Last Sunday afternoon, three women walked across an old Ottoman bridge carrying plastic bags filled with clothing and other belongings. Some 1500 people have fled into Lebanon through this illegal border crossing to escape violence in the Syrian town of Tel Killah, about three miles away.
Like many other towns in Syria, Tel Killah has been the site of anti government protests, and now, a violent government crackdown. The women and some four dozen others, about half of them kids, are taking refuge in this house owned by a family friend in the Lebanese village of Areeda. It's only about 100 feet from the Syrian border. They all came here on foot last week.
The refugees, who didn't want to give their names for fear of retribution from the Syrian government, say 10,000 townspeople demonstrated on Wednesday, demanding freedom and chanting "the people want the regime to fall." "People were demonstrating without weapons," says this man, a shopkeeper, who fled Wednesday." The government came and started shooting. "
The refugees say the Syrian government used tanks and artillery, and positioned snipers inside the town. Forty people were killed and 750 detained during the crackdown in the town of 28,000, the shop keeper says. That night, the refugees escaped across the bridge to Lebanon with only the clothes on their backs.
"We came with nothing, the Lebanese gave us clothes," he said. His sister in law adds, "The Lebanese people gave us food, also."
Inspired by Egypt's revolution
The refugees say the protesters were inspired by demonstrations in Egypt. Many are fed up with Syrian President Bashar al Assad's oppressive regime.
The shopkeeper's nephew has been in prison for three years without charge. But the shop keeper said the main cause of the demonstrations is the dire economic conditions in Syria. A drought has wreaked havoc on rural areas like Tel Killa. And the refugees are angry about the government's inaction. They also say the president's minority Allawite religious sect gets favorable treatment. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. And the shopkeeper says all of the demonstrators in Tel Killa were Sunni.
"The Sunni Muslims cannot work, only the Allawites," the shopkeeper said. "They raise the salary of the Allawites, but the Sunnis have no job there."
The shopkeeper says the divisions in Tel Killa are so bad that some Allawites actually joined with government soldiers in the fight against their fellow townspeople. "The Allawites started shooting us also. They are united with the government and started shooting," he said.
But there's evidence from all over Syria that demonstrators are making a concerted effort not to exploit sectarian divisions. In a video that the refugees said was from a demonstration on Friday in Tell Killa's market place, protestors chanted "peaceful, peaceful…" And then "Sunnis and Allawites are brothers."
The refugees said friends and relatives back home tell them the town was peaceful over the weekend. Still, the shopkeeper said he won't return home until the government falls.