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Middle east

Crossing into Syria with Lebanese pro-Assad militia

Video by Halla Mohieddeen , Selim EL MEDDEB , Lucy FIELDER

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-05-28

With the Syrian civil war now spreading to neighbouring Lebanon, FRANCE 24 journalists crossed the border into Syria with Hezbollah-allied Lebanese militias fighting to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The crack of gunfire keeps an irregular beat in this rugged mountainous region at the Lebanon-Syria border as a Lebanese militiaman, who goes by the name Abu Hamza, explains why he chose to fight in Syria.

“They're coming and killing us in our homes, killing our children,” said Abu Hamza, his face shrouded behind sunglasses and a carefully wrapped keffiyeh. “I'm fighting to defend myself, to defend my family, not for the interests of anyone else.”

It’s the standard discourse of the Popular Committees, a Lebanese militia group that has entered the fray in the Syrian civil war, dragging the conflict over the border into Lebanon.

Lebanese soldiers killed

Gunmen killed three Lebanese soldiers near the Syrian border overnight, the army said Tuesday, in the deadliest such attack since the start of Syria's uprising.

"The soldiers at the checkpoint faced off against the attackers, clashes ensued and three soldiers were killed," the army said in a statement.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman condemned the "terrorist" attack and called on the army to strike the perpetrators with an "iron fist" in remarks that were echoed by Lebanon's militant Shiite movement Hezbollah.

(Source: AFP)

But not all Lebanese or Syrians would take Abu Hamza at his word when he says he’s fighting for his own – and not anyone else’s – interests.

Abu Hamza admits his militia has been trained by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has publicly vowed to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “to the end of the road”.

The FRANCE 24 meeting with this young Popular Committees fighter was set up by Hezbollah in Hermel, a Shiite-dominated frontier town on the Lebanese side of the Syria-Lebanon border, where Hezbollah has a support base.

But when the Popular Committees fighter arrives for the interview in Hermes – well-armed and dressed in a crisp, clean camouflage uniform – he insists the FRANCE 24 team cross the invisible border into Syria so that he can be interviewed on Syrian soil.

‘Martyrs’ for Assad

Borders are more of a theoretical construct than a reality in this part of the eastern Bekaa, where dirt tracks that cut across undulating hills and gushing streams have long provisioned local economies that rely on smuggling.

Abu Hamza says he is Lebanese, from a village on the Syrian side of the border, where he says he fights Syrian opposition rebels.

As the Syrian conflict dragged on for more than two years, the Lebanese Shiite party maintains that the Popular Committees fighters hail from what they call “Lebanese villages” – or predominantly Shiite villages just inside Syria, where the villagers are said to hold Lebanese citizenship. Hezbollah maintains the Popular Committees are local defense militias protecting their villages.

In the months before Nasrallah publicly acknowledged Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, the Shiite movement consistently denied their fighters were aiding Assad in Syria, even as a steady trickle of bodies of Hezbollah “martyrs” were being returned to their home villages across the Bekaa.

But as the recent battle for control of the strategic town of Qusair has intensified, Hezbollah has taken a gamble by openly pitching its stakes with Syria’s Assad.

From the higher terrain in this mountainous border region, a cloud of smoke can be seen rising above the al-Qusair region in the plains.

For the moment, the Shiite villagers in the Bekaa are staunchly backing Hezbollah – even among families that are losing their loved ones to the conflict.

In the tiny town of Machghara in the western Bekaa, Mohmmad Hammoud, who says he lost his son in the fighting, maintains that he’s a proud father.

“I'm happier than I was before he was martyred,” said Hammoud as a crowd gathered around him. “I have a second son, a third, a fourth and I want to send them all to fight in Al-Qusair, or with Israel, or with whoever wants to kill us,” said as the crowd around him heartily cheered.

 

Date created : 2013-05-28

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