The northern Lebanese village of Wadi Khaled is so close to Syria that its residents can hear gunfire from across the border as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad attempts to put down a persistent revolt from his long-oppressed citizens. And as violence in nearby Syrian cities of Tal Kalakh and Homs has worsened, it has also been a refuge for fleeing Syrians.
According to Sheikh Abdullah, a prominent religious figure in the village, Wadi Khaled has received more than 1,350 refugees from Syria in the past 10 days, most of them women and children. More are expected to arrive in the coming days. Protesters took to the streets by the thousands again on Friday, reportedly flooding the streets of Damascus, Hama, and Homs in defiance of Assad's crackdown. Human rights organizations have reported that up to 850 people have been killed so far during the uprising, while more than 10,000 have been arrested.
With a media blackout in place across Syria, Wadi Khaled, a predominantly Sunni village of around 30,000 people, is also one of the best locations to learn what's occurring across the border. The news is grim: The Syrian refugees there tell a story of state-sponsored violence and oppression that suggest Assad will stop at nothing to keep his grip on power.
Munther, a 35-year-old chain-smoker, answered our questions without taking his eyes off the BBC Arabic report on Syria playing on a television overhead. He escaped with his family from the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs on Saturday. He had been participating in the protests every Friday for two months since the uprising took hold in mid-March. "They were shooting at us to disperse the protests, but it was still manageable because you can hide as soon as they start shooting," he said. However, he decided to flee when Assad sent in tanks on May 7. "I have children and I have to protect them."
Munther, like many other Syrian refugees, came to Wadi Khaled because he has relatives there. It is only a 15-minute car ride from Homs, and the Lebanese-Syrian border has done little to hinder ties between the villages on either side of the international line. Most Wadi Khaled residents are originally Bedouins with tribal links to those in Homs and Tal Kalakh, and the last of them was given Lebanese nationality in 1994. Inter-marriages between the two communities are also common.
There is no official crossing between Wadi Khaled and the Homs Governate on the Syrian side of the border. A concrete bridge over the Southern Kabir River links the two regions, but Lebanese or Syrian checkpoints are nowhere to be found; refugees simply cross the border on foot. Lebanese residents buy cheap bread and vegetables from neighboring villages in Syira and cross back into Wadi Khaled unmolested. Gasoline smuggling is rampant.
That has left village notables with the task of caring for the needs of their newly arrived quests. Sheikh Abdullah is taking care of the refugees' logistics and safety. "Many families coming from Syria have relatives here and they are staying at their houses, but at one point, if they keep coming, there might be a humanitarian crisis," he said.
Refugees describe a government crackdown so severe that it makes normal life impossible. "The first thing the security forces do when they besiege the city -- and this happened in Daraa, Jasem, Enkhel, Tel Kalakh, and Homs -- is to cut the electricity, the phones, and the Internet. Then they shoot at water tanks situated on the rooftops to cut the water," said Abed, a 30-year-old man from Tel Kalakh.