For years, Lebanese from the Hermel area have been moving across the Syrian border. Their reasons for emigration vary: Some are economic and others are social – family ties in this area often cross national boundaries.
But in the last three to four months, some of the approximately 40,000 Lebanese who live in the villages surrounding the city of Qusayr, some 12 kilometers inside Syria, have been returning to Lebanon. Their homecomings appear tied to a rise in kidnappings and murders in the area.
Several days ago, Lebanese Firas Qenyar was killed, and his brother Riyad injured, near Diyabieh as they made their way home to Matraba, both on the outskirts of Qusayr. Mohammad Abidin, also Lebanese, and a countrywoman from the Assaf family were also killed in Matraba two weeks ago.
Ali Hamadeh, a Lebanese who lived in Diyabieh near Qusayr, was kidnapped several weeks ago and held until his family retaliated by capturing a member of the family who took him. Eventually they were both released in a prisoner exchange of sorts. Another pair of Lebanese brothers, Mohammad and Moufik Hajjar, were kidnapped several days ago in the area. Their fate is unknown.
According to the mayor of the Akkar village of Hosh, Ali Mohammad Nasreddine, the living situation in the villages surrounding Qusayr has become difficult because of constant threats, security incidents and the tightening of the border in light of the ongoing Syrian uprising. He said that because of the murders and kidnappings, some Lebanese families are opting to leave their homes and move to Hermel and its neighboring villages on the Lebanese side of the border.
Nasreddine said the migration is limited, but has been increasing since the spate of dangerous incidents in and around Qusayr.
While Lebanese once crossed the border freely, this is no longer the case. Mohammad Bleibel, 36, left his home on the eastern edge of Hermel on a Sunday in the middle of last November. As he often did, Bleibel headed for the Syrian city of Homs, where he planned to purchase supplies for his store back home.
Bleibel’s car was found on the side of a road in the Tel Aafara neighborhood of Homs the next day, but he has not been seen since.
It’s not clear exactly why the problems began. With the increasing violence in Homs, some 50 kilometers from the Lebanese-Syrian border, many Shiites have left the city for nearby villages including the mainly Shiite villages around Qusayr. Some say the change in population is a factor, while others blame a security vacuum that has resulted from the 11-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In the past three months, there has also been an escalation in clashes between the regime’s forces and the Free Syrian Army of anti-regime soldiers near Qusayr, and some say that criminals have taken advantage of the resulting chaos.
Jamal Zeaiter, a Lebanese resident of a Qusayr village told The Daily Star that villagers are beginning to take security into their own hands out of fear, forming their own police forces to patrol the area. Locals are taking care to travel only on roads they know well, and have begun sending family members – particularly women and children – to Hermel or Beirut.
The power of large families in the area has helped to limit the violence from spinning out of control. The economic and social ties between family leaders have led them to begin holding reconciliations in the areas where kidnappings are taking place, Mohammad Jaafar, a Qusayr village resident said.
Jaafar himself held one such meeting in his Qusayr home several days ago, and said that other family leaders are working to release the kidnapped quickly before confrontations worsen and more people are killed.
Hezbollah, the dominant political party in Hermel, has so far remained behind the scenes in dealing with the area’s problems, although some say it is advising residents and following up on the details of some incidents.
But without a major intervention by the party or another powerful force, it is not clear to what extent family meetings can continue to limit violence near the border and prevent what many here fear – a spillover into Lebanon.