At an abandoned farm on high ground just inside Lebanon, Syrian refugees watched helplessly across the frontier as a government helicopter bombed the villages they had fled just a few days ago.
Over the space of 30 minutes, the helicopter dropped at least a dozen bombs on the villages, lying about 4 km (two miles) away across a stretch of olive groves and vegetable fields. Black plumes of smoke rose to the sky after each thump.
“I cannot believe it. How would you feel if you were watching your home being destroyed in front of you?” said one of the refugees, who gave his name as Hosni. His friends pointed at the sky and shouted in anger and anguish.
The Bekaa Valley is a lawless territory even at the best of times. The road to the border runs past Lebanon’s lush wineries and the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek. Smugglers have long operated in the hinterlands, and some farmers grow hashish, as their fathers have for centuries.
Now, the war has rolled in. Lebanese villagers have had to abandon homes as shells hit their fields. Rebel fighters take shelter and rest in hamlets beyond the Syrian lines. The villagers say Assad’s troops move through the fields at night.
It is a corner which could provide the spark for a wider conflagration in a war in that has already claimed 30,000 lives and pushed up to the borders of Turkey, Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as well as Lebanon.
Hosni and the other refugees said they had fled over the border after Syrian troops raided the villages of Jusiya, Alazzara and Rableh earlier this week.
About 240 families are now sheltering in this farm at Masharih Al-Qaa, said local elder Sharif Abuzeid as he supervised the unloading two trucks of blankets, mattresses, soap and toothpaste provided by the International Committee of the Red Crescent.
The men broke from the task when the helicopter was sighted in the clear blue sky, to watch in horror as their homes were hit. All afternoon bombing, shelling and gunfire could be heard from inside Syria.
“It’s like this every day. Worse at night,” said a soldier at the last Lebanese army post before the Syrian lines.
“NOBODY SHOULD TEST US”
Lebanon’s greatest worry is that the sectarian divide in Syria could drive the violence across the frontier. Lebanon’s own delicate political and religious structure has already been shaken by the Syria conflict, and the fuse that would blow it up could be lit in Bekaa.
Syria’s mainly Sunni Muslim opposition and its international supporters say the valley has become a base for Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite militia Hezbollah to support their ally, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Assad and Hezbollah are both backed by Shi’ite regional power Iran.
The northern Bekaa Valley is also used by the rebels as a corridor to move arms and men into Syria.
Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government with an extensive political and social network based in Beirut’s southern suburbs, denies it is fighting across the frontier alongside Assad’s troops. However it does say its fighters have operated in border villages on the Syrian side to protect Lebanese Shi’ites living there from rebels.
A Hezbollah officer, Ali Nassif, and two others were killed in Syria earlier this month and given public funerals. Hezbollah officials said Nassif was killed serving in jihad in a border town.
“The (Assad) regime does not need us or anyone else to fight alongside it. We have not taken such a decision and it is non-existent up to now,” the movement’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on television last week.
“Nobody should threaten us, intimidate or test us.”
Hosni and the other refugees said Hezbollah fighters had taken part in the raids on their Sunni villages.
“Hezbollah was there. They wore black masks. They were with the Syrian army but they were controlling it. They are destroying the houses – no one is staying in the villages,” said Hosni. His companions nodded in agreement.
“We all saw them. It was very obvious,” said another man who gave his name as Ali .
Hezbollah’s influence in Bekaa is unmistakable. The group’s yellow flag flew from a small mosque that stands by the straight road running the 10 km (six miles) from the Lebanese customs post at Qaa to a Syrian checkpoint.
A poster of a slain Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyeh, hung outside and an ambulance was parked under the shade of trees. A few men came forward to greet visitors but after a brief consultation by walkie-talkie they said no-one wanted to talk.
NO PEACE IN THE VALLEY
An uneasy live-and-let-live relationship seems to hold for now between Hezbollah forces on the western flank of the Bekaa Valley and the mostly Sunni farmers on the eastern side.
Along the main road in the middle of the rocky plain are rubbish-strewn tent camps of nomad Bedouins. Many rely on work as crop-pickers and say the violence has destroyed livelihoods.
In the yard of his farm house almost on the Syrian border, Shehade Fares sat calmly eating grapes and drinking coffee with his friend Mohamad to a background din of gunfire and explosions.
“This is nothing new. This area is now paralyzed, dead. We couldn’t harvest. We have debts and loans. But we have no harvest,” Mohamad said.
Hezbollah fighters used old smuggling routes on the other side of the valley but did not bother him, he said. His problem was the Syrian army.
Shells had hit fields. Troops had crossed over, burned crops and ransacked homes, he said. His family was worried about snipers.
“We sleep in fear,” he said.
Most families had already left the area and work on his own farm had stopped, Mohamad said.
Fares pointed to the machinery of a milk factory he owns. It was still running but it was hard to find supplies as most of his neighbors had taken their cows with them when they left.
“I want to send all my people away, and the cows, but we have nowhere to go,” he said.