Even In Lebanon, No Safe Haven For Syrian Dissidents

Oct 4, 2011
Originally published on October 5, 2011 7:52 pm

Syrian exiles, both defecting soldiers and civilian protesters, have slipped across the border into northern Lebanon seeking safety from the Syrian government and its relentless crackdown on opponents.

But even here, they can literally hear the shooting from across the border in the restive Syrian town of Homs, less than 20 miles away. They express fear that President Bashar Assad's forces will track them down in Lebanon. Those most at risk are army defectors who are hiding out in small Lebanese villages.

At one safe house in northern Lebanon, there's an army lieutenant who quit his command rather than follow orders to shoot unarmed civilians.

He says more than half of the members of Syria's army now sympathize with the protest movement, though such claims are impossible to independently verify. The ex-officer, who asked that he not be identified, says many soldiers would like to join the rebel forces, but it remains extremely dangerous to defect.

"There is no safe place," he says. The defectors "will stay as small groups separated in the country. People in the army, soldiers and officers, don't know where to go now."

A few units have defected together, declaring themselves part of an underground group called the Free Syrian Army. More often, defectors escape alone and stay in hiding, or leave the country, like the ex-lieutenant who hid for 25 days until he could find someone to smuggle him to Lebanon.

Still At Risk

But even here, he knows he's not safe. Syrian army units regularly infiltrate into northern Lebanon. Some refugees have been kidnapped and taken back across the border. By defecting, soldiers place their families at risk of harsh retaliation inside Syria. He also says that rebel groups are no match for the regime.

"This is not a war between two armies," he says.

The central Syrian town of Rastan was one hub for soldiers who quit the army and joined the protest movement. They fought against more than 200 Syrian tanks in the most prolonged battle since the protests began seven months ago. But the Syrian army recently retook the town and crushed the challenge by army defectors.

"You can't face a big army like the Syrian army or security forces here. One tank can kill all of them," he says.

Dozens were killed in Rastan, both civilians as well as rebel fighters and army defectors, he says. More than 3,000 in Rastan were reportedly detained. Violence is now rising in the nearby town of Homs, another hub for army defectors who have vowed to protect peaceful demonstrations.

"Protesters will be killed like sheep in the streets if nobody tries to protect them," he adds.

Protesters Have Also Fled

Another resident of this safe house bears the scars of the uprising. In Homs, a pro-government militia used an ambulance as cover and opened fire on a crowd, says 23-year-old Hassan, who declines to give his last name. He was hit in the face with a bullet that pierced his cheek and left him blind in one eye.

"I was unconscious. My friends smuggled me here to get treatment here," he says.

It was too dangerous to take him to a Syrian hospital. Wounded protesters in Syrian hospitals have been killed by pro-government militias. Despite his wound, Hassan wants to go back to his city of Homs, where the sounds of the fighting can carry across the border.

"Sometimes I do hear it, especially when they are bombing with tanks or heavy guns," he says.

Hassan and the army defector sit on thin mattresses — the only furniture in these bare rooms. They do not reveal their full names, even to each other in case one of them is kidnapped.

The ex-lieutenant has heard the stories about the highest-ranking military defector so far, an army colonel, who was snatched by Syrian agents in Turkey and forced to appear on Syrian television. Activists have since reported his death after torture in detention.

Call To Keep Uprising Peaceful

But the ex-lieutenant says he will support rebel units any way he can, while still believing that the protests should remain nonviolent.

"Until this moment, the revolution is still peaceful," he says. "But the only way to stay peaceful is to give weapons to these ex-soldiers."

Protesters and ordinary civilians need protecting, he says. They are the ones on the street facing the regime's security forces, he adds, noting that he speaks from firsthand experience. When his commander ordered him to shoot civilians, he ordered his men to fire into the air instead.

"When you do this, and my officers knew that I gave such orders, I felt that I would be eliminated there," he says.

