Syrian refugee Ibrahim Abbas Ali and his family awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of gunfire outside their tent in Lebanon, and for a second time they raced off into the fields, fleeing a war that now seems to have followed them across the border.
The gunmen who attacked the makeshift camp housing around 200 refugees set fire to several of the tents, including the two used by Ali, his two wives and 15 children, destroying the few belongings they had managed to bring with them from Syria, including their official documents and U.N. refugee cards.
“We lost all the aid we received from the U.N. and all we were left with are the clothes we are wearing,” he said days later as he surveyed the blackened remains of the tents.
They appear to have been among the victims of a wave of revenge attacks carried out after one of several Lebanese soldiers captured by militants from Syria in a cross-border raid was beheaded by jihadists earlier this month. The killing of the Shiite soldier by Sunni extremists has aggravated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which is bitterly divided over the war in neighboring Syria.
In the northeastern village of Qaa, two Syrians were wounded Wednesday in a drive-by shooting. In the southern city of Tyre, assailants on a motorcycle opened fire Wednesday night at a gathering of Syrian refugees without wounding anyone. In the eastern town of Bar Elias a Syrian was hospitalized after being stabbed in the back, and in the southern village of Zawatar, a car owned by a Syrian was set alight.
The violence has spread to the capital, where a mob of young men attacked Syrians sheltering under a bridge over the weekend, beating them with fists and clubs. In other parts of Beirut, leaflets have appeared calling on Syrians to leave or “be slaughtered or tortured to death.”
It is not clear who is behind the attacks, but most have taken place in predominantly Shiite areas. Lebanese officials say such acts are the work of individuals and not political groups or state institutions.
Lebanon has long been split over the war in neighboring Syria, with Sunnis supporting the Sunni-led rebellion against President Bashar Assad and Shiites supporting his government, fearing the rise of extremists among the rebels’ ranks. The Shiite Hezbollah movement has infuriated many Sunnis by sending fighters to battle alongside Assad’s troops.
Tensions spiked last month when militants from Syria seized the Lebanese border town of Arsal for several days, capturing around 20 soldiers and police and killing several others in the most severe spillover of the conflict. They have demanded the release of Sunni Islamists detained in Lebanon and the withdrawal of Hezbollah from Syria.
Some of the captives are believed to be held by the extremist Islamic State group, which has beheaded two soldiers — the Shiite and a Sunni soldier — and threatened to kill more.
The killing of the Shiite soldier, Abbas Medlej, who hails from the Bekaa Valley, led to a rash of tit-for-tat kidnappings between Sunnis and Shiites in the region. All of the captives were swiftly released, but the abductions brought back grim memories of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
The attacks have also sown fear among the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who are already seen by many Lebanese as a burden on the tiny country with a population of just 4.5 million.
“The Islamic State has succeeded in transforming the slaughter of two Lebanese soldiers into a pretext for Lebanese to kidnap each other, and to practice new expulsions of displaced Syrians,” said a commentary broadcast by LBC, Lebanon’s leading TV network. “They have succeeded in awakening the beast inside us.”
The refugees in Brital described a night of terror, one that recalled the horrifying civil war from which they had fled. Mohammed Darwish, 45, said most camp residents were sleeping on the night of Sept. 6 when gunmen, many of them wearing masks, arrived in several SUVs.
“Oh you dogs. We are coming to slaughter you,” he heard the gunmen shout as they fired into the air, driving out the camp residents. Darwish said he too fled into the fields with his six children.
“We all watched the fire in the camp but no one dared to come back because they were shooting at us.”
When the family returned the next day, 11-year-old Khaled Darwish found that the flames had not spared his toys. “The tent was burnt and everything was black. Everything was burnt, my bicycle, toys and ball.”
A Lebanese resident of the town of Brital said the attack was carried out by local “thugs and troublemakers” and does not represent the town. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The attack in Brital, and a similar incident in the nearby town of Riyak, has alarmed Syrian refugees across the Bekaa, who fear they may have to again flee the violence and sectarian hatred that have engulfed their native country.
“We live in the fear of being subjected to an attack, although we have not been threatened,” said Fatoum Allawi, 65, who fled from the northern Syrian town of Saraqib and is now sheltering near Riyak. “We are mostly women and children here with a few men who work nearby,” she said as she sat on a plastic chair holding her granddaughter.
Another refugee in Riyak, 26-year-old Aisha Mohammed, said she came from Syria’s northern province of Raqqa, which is now held by the Islamic State group and has come under increasing attack by government warplanes.
“I wish I could return to Raqqa but the bombings have intensified,” she said. “We have fled from fear in Syria and here we are living in fear in Lebanon.”