'People are afraid of what might come next'

Tue, Jul 24, 2012, 01:00

Rufugees offer clashing accounts of events, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, on the Syria-Lebanon border

THE WIZENED old man in the white prayer cap and closely cropped grey beard sighed as he reflected on what he had left behind after crossing the border into Lebanon. “It’s civil war now,” he said. “Where will it end?”

The man’s name is Joudat al-Ahmad. He is from Homs, the restive central province where some of the fiercest fighting of Syria’s 16-month uprising has taken place.

He and his family fled Homs last month. They ended up in Damascus, only to witness clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces following a bombing last Wednesday that killed several senior officials including Syria’s defence minister and one of its intelligence chiefs.

“All we could hear was gunfire all day and night,” said Ahmad. “We had no idea who was in control of what area of the city. We decided it was better to leave.”

Before they fled the Syrian capital, Ahmad strapped his family’s belongings to the roof of their vehicle. They have no idea when they might be able to return. Ahmad is certain of one thing, however: that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will fight to the end. “He is not going anywhere . . . What is happening in Syria is mostly driven from outside the country.”

No conflict ever fits into a neat narrative and Syria is no different. Many of the people streaming over the border at Masnaa yesterday were wary at first, but the stories they eventually told challenge a number of assumptions about the crisis in their home country.

Take Mohammed Nasir from the southern city of Deraa, where anti-regime demonstrations early last year sparked the uprising against the Assad regime. He recalls being robbed at a rebel checkpoint and accuses elements within the opposition of “ruining” Syria. He uses the Arabic word murtazaqa (mercenaries), to describe the foreign fighters he says have infiltrated their ranks.

Nasir, a Sunni, takes issue with the idea that the uprising – often characterised as a Sunni-driven revolt against a regime drawn from Syria’s Alawite minority – has developed a more sectarian tone. “Some external forces are trying to drive a wedge between our people but the problem we face is not a sectarian one.”

Dalal Ghanem, a septuagenarian from the Yarmouk district of Damascus which has also experienced serious unrest over the past week, said she was not fleeing but travelling to Lebanon to visit her son, who lives here. “It is difficult to know exactly what is going on but Damascus has been calmer over the last days,” she said. “Before that, we had days of explosions and gunfire.” Ghanem, a Sunni, railed against the opposition fighters and praised Assad. “I hope that he will prevail. I believe he is a good man.”

Another Damascene, Mustafa Suleiman, decided to leave, along with five relatives. “Many people are running away if they can,” he said. “People are afraid of what might come next.”

He said the government had regained control of most districts of the capital apart from restive areas in its hinterland.

“As long as the army is strong in Syria, there will be no change,” he insisted. “All I care about is a peaceful, stable Syria, not who happens to be in control of it.”

Many of those crossing the border yesterday said they were going to stay with friends or relatives. The more affluent talked about hotel rooms or rental apartments.

But there were other Syrians who were clearly impoverished – some children walked over the border barefoot. A representative of an Islamic charity in a nearby village said 3,300 families had come to them for assistance. “We cannot support any more – there are too many coming,” he said. “The main challenge is finding somewhere for them to stay.”

Three local schools have been turned into makeshift shelters. A number of Syrian refugees were sleeping in their cars. A family from Homs arrived at the charity’s offices looking for food parcels.

One of the most recent arrivals was a man who gave his name only as Ahmed. He brought his family from their village near Damascus. “We had to leave because Syria is no longer safe,” he said.

“As long as Assad stays as president, our country will not be at peace. I am sure he will eventually go but the problem is no one knows how long that will take.”