Fearing he would be shot by government snipers, he escaped alone, without his weapon. He finally made it across the Lebanese border two weeks ago. He gave his military identification to a friend and told him to hide it. He is now in hiding himself, not knowing when or if he will return to Syria.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Syrian troops are cracking down in the central town of Rastan, where defectors from the army had gained control in recent weeks. The city had become a hub for soldiers who quit the military and joined the protest movement. The defectors faced Syrian government forces this week backed by tanks and fought the most prolonged battle since the uprising began last March. The city has now been retaken by the government. Reports say thousands of people have been detained.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Those who defect from the army remain a scattered force inside Syria. And those who manage to cross the border out of the country face a dangerous and uncertain life. With the threat of retaliation always present, NPR's Deborah Amos has this report on what life is like for those who leave.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: At this safe house in northern Lebanon, these Syrians are all on the run, including an army officer who quit his command rather than follow orders to shoot unarmed civilians. He claims more than half of Syria's army now sympathizes with the protest movement. They would join rebel army units if they could, he says, but it is dangerous to defect.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The biggest problem, that there is no safe place to go. They will stay as small groups separated on the country. People in the army, soldiers and officers, don't know where to go now.

AMOS: A few units have defected together, declared themselves part of an underground group called the Free Syrian Army. More often, defectors escape alone. They stay in hiding or leave the country, like this ex-lieutenant who hid for 25 days until he could find someone to smuggle him to Lebanon. But even here, he says, he's not safe nor is his family, at risk of harsh retaliation in Syria. He says rebel units are no match for the regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is not a war between two armies.

AMOS: In Rastan, the lightly armed rebels were outgunned by the Syrian army.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You can't face a big army like Syrian army or security forces here. One tank can kill all of them.

AMOS: Dozens were killed, civilians as well as army rebels, he says. Violence is rising in the nearby town of Homs, another hub for army defectors who vow to protect peaceful demonstrations.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Protesters will be killed like sheeps in the streets if nobody tries to protect them.

AMOS: Another resident of this safe house bears the scars of the uprising and he always will. In Homs, a pro-government militia used an ambulance as cover and opened fire on a crowd, says 23-year-old Hassan. He was hit in the face with a bullet that pierced his cheek and blinded one eye. How did you get here?

HASSAN: (Through translator) I was unconscious. My friends smuggled me here to get treatment here.

AMOS: His friends knew wounded protesters in Syrian hospitals have been killed by pro-government militias. Hassan is recovering in Lebanon but he wants to go back to his city, Homs. It's just 20 miles away, so close he can hear the fighting.

HASSAN: (Through translator) Sometimes I do hear it, especially when they're bombing with tanks or with heavy guns. I do hear it.

AMOS: And your family's still back there?

HASSAN: (Through translator) They're still in Homs.

AMOS: Hassan and the army defector sit on thin mattresses - the only furniture in these bare rooms. They don't reveal their full names, even to each other. Syrians have been kidnapped here, forced back across the border. The ex-lieutenant has the most to fear. He knows that the highest-ranking defector, an army colonel, was recently snatched by Syrian agents in Turkey and forced to appear on Syrian TV. Activists have since reported his death after torture and detention. But the ex-lieutenant says he'll support rebel units any way he can, while still believing the protest must remain peaceful.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Until now, until this moment, the revolution is still peaceful.

AMOS: But do you agree that it should stay peaceful?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I think yes. But the only way to stay peaceful is to give weapons to these ex-soldiers.

AMOS: Our families need protection, he says. They're the ones on the street facing brutality of the regime. And he knows from firsthand experience. When his commander ordered him to shoot civilians, he ordered his men to shoot in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: When you do this, and my officers knew that I gave such orders, I felt that I will be eliminated there.

AMOS: Fearing he would be shot by government snipers, he escaped alone, without his weapon, and finally crossed the Lebanese border two weeks ago. He gave his military I.D. to a friend to hide. Now he is now in hiding himself, not knowing when or if he will ever return to Syria. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.