Refugees Say Neighbor Shoots Neighbor in Syrian Crackdown (NY) TIMES) By ANNE BARNARD AL QAA, Lebanon 03/29/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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AL QAA, Lebanon — Sunni Muslims who have fled Syria described a
government crackdown that is more pervasive and more sectarian than
previously understood, with civilians affiliated with President
Bashar al-Assad’s minority religious sect shooting at their onetime
neighbors as the military presses what many Sunnis see as a campaign
to force them to flee their homes and villages in some sections of
The refugees, from in and around Qusayr, a town in the province of
the rebellious city of Homs, this week offered a rare witness account
of the unfolding tumult in western Syria as an intensive bombardment
of communities continues. They said it appeared that the government
concluded that when it pushed rebels from strongholds like the Bab
Amr neighborhood in Homs, opposition fighters and protesters quickly
regrouped in other Sunni areas.
As a result, they said they believed that the government was not only
striking at large, rebellious urban centers, but had also hit towns
and villages that had not been seen as central to the year-old
uprising. The refugees’ firsthand accounts painted a picture of a
section of western Syria that is more thoroughly under siege — and
perhaps more widely in revolt — than has previously been depicted.
“The army wants to displace people to get them away from the
protests,” said Abu Munzer, 59, a Syrian Army veteran from the
village of Mazaria, huddling by a wood stove in a cinder-block
farmhouse with about 20 other refugees; like most people interviewed,
he was afraid to give his full name. “If they die or they leave,
there will be no one there to protest.”
There are at least 6,000 Syrian refugees living in the Bekaa Valley
in eastern Lebanon, according to the United Nations, including
several dozen men, women and children interviewed here at the
northern end of the valley. They said they felt threatened as Sunnis,
and several said that they saw the military give out rifles to
residents of neighboring Alawite villages — members of the same
heterodox Muslim sect as Mr. Assad — and that their neighbors then
opened fire on them. Their accounts reinforce reports from activists
reached inside Syria by telephone and e-mail of displacement along
sectarian lines, and interviews with people in Syria.
The refugees described a situation where even in relatively obscure
villages and towns like Qusayr, the government crackdown has
intensified, schools and businesses are closed, bombardments are
frequent, and people are afraid to go outside for fear of shelling
and snipers. The refugees said they believed that a majority of Sunni
residents of four villages, Rabli, Zahra, Joussi and Mazaria, had
fled to other countries or other areas inside Syria.
It is hard to evaluate all of the refugees’ claims because in the
Syrian conflict, the longest and bloodiest of the Arab revolts, each
side blames the other for sectarian division. Most Syrians are Sunni
Muslims, but the government and security elites are dominated by Mr.
Assad’s Alawite sect. The government has inflamed sectarian fears by
portraying itself as the defender of Syria’s substantial Christian
and Alawite populations against what it calls attacks by Sunni
Umm Nasser, 34, a pregnant woman sheltering with female residents and
their dozen children in a farm building here, said that about 15
members of her family in the village of Joussi came under fire from
the nearby Alawite village of Hasbeeh two weeks ago as they tried to
leave their house. Her mother, Umm Khalid, 65, said that beginning in
October she had seen government troops laying out rifles on the
ground and distributing them to Alawite residents. Umm Nasser said
that she did not know why, but that in the past month many Joussi
residents had been fired upon by Hasbeeh residents.
“We know them,” she said. “We used to live side by side.”
Skeptics say that if whole populations were fleeing there would be
many thousands more refugees in neighboring countries. Refugees,
however, say that many people are afraid to cross into Lebanon, whose
army they see as supporting Syria, and instead have fled to
relatives’ homes elsewhere in Syria. The Syrian Red Crescent reported
this month that there were more than 200,000 internally displaced
A doctor from Qusayr, who had brought a protester wounded by a mortar
shell to Lebanon for treatment, said he had quit Syria’s secular
ruling Baath Party when the uprising began, to treat wounded rebels
and civilians in a roving field hospital. Now he gives his nom de
guerre as Khalid bin al-Waleed, a warrior companion of the Prophet
Muhammad who is a hero to many Sunnis and the namesake of the mosque
where protesters gathered for Qusayr’s first demonstration last year.
