Syrians Flee 'Cleaning'

Hussein Malla / AP Photo

It has been nearly a year since the school building became a military outpost in Nizariyah, a tiny village in southwestern Homs province on the outskirts of the border city of Quseir. But it was only a week ago, when a tank broke through the schoolyard fence and hundreds of soldiers holed up there, that villagers sensed something worse was afoot than the random bombing to which they've grown accustomed.

“A soldier from inside the school told me on Sunday that we should leave, that they were receiving orders to bomb the whole village and eliminate everything there,” said one woman who left her home nearby the school, now sharing a single-room apartment with five other families in Aarsal, a remote town in the snow-dusted rolling hills to the north overlooking Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The women sleep on mats on the floor. The men sleep in the bathroom.

As Syrian forces finished “cleaning” the battered Homs neighborhood of Bab Amro, residents in and around the border city of Quseir began abandoning their homes, fearing that government forces would push out toward the border by the end of the week to crush the scattered remnants of the rebels. The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday that 2,000 people had crossed the border in the previous few days, adding to the 7,058 Syrian refugees already registered in Lebanon. Quseir is heavily militarized with rebels from the Farouq Battalion, many of whom retreated there after the Bab Amro withdrawal, though unlike Bab Amro, it has never quite slipped out of government control.

The woman from Nizariyah was able to cross legally, but said the only reason she was allowed to pass was because a friend's husband worked as a border guard. Officials opened the gate for her after a few phone calls; the other 50 people waiting were denied passage. Meanwhile, the military forces at Nizariyahschool were using tanks and armored vehicles to shell Quseir, Nizariyah, Salihiya, and even the Christian village called Rableh. “It was so random, one of the shells landed within 200 meters of one of the regime's own checkpoints,” said one smuggler, who arrived in Lebanon on Tuesday evening. Less randomly, one of the explosions managed to decimate the main route out of the city of Quseir, an ancient stone bridge that had been targeted three days earlier, too.

“We left our clothes, our homes. We left everything behind,” said a member of another family, whose 12 members came over Tuesday after the Free Syrian Army fled their village. Speaking at their safe house in Aarsal, they were too frightened to give the name of their hometown—at first, the women in the household began to cry merely at the presence of journalists—but said what should have been an hour-long trip turned into a six-hour, 20-kilometer trek through muddy, snow-covered mountains. More than a quarter of their village's approximately 2,000 inhabitants had fled to Lebanon in the last two weeks, the man said. “The rest would all leave in an instant if they thought they had anywhere else to go,” said his wife.

Others are still huddled just on the other side of the border, waiting for safe passage. One smuggler, who arrived in Aarsal late Tuesday night, said he alone had brought 10 to15 families on Monday, totaling more than 200 people. He went back to assist the 150 families waiting to cross, some of them sleeping outside under the trees, despite the blistery cold. One of the group was killed, and another six injured when snipers from a checkpoint, likely the Nizariyah school, opened fire on them. Some 200 Free Syrian Army soldiers were spread out along the border to assist the families, the man said, but were too low on bullets to be able to offer much of a defense.

The weapons complicate the matter, even on the Lebanese side. The area around Aarsal has long been a site of tension because of the smuggling activities and the predominance of Damascus-friendly Hizbullahin the Bekaa. Especially in a 7-kilometerk zone between the Lebanese town of al-Qaa and the official border crossing, Lebanese authorities are skittish. On Sunday, the Lebanese Army detained 35 Syrians who crossed into that zone on charges of carrying arms, then released 28 of them Monday after determining they had not used their weapons in Lebanon.

According to Abo Mohammed, an activist and smuggler in Aarsal, anyone having anything to do with Syria was at risk of detention there. Among those detained, he said, were two women who had been smuggled over when they went into labor two days earlier, as well as a Lebanese mayor who had been providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees.

Still, even with the risks, the smuggling routes were staying active. One defector from the Syrian military who left his post in Homs in mid-February brought his family over from Quseir, but was preparing to go back inside and fight.

Abo Mohammed also was looking to enter the country again soon, smuggling various supplies. “Planning for the next phase,” he called it, but wouldn't give any more details about what kind of planning. He and other activists predicted that the forces the government used to crush Bab Amro would reach Quseir by the end of the week. “We expect the regime to try to exterminate us all,” he said.