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Fear of invasion in Wadi Khaled

Ana Maria Luca and Nadine Elali, February 10, 2012

A view of the Syrian army’s outpost on the Syrian side of the border, taken from Wadi Khaled. (NOW Lebanon)

Khaled Terekmani, a teacher in the northern Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled, is a rather short man wearing jeans and a velour jacket. He stands on the porch of a house in the Jurat Chouh area of the Mqaibleh village and points at the small Syrian army barracks visible through the trees around one kilometer away, on the other side of the border. “Look, that’s Syrian territory. That, up the hill, is Msharfeh, the Syrian village. And right there, that small white thing between the two trees, that’s from where they shoot at us,” he says. A few hundred meters away from his friend Ali’s house is the place where, a little over a month ago, Lebanese Maher Abu Zeid and brothers Ahmad and Kaser Hussein Zeid were shot dead by Syrian troops for getting too close to the border. Terekmani says they were not weapons smugglers, as the Syrian army claimed, but had met to settle a debt. “[The soldiers] are there all the time, and after 9 p.m. they always shoot at anything that moves on this side of the border. This is the most dangerous place to live right now. Ali’s house was hit by bullets a couple of weeks ago,” Terekmani says. Ali, who requested that his name be changed for security reasons, says the Syrian outpost has tanks, snipers and an armored personnel carrier. “They make us feel the adrenaline. They make it interesting for us to live here,” he jokes, putting his scarf over his face to shelter it from the cold wind. But he soon becomes serious. “This is the most dangerous place in Wadi Khaled now. Every night we hear the shelling, the gunshots and the fights. People here are afraid that the Syrian army is going to come over very soon, and nobody is here to stop them.”

Talk of a Syrian invasion has been circulating around the villages near the northern border for quite a while, since the Syrian military has deployed more heavily on their side of the border and planted land mines to prevent refugees, activists and army deserters from crossing into Lebanon. Both Syrian refugees and Lebanese in the area fear that the increasing violence on the Syrian side of the border might spill over, and that the Lebanese authorities might cooperate in the suppression. In front of the school-turned-refugee-center in Rameh, a group of men talk loudly. They come from several flashpoint Syrian towns, such as Daraa, Tal Kalakh, Homs and Banyas. They say they have been in Lebanon for months and don’t plan to go back to Syria until the fighting is over. Mohammad—a 48-year-old man from the Syrian border town of Arida, which was shelled six months ago—said he spent a month in prison in Tripoli after he was caught crossing the border to take shelter in Lebanon. “We are always afraid that the Syrian army will invade. We are also afraid that the Lebanese authorities, at the request of the Syrian government, might come after us, arrest us and turn us in for the regime to kill us. We don’t go around town; we barely go to the shop across the street. We barely leave this school because we are afraid,” he says. “Some of the Lebanese media don’t help,” local businessman Hayssam al-Nesr says. “After reports that Islamist organizations infiltrated Wadi Khaled and are arming the Syrian revolutionaries, the Lebanese Special Forces were deployed here last weekend. They searched the area and then they left. They haven’t found anything,” he says. Nesr, who is a community leader in his village and was investigated several times for helping refugees, says that the people of Wadi Khaled are supporting the Syrian uprising and are not going to change their minds even if the Lebanese state doesn’t protect them from the Syrian army. He says people still go in and out of Syria, although secretly and with great care after the mine fields were planted. “There are deserters coming to Lebanon, through Wadi Khaled. That is no secret. But they are not using this region as a military base for operations. Most of them come here as refugees, not as fighters,” he says. Both Nesr and Terekmani call the deserters “revolutionaries” and do no refer to them as the Free Syrian Army. Terekmani keeps up to date on what is happening across the border. He says he gets information by phone from his relatives and from all the people who come in from Syria. “Look at that white tower over there, over the border. That is Bourj Bahlounieh. Since June 2011, after Tal Kalakh was shelled, the Syrian army built a small base there and lately they have been fighting the revolutionaries who have their base in the old castle that you see on that hill. They have been shelling it for the past weeks,” he says. “We also have information that the town of Hosn is under the control of the revolutionaries. We don’t know much of what is happening in Homs. Since Monday morning all phone lines have been cut, and there is rarely anybody coming from Syria. We also know that most people who cross the border into Lebanon and have a phone have to pass through the Syrian intelligence office and their cards are confiscated,” he adds. The Wadi Khaled villagers expect the Lebanese army to deploy again over the weekend. But they are not happy with the troops being there. “They are not here to protect us, although we asked them to. They deploy only at the request of the Syrian ambassador when there is talk in the media about Islamists and revolutionary fighters around here,” Nesr says. “We are not people who fight, but we don’t feel protected, and we fear that our youth might gather and organize to defend the village in case of a Syrian invasion. If the state doesn’t do anything for us, what else can we do?”