Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS)

Syrians fleeing the town of Tell Kalakh tell of attacks

 Syrians fleeing the town of Tell Kalakh tell of attacks

By Amnesty
International researcher Cilina Nasser in Wadi Khaled, northern Lebanon.
Everyone who has fled the Syrian western town of Tell Kalakh and sought shelter
in villages on the Lebanese side of the border is scared. None of the people I
spoke to gave me their names and nor did I ask. At the end of every interview,
each would say: “Do not publish my name.”

They are
afraid because they hope to go back to their homes in Tell Kalakh, or what is left
of their homes, and they do not want to be punished by the Syrian forces for recounting
what has happened to them. Many families left Tell Kalakh on Saturday 14 May after
waking to find Syrian troops positioned at the entrances to the town. Shooting
began shortly afterwards and at least three people were wounded, including one
who arrived dead at a hospital on the Lebanese side of the border.

On at least
two occasions, Syrian forces or groups loyal to President Bashar al-Assad
opened fire at fleeing families, injuring individuals among them. I spoke to a
35-year-old woman who was shot in the lower leg as she, members of her family
and another family from Tell Kalakh were heading to the Lebanese border, all
crammed into her brother’s car. She was sitting in the backseat with her
sister-in-law on her lap, while a neighbour held her six-year-old son. There
were eight of them in total in the car.

They had left
their town and were travelling on the main road heading to al-‘Aarida, a Syrian
town where they could park their car on the Syrian side and cross a bridge over
al-Kabir River into Lebanon. Minutes outside Tal Kalakh, near the village of Mashta Mahli, the road was blocked with
big stones so the woman’s brother, who was driving,  swerved to miss the stones and drove over the
pebbles next to them. At this point they came under fire.

35-year-old woman recalled: “I immediately felt like a knife had pierced my
flesh and felt warm liquid running down my leg. I realized that I was hit by a
bullet. I was bleeding so much that my sister-in-law thought that she was also
injured because she could feel my blood running onto her feet.”

Her brother
sped off until they reached al-‘Aarida, where she was carried over the bridge and
immediately taken to hospital in north Lebanon where she was treated.

They would not
be the last family to come under attack.

That night,
seven-year-old Munira and her twin brother, Mohamed, were injured while fleeing
with dozens of families who had packed themselves into a 16-metre trailer truck.
Their mother told me: “The truck was transporting families to the border and we
thought of going but were scared. When the truck came back safely and wanted to
take more families, we decided to go.”

The trailer
truck came under fire when it reached the same location on the road next to the
village of Mashta Mahli. Munira was shot three times: in her backside, her
right thigh and her foot. Mohamed was shot in his lower leg. Their mother told
me that she heard a woman screaming that her child was also wounded but that she
was too busy with her own children and couldn’t find out what had happened to
the other child.

Families in Tell
Kalakh told me the town was heavily shelled on the three days that followed.
Mohamed Majed al-Akkari, a man in his 40s suffering from paralysis on his right
side, was killed by the shelling on 16 May, according to his cousin. He showed
me footage of Mohamed Majed al-Akkari’s body lying on the floor of the house
with a round ice block placed on top of him, as it was too unsafe to take his
body to the morgue – the army had been in control of the town’s hospital since
14 May. He was eventually buried in the garden because it was also too unsafe
to take him to the graveyard.

Witnesses told
me that soldiers took full control of Tell Kalakh’s neighbourhoods and streets
on Tuesday 17 May after apparently crushing resistance from armed elements in
the town. They detained a large number of men, young and old.

I visited displaced
Syrian families staying in the homes of Lebanese relatives and friends in northern
Lebanon, mainly in villages in a border area called Wadi Khaled where they
enjoy strong family and trade ties.

A lot of the
trade is illegal. Just like in many border areas around the world, smuggling of
goods is the main source of income for the families. People in Tell Kalakh are
Sunni Muslims who claim they have been discriminated against by the Syrian state,
which, they say, allocates good jobs in the public sector to members of the Alawite
Muslim minority who dominate the area surrounding Tal Kalakh. They say smuggling
goods to and from Lebanon
is their only alternative means of income.

Up to 180 men suspected
of smuggling are currently reported to be held in incommunicado detention, most
of them arrested in the past couple of years. It was this that initially drove
the people of Tell Kalakh to come out onto the streets in late March. It was
only after 19 April, around three weeks after the first demonstration was held there,
that they started calling for the fall of the regime.

One of those
held incommunicado is the son of a displaced woman in her 60s who fled Tell
Kalakh on 16 May. She said her son was arrested more than a year ago for
smuggling goods between Lebanon
and Syria
and since then she hasn’t heard from him. She said she did not care about what
would happen to her for speaking with an international organization but that
she was worried her son would bear the consequences.

“Please, do
not publish my name,” she pleaded.