The wounded man, Mohammed Tajjaldin Raad, 23, had died, and as the
doctor walked to visit the body laid out in a nearby mosque, he was
asked if he worried that young Sunnis would take revenge on Alawites.
Monitors and news reports have cited evidence of revenge killings of
“No,” he said as he trudged through a darkening peach orchard. “Our
religion teaches us to forgive.”
Beside him, another Qusayr resident, Abu Khalil, disagreed.
“Should we forgive until there are no Sunnis left alive?” he asked.
The refugees’ accounts of shelling of civilians appeared to be
corroborated by a Human Rights Watch report issued last week, based
on interviews with 17 refugees from Qusayr and a French journalist
who spent time there. The report described widespread civilian deaths
and injuries from shelling of neighborhoods and farms and from
shooting attacks as people tried to flee. It quoted a 12-year-old
girl who was shot in the leg by a sniper atop Qusayr’s municipal
building as she tried to flee carrying her infant cousin.
But the refugees here in Al Qaa also described a worrying new
element: what they see as an increasingly sectarian motive to the
violence. The accounts were impossible to verify because of Syrian
restrictions on journalists.
The refugees here seemed ambivalent about describing what they saw as
sectarian cleansing. Opposition supporters said they feared playing
into the government narrative, and wanted the international community
to view them as nonsectarian in their quest for outside military
Many said they personally held out hope for a pluralistic future of
religious equality and would support a just government of any sect —
and declared, almost wishfully, that their Christian neighbors
supported them “deep down” even though many do not attend protests.
But at the same time they said they felt that Sunnis were targeted,
viewed their own struggle in religious terms and blamed Alawites for
most of the violence.
Abu Khalil showed a video on his camera of Qusayr’s old market,
buildings riddled with holes, shops burned and broken. The doctor
showed pictures on his camera of people he said he pronounced dead
after an artillery barrage on Friday: Issa Amer; his brother Wael
Amer; Abu Ajwad Sasir, blood spattered on his gray beard and face; a
man with Down syndrome, killed by a shell inside his house, which his
father had forbidden him to leave.
He paused with emotion when he came to Mohammed Mustafa Ammar, an
army lieutenant and his schoolmate. He had been hit by shrapnel on
his way to check on his clothing shop, the doctor said. The picture
showed his face distorted by a deep, bloody cleft in his right cheek.
In September, the doctor added, he had been treating two men with leg
wounds when government troops approached and shot the two men in the
Abu Munzer, the army veteran, said his neighbor’s kitchen had been
fired upon with bullets the length of his pinky. His in-laws, he
said, were living in their basement in Qusayr after a shell put a two-
foot hole in their kitchen ceiling. His son, he said, had been shot
multiple times and wounded, he believed by a sniper from the
municipal building, while knocking on the in-laws’ door.
But what persuaded him never to go home, he said, happened last week.
His neighbor, Ibrahim Amer, had fled after his two brothers were
detained and never heard from again. But Mr. Amer tried to return to
check on relatives and was detained by Syrian officials. His corpse
was found two days later, his head severed and crushed, as if hit
with a hammer, said Abu Mohammed, another neighbor who had fled here
after helping recover the body.
Refugees said the violence was becoming simultaneously more remote —
as the army shells from afar rather than risk venturing into towns —
and more visceral, with stabbings and beating deaths they blame on
sectarianism. “This stabbing, it is the killing of hatred,” said Abu
Earlier, Umm Nasser lamented that her children had not been in school
since September, and that the school, full of soldiers, was “turning
into an army base.” She rubbed her daughter’s hand, brown with
dirt. “There is no water,” she said.
“All we want is an end to these problems,” said her mother, Umm
Khalid. “Our house is full of carpets. We have a washing machine. We
want to go back and stay there.” (Copyright 2012 The New York Times
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