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Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - 2:00pm

Fleeing Violence, Syrians Cross Border Into Lebanon

Nearly all foreign journalists have been prevented from entering Syria since anti-government protests and a deadly crackdown began in March.

But at Syria's border with Lebanon, there's a place called "smuggler's paradise," where cheap Syrian goods are walked into Lebanon and sold at a premium. The official border crossing is down the road. At the unofficial border crossing, a muddy road leads into Syria. There's a very small checkpoint with a couple of Lebanese army soldiers.

And from here, you can see right into a small Syrian village named Talkalakh.

Usually people from Talkalakh come into Lebanon for a few hours, sell their stuff and go back home again. Lately, hundreds if not thousands have come to stay. They're mostly women and children. And they're often related to people on the Lebanese side of the border.

'The Shooting Is Random'

A 21-year-old says he has eight Syrian relatives living in his house with him. They came, he says, because of the shooting. Every time there is a protest, there is shooting.

"The shooting is random you know it's not precise," he says. "So, on our house there were bullets on the roof. Even in funerals. The other day, there was a funeral in our town and it was shot at."

Residents of Talkalakh told human rights groups that the big trouble in their town started last week, when security forces detained a Sunni religious leader. Talkalakh is a mostly Sunni town. The leadership of Syria is dominated by the Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

A group of men decided to protest the religious leader's detention. They walked to the headquarters of the regime's political security office Syria's feared and reviled intelligence unit and demanded his release. Shots were fired. Residents say at least two people were seriously wounded.

Activists say this video was taken at the protest. In it, a man accuses the political security officers of doing the shooting.

In the days that followed, residents of Talkalakh claim that the army gave Alawite villagers guns and told them to shoot at Sunnis. That's when people began flocking to the border and going to Lebanon.

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch has interviewed some of them. He says the difficulty he had just finding them and talking to them shows how fearful people are. Some might be willing to protest in the streets, but many others are still too terrified to speak out publicly.

"The one person who was willing to speak to us, he repeated maybe 12 times, 'Please don't use my name,'" Houry says. "And he hadn't even given us his full name. He had only given us his first name. So I think people are very, very afraid. And even when he would talk to us, and we were in Lebanon, he would approach as if he was whispering in my ear to give us information. I mean it was just very, very telling the state that people are in."

Dual Lives

In Lebanon, not far from the border crossing, the owner of a liquor store and his friends talk over coffee. They say that big families here live on both sides of the border, and because of that they lead dual lives one in the police state of Syria and one in the free but chaotic state of Lebanon.

Of course, the people of Talkalakh are against the Syrian regime, he explains. Most of them are Sunnis, which means they don't get the good jobs. They see the opportunities people have in Lebanon, and they want those opportunities, too, he says.

But, he says, residents also worry about what would happen should the regime fall. Would it end up like Iraq or Lebanon with sectarian violence and a struggling state?

After all, he says, Syria has smooth roads, good hospitals and low prices. In Lebanon, they have freedom but they don't always have electricity. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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