Published On: Wed, Mar 13th, 2013

In volatile border region, fear grips Syria’s minority

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922-cSRmV.AuSt.55By Mariam Karouny

One hot night last summer, Rajaa Taher grabbed a few essentials and fled her home in the Syrian village of Saqarja with her husband and children, escaping across farmlands to Zayta just a few hundred meters away.

Taher, a Shi’ite, said she was threatened by Sunni Muslim rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad in the largely unmarked border region where Syria merges into Lebanon – an old smuggling area where Syrians and Lebanese, Shi’ites and Sunnis once lived together oblivious to national or sectarian boundaries.

Now the border region has become one of many flashpoints in Syria’s increasingly violent and sectarian conflict, which threatens more and more to drag in its tiny neighbor Lebanon, where many Sunnis back the revolt and many Shi’ites back Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

If the bloodshed seeps into Lebanon, where sectarian faultlines have been exacerbated by the nearly two years of crisis in Syria, the countryside around Taher’s village nestled just north of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley may be one of the gateways for the spread.

The area is of strategic importance for the rebels who would be able to link Homs province in Syria to Sunni areas inside Lebanon for weapons and fighters. It is important for Lebanon’s Shi’ite militants Hezbollah to stop the rebels from taking over these Shi’ites villages as they will be a stone’s throw away from Hermel, one of the group’s strongholds.

Already rebels accuse Hezbollah of sending forces into the area to fight alongside Assad’s army – a charge the group denies, although it says there are Hezbollah members living and fighting among the estimated 30,000 Lebanese nationals in two dozen religiously mixed villages but with Shi’ites in the majority just inside Syria.

Taher and other Shi’ite and Alawite villagers tell another story, saying Sunni rebels have intimidated, expelled and killed Shi’ites as they seek to control territory close to Syria’s third largest city, Homs.

“We were neighbors. We lived there together for years and years,” said the 39-year-old woman, dressed in black like many others displaced from nearby villages.

“Then they sent us a message…that we are Shi’ites and we have no right to own land or a house or anything and we have to leave. They burned the house. They took our cows,” she said.

“They took my brother-in-law and we don’t know what happened to him. We left the village when they started calling from the mosque speakers for Jihad. We left under bullets,” she said tearfully, adding that her nephew was recently killed.

“What do they want from us? We were all one family living together … Do they hate us just because we are Shi’ites?”

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Source: Reuters

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