.”

“Then I heard that my friends kid­napped some of them and there was a swap. We were thrown here on the street,” he said, adding that he now fights with the Pop­u­lar Committees.

Many attempts to rec­on­cile between the towns failed. But the kid­nap­pings have stopped since the Pop­u­lar Com­mit­tees were formed and now, almost every man aged between 18 and 50 is armed and has joined up.

Another woman from Saqarja said that before they escaped they used to see men com­ing to her neighbor’s house with long beards and flip flops — the accus­tomed look of ultra-​conservative Sunnis.

“We did not think it was impor­tant. We thought they were their rel­a­tives from Saudi Ara­bia or some­thing. But then our neigh­bors became like them and then they asked us to go.”

The vil­lagers in Zayta say that much of their land has been con­fis­cated by the rebels and they are now unable to plant it.

Kaaboul, a young Syr­ian fighter who was dis­placed from a neigh­bor­ing vil­lage with a Sunni major­ity said he joined a Pop­u­lar Com­mit­tee five months ago.

“The so-​called (rebel) Free Army has con­fis­cated our land. We have land that we used to plant with pota­toes but they took it from us. I want it back,” he said.

“I am fight­ing here because I hope one day I will return to my vil­lage. I believe in God and even if after 100 years we will go back.”

His friends, wear­ing cam­ou­flage uni­form and car­ry­ing Kalash­nikov rifles, smile and agree.

“We are fight­ing to get our land back,” said one. “We are not fight­ing for Assad to stay as pres­i­dent — this is just a detail. My land and my house are very impor­tant to me.”

Source: Reuters

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