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Syrian refugees give firsthand account of slide into bloodshed

Armed forces raided villages, detaining people and later returning bodies, say Sunni families sheltering in northern Lebanon, some of whom recognized Alawite neighbors among the militiamen.

December 16, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis and Rima Marrouch, Los Angeles Times
  • Children in the Lebanese village of Wadi Khaled play outside a window shattered by bullets in an exchange of gunfire this month across the border in Syria that left two people wounded in Lebanon. Syrian refugees have found shelter on the Lebanese side of the border.
Children in the Lebanese village of Wadi Khaled play outside a window shattered… (Omar Ibrahim, Reuters )

Reporting from Wadi Khaled, Lebanon — In a rocky valley at the northern tip of Lebanon, three generations of a Syrian farming family cluster around a small gas heater in the derelict schoolhouse that has become their refuge.

When there is electricity, they are glued to the television, which transmits grainy amateur video of chanting protesters and bloodied bodies just across the border in their strife-torn home province of Homs.

Interrupting one another in a rush to be heard, family members describe communities under siege by an iron-fisted state, and village turning against village in a chilling cycle of abductions, beatings and killings. The account given by the family, echoed by others across a valley brimming with refugees, illustrates Syria's descent from a mostly peaceful uprising into ferocious bloodletting that in some places is beginning to resemble civil war.

Around Homs, military defectors and civilians, most of them members of the Sunni Muslim majority, are taking up arms to defend their communities against security forces controlled by members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect, a small Shiite Muslim offshoot. Sunnis have dominated the antigovernment protests.

Bodies have been dumped in the streets, conjuring images of the sectarian killing that ripped apart neighboring Iraq. So far, particularly in larger, more cosmopolitan cities, the ethnic and religious strife appears to be well short of that seen in Iraq.

But the city of Homs and the surrounding patchwork of villages where farmers grow grapes, nuts and olives are a microcosm of the country's combustible mix of people. There, refugees say, it may already be too late to avoid lasting damage.

"What do you want to do when you see Bashar?" the matriarch of the 21-member clan prompted a grandson. Eyes downcast, the shy 14-year-old responded: "I want to hang him."

Like others who spoke to The Times, the woman asked to be identified by a traditional nickname, Um Faris, and that the name of their small village not be used for fear of the reach of Assad's security forces. Because foreign reporters have mostly been barred from Syria, the family's stories couldn't be independently corroborated. But their accounts were consistent with reports from human rights groups and anti-Assad activists.

Leaders in this valley, so close that explosions in Syria can be heard, say that as many as 3,000 refugees are being sheltered here by families and in schools.

Um Faris' family, Sunnis, chafed under the Assad family, which has controlled the government for decades. But they never dared speak out.

Besides, said her husband, Abu Faris, the head of the family, life was comfortable enough. Frustrated by what they saw as a lack of opportunity for Sunnis, he and several sons spent decades working as carpenters in Saudi Arabia. The money they sent back furnished four homes on 12 acres for the growing family.

"You didn't think of protesting," Abu Faris said.

But when they saw popular uprisings topple longtime rulers in Tunisia and Egypt early this year, they began to wonder whether Syria too could change. At first, only a few men from the family took part in small marches down the main road of their village. But when security forces opened fire in March, allegedly shooting one of the protesters in the head, the whole family was galvanized into action.

"Even I would take part," said the matriarch, a formidable presence in a faded, floral-print robe.

"We would write 'freedom' on his cheeks and take him," said her husband, nodding toward a 4-year-old crouched in his grandmother's lap and chewing on her worry beads.

The more lives lost, the bigger the protests became, they said. Before sunrise one August morning, electricity in the village was cut and armed forces swooped in.

Peeking through a crack in the bathroom wall, a granddaughter made a video on her cellphone of what she said were truckloads of troops rolling past their home.

Hoping they would leave the family alone, Abu Faris said, he went out to offer the men water. But he said they descended on his home, smashing dishes and furniture, snatching computers and knocking down the ceiling fans. Seven young men in the family were lined up against a wall at gunpoint with their hands above their heads.

"I don't know what stopped them from shooting," his wife said. "This small boy," she said, indicating the grandchild in her lap, "they grabbed his hand and said, 'Do you want us to cut this finger or that finger?'"

Among those taking part in the raid were people they said they recognized from a neighboring Alawite village who had joined pro-Assad militias known as the shabiha, an expression derived from the Arabic word for ghosts. Assad retains considerable support among minorities who fear they will be killed if the government falls.

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