The women and children waited until early morning of April 28 and then they fled in their hundreds. Most of the Syrians walked the few short kilometers from their hometown of Tall Kalakh, a cluster of low-slung cream-colored homes scattered on a gently sloping hill, toward the sleepy Lebanese village of Al-Boqia'a just across the river that demarcates the border, a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Some carried whatever they could fit into a few plastic bags, but others, like Carmen, 22, and her 28-year-old sister (who did not want to be named), came with nothing. "The past few days were terrifying," Carmen says. "It was raining bullets."
The trouble, the Syrian refugees say, started about a week ago, when Syrian soldiers and plainclothes security men encircled their town, preventing anyone or anything from getting in. Water, electricity and communications were cut, and the embargo led to a food shortage. The clampdown was reportedly in response to growing anti-government protests in the town. The siege was frightening but bearable, Carmen says. The bullets weren't. "They started shooting at protesters two days ago. We were angry because they have detained many people from our village, and we were protesting for Dara'a," she says, referring to the southern Syrian city where demonstrations first erupted in mid-March. "A lot of people came over [to Lebanon], but most of the young men stayed there."
It is not clear how many people were hurt in the clashes, nor how many crossed the bridge over the Kabir River, a slow-moving shallow waterway that looks more like a stream despite its name, which means "great" in Arabic. The border area around here is poorly demarcated, and even less adequately manned. It's so porous that if asked for directions to the border, many residents will seriously enquire if you're looking for the legal or illegal crossing points.
On Friday April 29, as in Fridays past, anti-government demonstrations were reported across the country. By then, a makeshift checkpoint had been set up on the Syrian side, apparently to prevent more people from fleeing. The river serves as the no-man's land between the villages, which are so close that residents on the Lebanese side clearly heard the heavy gunfire a few days ago. On the 29th, at least 15 people were killed in the besieged city of Dara'a, Reuters reported, after residents tried to flee the city. About 500 civilians have been killed by security forces in the past six weeks of unrest, rights activists say. But the encirclement of Dara'a, as well as an intensified government crackdown over the past week in several Syrian cities, appears to have served only to enrage protesters further.
The sisters, as well as others from Tall Kalakh, claim that armed Alawites from neighboring villages were aiding the security forces. President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling clique are mainly Alawites, a minority sect that represents about 12% of Syria's population. Most Syrians, like the residents of Tall Kalakh, however, are Sunnis. "The Alawites have everything, all the opportunities, all the rights!" Carmen's sister says. "We want an end to this sectarian favoritism." It's unusual for Syrians to speak so publicly in such aggressive sectarian terms their country's ruling Ba'ath party has indoctrinated a pan-Arab secularism during its decades-long rule. But these are very unusual times in Syria.
Some Syrians, like the residents of Tall Kalakh, increasingly view the unrest in sectarian terms. The refugees have found a warm welcome in the Lebanese border towns, which are largely populated by Sunnis loyal to Lebanon's anti-Syrian politicians, especially former prime minister Saad Hariri, whose father Rafik was killed in a 2005 bombing widely blamed on Damascus. Many have sought refuge with family and friends.
"Everybody has taken in a family, the Syrians are staying in our homes," says Riad, a 50-year-old Lebanese man who stood near the Kabir River on Friday, waiting to see if anybody needed a ride. "Nobody will cross today, they're probably scared because of the checkpoint." A day earlier, Riad said he ferried dozens of refugees in his olive green 1970s-model Mercedes. "There were so many, and they were scared."
On Friday, the two sisters stood along a potholed street and looked out across the river at their hometown, which looked quiet, belying the unrest. Carmen phoned a male relative still in Tall Kalakh. He said he was on the streets, protesting. She set the mobile phone on speaker. The words that have rocked the Arab world since January reverberated through the intense static: Ash-sha'ab yurid isqat an-nizam! "The people want the regime to fall!" Carmen smiled. "I will not return to Syria until the regime is ousted," she said defiantly. "I'm sick of a country where you can curse God, but not Bashar al-Assad."