Magazine article The Spectator

'Die Slowly, Ch R I St Ian Dog ' MARY WAKEFIELD

Magazine article The Spectator

'Die Slowly, Ch R I St Ian Dog ' MARY WAKEFIELD

Article excerpt

Lebanon There is one main road stretching north-south along the Bekaa valley between Lebanon and Syria. It runs in a beeline from the prosperous little city of Zhaleh, on through a series of villages each with its own religious bent - some Sunni, some Christian - to the border town of alQaa, then on into Homs and the bloody mess of the Syrian war.

We're just short of the border when what has been an uninspiring landscape, a wafting sea of plastic bags caught on desert shrubs, springs suddenly to life. Out of nowhere:

orchards, vineyards, fig trees; aubergines fat and fallen on the grass. The air is sweet with the smell of apples.

Dr Bassam El-Hachem, professor of sociology at the Lebanese university in Beirut and a big hitter in Lebanon's FPM party, is our tour guide today on this jaunt to visit Christian refugees. He leans over his shoulder, to address the minibus (one priest, two hacks and the Doc's flamboyant blonde wife). 'The source of the Orontes river!' He points, we nod. The Orontes, we learn, runs from here into Syria spreading rich, fertile soil through the Wadi al-Nasara - the valley of the Christians - up ahead. It traces the course of the fighting, past Hama and Idlib province into Turkey. On our return trip, I look at the Orontes in a different light, because though the conflict in Syria is fuelled by religion and repression, I suspect this river plays a part too.

As we pull into al-Qaa, the minibus team grows quieter. We drive past the checkpoint and peer into no man's land. This is the portal through which the refugees escape from Syria into Lebanon: not just Christians, also Shia, Sunni and Alawite (Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's family are Alawites). It's still reasonably safe on this side of the border. Syria's war hasn't spilled over into Lebanon yet - but it's a very precarious peace. Hezbollah has formed a little pro-Assad gang with the Christians and have a grip of this area here.

In Aarsal just a few miles away, the Sunni population supports the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. Under the cover of night, both sides steal across the border to fight.

But in the mayor of al-Qaa's house, all is calm. The windows are bulletproof, the shelves heavy with bottles of expensive drink, and we sit in the usual way on seats around the walls, like patients in an old-fashioned waiting-room. After tea, the Christian refugees who've been corralled in here tell their stories.

First up is Boutros (not his real name), a 26-year-old from the nearby Syrian town of Qusayr where once Christians and Sunnis lived side by side. So how did the fighting start? 'At first the Sunni rebels offered us a choice: join us or leave. When we refused, they turned on us. Our neighbours!' says Boutros in outrage. 'Then the Sunnis began to threaten us. They would shout: "Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave".' This chant is so often repeated and reported, it's become almost the official jingle of the civil war.

According to Boutros, a Christian called Matthew Kasouha was the first one killed in the spring of last year. Kasouha came from an important clan, and so other Christians arrived at his family's house the next day to offer condolences - only to find themselves under fire too. 'The mourners were shelled by the rebels, and this was when people began to understand that they must leave, ' says Boutros. In March this year there was showdown: 'The Sunni Islamists launched another attack on the Kasouha family, they were all killed.' And what is Qusayr like now? Boutros looks down at the floor. 'It's bad. There are snipers in the streets, shooting at everyone who moves. Even in your house you can be shelled.'

Who are these snipers? Are they locals?

This question seems crucial. Everyone in the region is either for or against Bashir alAssad's regime, it's a bipolar world: Christians and Shia mostly for, Sunnis mostly against. Dr Bassam and his wife are firmly in the pro-Assad camp, and they insist that the rebels are not locals with a legitimate grievance, but mostly Islamists from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. …

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