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Refugees Say Neighbor Shoots Neighbor in Syrian Crackdown (NY) TIMES) By ANNE BARNARD AL QAA, Lebanon 03/29/12)Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/29/world/middleeast/refugees-say-neighbor-shoots-neighbor-in-syrian-crackdown.html NEW YORK TIMES NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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 country.

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 Islamists.

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 people.

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 security forces.

“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 assistance.

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 head.

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 Khalil.

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 Company 03/29/12)


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