For many decades now, tens of thousands of Lebanese have been living and farming along the banks of the river Assi inside Syrian territory. Over the last few months, armed groups have repeatedly assaulted many of their villages, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Al-Akhbar visited the area to survey the damage.
When crossing into the Syrian villages of the Assi (Orontes) river basin, the feeling of apprehension is paramount.
As you approach the illegal border crossing at Matraba, close to the town of al-Qasr in the northern Lebanese Hermel district, you can see Syrian flags, either fluttering over some buildings or painted on the walls of the small adjacent sheds that house Syrian army troops.
The soldiers there now wear their combat helmets, unlike before.
There is little traffic along the crossing, in either direction. A Lebanese ID card allows you to cross, albeit on foot. For decades now, the Syrian government has allowed the Lebanese residents of the Assi basin to use Matraba to cross the border.
The town suffered from “repeated assaults by armed groups,” as did a number of Assi basin villages, where most residents are Lebanese nationals.It is enough to be Lebanese for the soldiers there to welcome you and let you in. As you make your way towards the villages, you feel even more apprehensive, especially as you travel along those winding narrow paths between the orchards and the fields.
But as you get closer to the villages, your anxiety starts to ease, especially as you begin to catch sight of the Lebanese residents that live there.
We started our tour at the town of Zita. Everything seemed normal except the inquisitive looks of the locals, as they try to probe the identity of the visitors. Days earlier, normal life returned to the town’s streets and alleys, and to its fields and schools.
Local man Abu Hussein was overseeing the plowing and irrigation of his land, which he recently planted with potatoes. After greeting us, he praised God “for everything,” and said that the town has seen some “rough days” of late.
Over the past months, the town suffered from “repeated assaults by armed groups,” as did a number of Assi basin villages, where most residents are Lebanese nationals. These attacks have cost locals heavily, after they “lost relatives, neighbors and crops,” Abu Hussein told us.
Despite all this, there was a clear look of optimism in the eyes of the old man, who managed to plant his fields for the winter. He said that calm has been restored in a number of Syrian villages in the Assi basin, “albeit partially.”
Many of the townsfolk who refused to abandon their villages sold their cattle and used the money to buy weapons.According to Abu Hussein, the popular committees – created in response to the assaults – assumed the responsibility of providing for the various needs of the townspeople, including security.
He also said that many of the townsfolk who refused to abandon their villages sold their cattle and used the money to buy weapons.
In a nearby alley, several motorcycles and pickup trucks, along with some men from the town, had gathered around a large tanker loaded with heating oil. Residents explained that the Syrian government, in coordination with the popular committees in the villages, provide one barrel of heating oil per family each month.
Abu Jihad al-Dayqa is a resident of Zita. He the man responsible for providing social services to the people of his town.
He explained that there were “deputies” in the popular committees delegated to cover all the basic needs of the residents. He explained that there are special deputies responsible for providing cooking gas, bread and flour, heating oil, and basic foods in every village.
Dayqa also underscored the support being provided by social organizations affiliated to Hezbollah, which, he said, “have provided medical aid and medicine in cooperation with several Lebanese townships.”
The people of the Assi basin villages, whether Lebanese or Syrian, have suffered greatly in the past months. Armed groups have relentlessly singled out villages such as Zita, Howayek and Rabla, to carry out abductions and murders, looting and burning many homes and properties there.
All this took place amid “the scandalous absence of our state,” according to Ali Salman. He said that he was deeply dismayed by the Lebanese government, “which has distanced itself even from its citizens.”
The people of the Assi basin villages, who number nearly 50,000, have lived in Syrian territory for more than two centuries.Salman went on to say, “Despite the fact that we were targeted, people were killed and our homes were burnt down, the government did nothing – it did not even intervene or attempt to contact countries that have the ability to pressure the armed groups. It seems we are Lebanese only on paper.”
It did not help much either that the people of the Assi basin villages, who number nearly 50,000, have lived in Syrian territory for more than two centuries.
True, they are now part of the Syrian social fabric through intermarriage and kinship, in addition to most affairs of citizenship – except for the right to vote. But, as Salman stressed, “the Salafi and takfiri armed groups” paid no attention to all this.
