Saturday, May 14, 2011

Syria's Refugees From Terror

In a small Lebanese village just beyond the Syrian border, those fleeing the regime's crackdown tell of terror and oppression back home. 
By Hanin Ghaddar 
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 13/05/2011

The northern Lebanese village of Wadi Khaled is so close to Syria that its residents can hear gunfire from across the border as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad attempts to put down a persistent revolt from his long-oppressed citizens. And as violence in nearby Syrian cities of Tal Kalakh and Homs has worsened, it has also been a refuge for fleeing Syrians.
According to Sheikh Abdullah, a prominent religious figure in the village, Wadi Khaled has received more than 1,350 refugees from Syria in the past 10 days, most of them women and children. More are expected to arrive in the coming days. Protesters took to the streets by the thousands again on Friday, reportedly flooding the streets of Damascus, Hama, and Homs in defiance of Assad's crackdown. Human rights organizations have reported that up to 850 people have been killed so far during the uprising, while more than 10,000 have been arrested. 

With a media blackout in place across Syria, Wadi Khaled, a predominantly Sunni village of around 30,000 people, is also one of the best locations to learn what's occurring across the border. The news is grim: The Syrian refugees there tell a story of state-sponsored violence and oppression that suggest Assad will stop at nothing to keep his grip on power.

Munther, a 35-year-old chain-smoker, answered our questions without taking his eyes off the BBC Arabic report on Syria playing on a television overhead. He escaped with his family from the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs on Saturday. He had been participating in the protests every Friday for two months since the uprising took hold in mid-March. "They were shooting at us to disperse the protests, but it was still manageable because you can hide as soon as they start shooting," he said. However, he decided to flee when Assad sent in tanks on May 7. "I have children and I have to protect them."

Munther, like many other Syrian refugees, came to Wadi Khaled because he has relatives there. It is only a 15-minute car ride from Homs, and the Lebanese-Syrian border has done little to hinder ties between the villages on either side of the international line. Most Wadi Khaled residents are originally Bedouins with tribal links to those in Homs and Tal Kalakh, and the last of them was given Lebanese nationality in 1994. Inter-marriages between the two communities are also common.

There is no official crossing between Wadi Khaled and the Homs Governate on the Syrian side of the border. A concrete bridge over the Southern Kabir River links the two regions, but Lebanese or Syrian checkpoints are nowhere to be found; refugees simply cross the border on foot. Lebanese residents buy cheap bread and vegetables from neighboring villages in Syira and cross back into Wadi Khaled unmolested. Gasoline smuggling is rampant.

That has left village notables with the task of caring for the needs of their newly arrived quests. Sheikh Abdullah is taking care of the refugees' logistics and safety. "Many families coming from Syria have relatives here and they are staying at their houses, but at one point, if they keep coming, there might be a humanitarian crisis," he said.

Refugees describe a government crackdown so severe that it makes normal life impossible. "The first thing the security forces do when they besiege the city -- and this happened in Daraa, Jasem, Enkhel, Tel Kalakh, and Homs -- is to cut the electricity, the phones, and the Internet. Then they shoot at water tanks situated on the rooftops to cut the water," said Abed, a 30-year-old man from Tel Kalakh.

It took Abed 20 minutes to start discussing the crackdown. He first sent the women and children to the other part of the small apartment where we met, and expressed clear apprehension at discussing developments in Syria. While he first denied participating in the protests, he later admitted that he never skipped a Friday demonstration. It wasn't hard to understand his fear. "Sometimes, they do door-to-door arrests when they are looking for certain activists," he said. "And when they enter the houses, they steal everything they see."

The main objective, according to many of these refugees, is to create a mood of panic among the residents. "They want us to realize that security, which the regime can and has always provided, is more important than freedom, which they cannot and will not provide," Abed said.

Mustafa, a young single man who came to Wadi Khaled with his sisters, said that he had seen injured civilians in the streets and the protesters were not allowed to rescue them. "Only in Syria people are dying from an injury in the foot. They are left in the streets to bleed to death," he said. YouTube provides ample proof of this grim reality -- gruesome videos show corpses lying untended in the street and Syrians braving gunfire to rescue their wounded and dying comrades.

But for Mustafa, the most horrific incident occurred last week when the protesters tried to establish a camp, modeled after Cairo's Tahrir Square, in the main square of Homs. He said that security forces arrived around 1 a.m. and killed more than a hundred protesters, put the bodies in garbage trucks, and took them to Tadmur desert, where they were buried in a mass grave.

With media largely stifled in Syria, Mustafa fears that the Assad regime is getting away with murder. "[A]s much as we try to spread the news to the world through our limited experience with technology and Facebook, many of these crimes are still unknown," he said. "The media is the only weapon the people have."

Activists are also using towns like Wadi Khaled to coordinate their activities and get their message out to the world. Hussam, a former political prisoner from Homs, was in Wadi Khaled for one day to meet with European delegations and some journalists. Hussam, who has been involved in organizing the protests for six weeks, said that his main task is to spread the anti-Assad movement's message through Facebook groups and face-to-face meetings with human rights and legal organizations.

Hussam insists that the protest movement will remain peaceful in order to thwart the regime's strategy of instigating sectarian tensions between Syria's Sunni and Alawite communities. "We all believe, including the Muslim Brotherhood members who are still inside Syria, that dictatorship and oppression only lead to violence," he said."Our main goal is freedom and the people are paying with their blood to achieve this goal."

If recent events are any indication, Assad is hoping a display of overwhelming military force will be enough to quell the uprising. His first cousin Rami Makhlouf, a prominent player in Syria's economy and a key regime insider, told the New York Times on Wednesday: "We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end."

But the killings could also be Assad's undoing. "Each family in Daraa, Banyas, Enkhel, Homs, and Jassem lost a member," said Hussam. "We will never go back to silence."

Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW Lebanon

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