WADI KHALED, LEBANON — In Lebanon’s northernmost corner, in a valley that juts into Syria on the map, surrounded by the country on three sides like a landlocked peninsula, thousands of Syrian refugees have arrived from Homs Province since uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March.
While the refugees in Wadi Khaled have escaped the immediate threats in Syria, their ordeal is far from over: They are constantly nervous over an ambiguous legal status, inadequate relief efforts, Syrian troop incursions, small-arms fire from across the border, and even rumors of kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon by Syrian forces.
“There is no safety in Lebanon,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, 35, who owned a restaurant in the Syrian border town of Talkalakh that has since been destroyed in the fighting there. “The government in Lebanon is loyal to the Syrian regime, and that is not a secret.”
In statements made in early this month, the Lebanese prime minister, Najib Mikati, pledged his country’s commitment to protect refugees within its borders.
Many of the refugees here arrived in May, when Syrian troops backed by armor and a plainclothes paramilitary force, the Shabiha, attacked Talkalakh. In the attack, refugees reported indiscriminate shelling of their town, mass arrests and sniper fire.
There are 3,135 Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, but the refugees estimate that their population is higher, because not everyone registers with the agency.
Refugees said that the Lebanese government restricted their movements and that the military regularly set up checkpoints to intercept them.
“At most, we go to the village to buy some stuff and come back,” said Mustafa Jassem Halloum, 41, a lawyer from Talkalakh. “The other day we were going to Tripoli to find some work.”
Referring to the Lebanese security forces, he added, “They captured us at the checkpoint and they made us return because we didn’t have papers showing that we entered the country legally.”
Mr. Ibrahim and Mr. Halloum reside in the Abra school, which was abandoned several years ago but was recently refurbished by the Bashaer Charity Organization at a cost of $15,000 to house 80 refugees. On two levels, the rooms are simple and furnished with mattresses and mats on the floor. The charity bought each family a small refrigerator and provides them with vegetables and bread everyday.
Many of the refugees in Wadi Khaled live with families in the valley’s villages and not under aid organizations. Refugees said that aid coming from the Lebanese government is minimal and aid organizations like Bashaer are struggling to gather items for the refugees.
On a sign outside the Abra school marking the center, the word “refugees” has been changed to “displaced persons” by the Lebanese government, said Hisham Sabsabi, the aid organization worker responsible for the center. Those at the school said they believed that the Lebanese government was trying to limit its responsibility for the refugees by changing their classification.
Nadim Houry, the director of the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch described the Lebanese authorities’ reaction to the Syrian refugee issue as “mixed.”
“They’re happy to help on a humanitarian level, but when it comes to issues of protection they are a lot less sure footed and they are hesitating,” he said. “And now it seems they might want to try to control the area.”
Over the past few weeks, the Lebanese military has restricted journalists’ access to Wadi Khaled for reasons that have not been made clear. In a telephone conversation on Saturday, the Defense Ministry’s press office expressly said this journalist did not have permission to enter the area.
Refugees’s fears have been heightened by actions along the border by the Syrian military. In recent weeks, Syrian troops have crossed into Lebanon and fired into the country from across the border.
On Oct. 6, a Syrian farmer was killed in the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal by Syrian troops and an abandoned factory was shelled, according to local news reports. On Tuesday, the local news media reported that another Syrian had been killed by Syrian troops in the Bekaa border town of Al Qaa. Many houses on the border bear scars of recent gunshots.
In statements to the local news media, the Lebanese authorities have played down reports of cross-border incursions and Syrian troops’ firing into Lebanon.
Fawzi Hamadi, a Lebanese citizen, lives in a house less than 100 meters from the Syrian border facing Talkalakh. The backside of his house has been raked with small caliber bullet holes from shots fired by Syrian troops in the past months. One bullet passed through a second floor window into a room where his family was having tea at the time, he said.
The Lebanese Army is deployed next to Mr. Hamadi’s home, but he said they did little but take cover when Syrian forces fired across the border.
Just over the border and from Mr. Hamadi’s house, Syrian troops could be seen on patrol and occupying rooftop positions on Tuesday. Residents in the area reported spotting Syrian troops cross over the border before dawn on some mornings and walking around the buildings on the Lebanese side.
Refugees and residents said that gunfire — and occasionally shelling — can be heard on most nights.
Rumors of kidnappings are rife in Wadi Khaled and many refugees voiced this as a major concern. Mr. Halloum said two Syrian citizens who are also his relatives — Adnan Halloum and Nidal Haidar — were recently lured close to the border and kidnapped by the Shabiha. But this account, and others, could not be independently verified.
Despite their fears, refugees remain defiant.
Mr. Ibrahim, the former restaurant owner, said that “the moment they open the door for recruitment, we are ready: We are all going to volunteer” for the Free Syrian Army.
The Free Syrian Army is the group of Syrian military defectors who claim to have fought multiple engagements with the government’s forces.
Although Wadi Khaled lies less than 50 kilometers away, about 30 miles, by road from the city of Homs, a major center of the Syrian uprising, refugees said it was not an ideal place to organize anti-regime operations because of the pressure coming from the Lebanese government.
Mr. Ibrahim said he was not involved in the protest movement but was still arrested when the Syrian military stormed Talkalakh. He showed a mark on his leg that he claimed had been caused by an electric prod and bruised fingernails from his hands being beaten in a form of torture by the Syrian security forces.
“I have hatred toward the regime right now — not only me, but many like me as well — and now I’m ready to get involved because of the things I have seen,” he said.
“We are not here to eat and sleep, we are here resisting as well.”
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