By Amnesty International researcher Cilina Nasser in Wadi Khaled, northern Lebanon.
Everyone who has fled the Syrian western town of Tell Kalakh and sought shelter in villages on the Lebanese side of the border is scared. None of the people I spoke to gave me their names and nor did I ask. At the end of every interview, each would say: “Do not publish my name.”
They are afraid because they hope to go back to their homes in Tell Kalakh, or what is left of their homes, and they do not want to be punished by the Syrian forces for recounting what has happened to them. Many families left Tell Kalakh on Saturday 14 May after waking to find Syrian troops positioned at the entrances to the town. Shooting began shortly afterwards and at least three people were wounded, including one who arrived dead at a hospital on the Lebanese side of the border.On at least two occasions, Syrian forces or groups loyal to President Bashar al-Assad opened fire at fleeing families, injuring individuals among them. I spoke to a 35-year-old woman who was shot in the lower leg as she, members of her family and another family from Tell Kalakh were heading to the Lebanese border, all crammed into her brother’s car. She was sitting in the backseat with her sister-in-law on her lap, while a neighbour held her six-year-old son. There were eight of them in total in the car.
They had left their town and were travelling on the main road heading to al-‘Aarida, a Syrian town where they could park their car on the Syrian side and cross a bridge over al-Kabir River into Lebanon. Minutes outside Tell Kalakh, near the village of Mashta Mahli, the road was blocked with big stones so the woman’s brother, who was driving, swerved to miss the stones and drove over the pebbles next to them. At this point they came under fire.
The 35-year-old woman recalled: “I immediately felt like a knife had pierced my flesh and felt warm liquid running down my leg. I realized that I was hit by a bullet. I was bleeding so much that my sister-in-law thought that she was also injured because she could feel my blood running onto her feet.”
Her brother sped off until they reached al-‘Aarida, where she was carried over the bridge and immediately taken to hospital in north Lebanon where she was treated.
They would not be the last family to come under attack.
That night, seven-year-old Munira and her twin brother, Mohamed, were injured while fleeing with dozens of families who had packed themselves into a 16-metre trailer truck. Their mother told me: “The truck was transporting families to the border and we thought of going but were scared. When the truck came back safely and wanted to take more families, we decided to go.”
The trailer truck came under fire when it reached the same location on the road next to the village of Mashta Mahli. Munira was shot three times: in her backside, her right thigh and her foot. Mohamed was shot in his lower leg. Their mother told me that she heard a woman screaming that her child was also wounded but that she was too busy with her own children and couldn’t find out what had happened to the other child.
Families in Tell Kalakh told me the town was heavily shelled on the three days that followed. Mohamed Majed al-Akkari, a man in his 40s suffering from paralysis on his right side, was killed by the shelling on 16 May, according to his cousin. He showed me footage of Mohamed Majed al-Akkari’s body lying on the floor of the house with a round ice block placed on top of him, as it was too unsafe to take his body to the morgue – the army had been in control of the town’s hospital since 14 May. He was eventually buried in the garden because it was also too unsafe to take him to the graveyard.
Witnesses told me that soldiers took full control of Tell Kalakh’s neighbourhoods and streets on Tuesday 17 May after apparently crushing resistance from armed elements in the town. They detained a large number of men, young and old.
I visited displaced Syrian families staying in the homes of Lebanese relatives and friends in northern Lebanon, mainly in villages in a border area called Wadi Khaled where they enjoy strong family and trade ties.
A lot of the trade is illegal. Just like in many border areas around the world, smuggling of goods is the main source of income for the families. People in Tell Kalakh are Sunni Muslims who claim they have been discriminated against by the Syrian state, which, they say, allocates good jobs in the public sector to members of the Alawite Muslim minority who dominate the area surrounding Tell Kalakh. They say smuggling goods to and from Lebanon is their only alternative means of income.
Up to 180 men suspected of smuggling are currently reported to be held in incommunicado detention, most of them arrested in the past couple of years. It was this that initially drove the people of Tell Kalakh to come out onto the streets in late March. It was only after 19 April, around three weeks after the first demonstration was held there, that they started calling for the fall of the regime.
One of those held incommunicado is the son of a displaced woman in her 60s who fled Tell Kalakh on 16 May. She said her son was arrested more than a year ago for smuggling goods between Lebanon and Syria and since then she hasn’t heard from him. She said she did not care about what would happen to her for speaking with an international organization but that she was worried her son would bear the consequences.
“Please, do not publish my name,” she pleaded.