Instead, he said, these groups eventually unleashed the worst forms of murder, kidnapping and destruction on the villages, pushing a majority of residents into Lebanon, particularly to areas close to al-Qasr and Hermel.
The aftermath of the clashes between the armed groups and young men from the villages is still visible, with holes in the walls from shells and bullets, broken glass, and damaged doors and windows. Even the bakery, which provided bread to most villages in the area, was targeted by the armed groups and burned to the ground.
The aftermath of the clashes between the armed groups and young men from the villages is still visible, with holes in the walls from shells and bullets,Many people from these villages were killed or kidnapped. A militant group kidnapped Muwaffaq Hajjar, a young man from Zita, and fired at a car carrying Riad and Firas Qinyar, two brothers from the town of Diabiyah. Firas was killed and his brother was wounded.
Mohammed Abbas, Wajih and Firas Abida, Ali Abu Bakr, Abdou Yaacoub al-Ahmar, and Taifallah Nqoula are but a few of the many Lebanese citizens of the basin area who were shot and killed by armed groups.
Some of the attacks involved kidnapping men and women such as “Jaafar and Anis Medlej, Muwaffaq Abbas, and Muhammad Samir Balbil,” according to residents. Their fate remains to this day a mystery, as a resident of the town of al-Aqrabiyeh told us, despite tireless efforts to find out what has happened to them.
Sudaif Hamada, general coordinator of the popular committees in the Assi basin villages, told Al-Akhbar that the armed groups were conducting daily attacks “our villages and civilians, in a clear attempt to undermine coexistence, drive us from our homes, and seize our properties.”
Hamada added that the main objective of the militants is to “establish a supply line that crosses the area from Wadi Khaled to al-Qusair, which is adjacent to our villages.” This would give them a direct route from North Lebanon, allowing them “to take advantage of a large area to conduct military operations comfortably and encircle some areas where the Syrian army is positioned,” according to Hamada.
Faced with these assaults, the villagers felt it was necessary to form popular committees, like the ones that were in al-Qusair and Homs at start of the Syrian conflict, who could engage in military action if necessary.
This is how young men from the area, according to Hamada, “were organized as sentries who often engaged in violent clashes that lasted for hours with any group attempting to attack our people.” He went on to say, “The armed assailants started to realize around two months ago how dangerous it was to come near our villages.”
The main objective of the militants is to “establish a supply line that crosses the area from Wadi Khaled to al-Qusair, which is adjacent to our villages.”“This helped restore partial calm and order a few weeks ago,” Hamada added. “Only partially,” he clarified, because armed groups continued to “target us with rocket propelled grenades from outside the Assi basin villages, which recently led to the death of a woman from the Medlej family and her two-year old son Haidar.”
“Armed takfiri groups were systematically driving families out en masse, whether from the Assi basin villages or in al-Qusair and Homs,” he continued.
Any visitor to the villages of the Assi basin will no doubt be struck by the sight of vast fertile farmlands, which already appear greener a few days after being planted.
Ali al-Heq, one of the farmers Al-Akhbar interviewed, was preparing a pump and a generator to irrigate his field, which he had planted days earlier. Heq said that he has been unemployed for a while, after abandoning farming due to the damage done to his crops.
The farmer was unable to harvest his wheat field because of armed confrontations in the area between the town of al-Hamam and Saqarjah. Heq was not the only one who lost his crops – apricot, almond and peach orchards suffered the same fate.
Tousands of acres of fertile land could not be planted by their owners in the past months, many of whom had to abandon their lands following armed assaults.
Losses were not limited to crops such as grains and fruits. The local livestock, which residents rely on to produce milk, also suffered a setback. Farmers rely on milk production, often sold to Syrian state-owned factories, to complement their income.
Heq pointed out that two months ago, milk could not be delivered to the Syrian city of al-Qusair as usual. But then a few days ago, the relative calm allowed the popular committees in the villages to contact the Syrian government.
According to Heq, the government “has allowed the farmers to send their produce to Lebanese villages, should it prove difficult to deliver it to the Syrian hinterland, with assurances that they would not be exposed to danger while transporting it.”
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