BEIRUT — They fled Kasab at daybreak, amid the clamor of artillery and word that Islamist rebels were advancing toward them from Turkey.
About 2,500 residents, most of them ethnic Armenians, gathered documents and what few possessions they could carry. They piled into cars and minibuses that carried them 40 miles down mountain roads to the government-held city of Latakia. Only some elderly remained behind, residents said.
“We escaped with the clothes on our back,” said one of those who eventually made it to Lebanon.
Many had heard reports of atrocities committed in August by other rebels elsewhere in Latakia province. Armenian Christians have lived in Kasab since the days of the Ottoman Empire, but they feared for their lives if they remained.
“We knew we would be butchered if we stayed,” said George, 45, a displaced Kasab resident now living in Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud neighborhood. He was among a number of Armenian exiles who asked that their surnames not be used for security reasons.
Coming close to the centennial of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, last month’s wholesale flight of Armenian Christians drew global attention. Kasab is among the last remaining Armenian-populated towns that survived a genocide that began in 1915, in the waning days of the empire.
Armenians worldwide have come to Kasab’s defense, drawing attention to the historic parallels.
“What happened to Kasab is a continuation of the genocide which was in 1915 carefully planned and executed against Armenians,” said His Holiness Aram I, Beirut-based pontiff of the Armenian church and spiritual leader of the Armenian diaspora.
Since Kasab’s fall to Syrian rebels March 21, activists have headed to the region in a bid to provide assistance.
“The preservation of this village and its people is of utmost importance to the Armenian people,” said Garo Ghazarian, an Encino-based attorney and chairman of the Armenian Bar Assn., who traveled to Beirut on a fact-finding trip about Kasab.
Turkish officials deny mass extermination of Armenians, which the U.S. House of Representatives and several nations have labeled genocide. Turkey says the millions of deaths in the early 20th century were the result of war, displacement, disease and other factors.
While Armenian activists try to avert Kasab’s destruction and press for residents’ safe return, pro-government Syrian forces are fighting to recapture Kasab. Meanwhile, a virtual battle has ensued.
Armenian groups have marshaled a massive Web campaign to denounce what they call Turkish-backed abuses in Kasab, but pro-opposition media activists have said that rebels in Kasab have gone out of their way to evacuate civilians and respect property rights.
On Tuesday, lawmakers from California, home to several hundred thousand people of Armenian heritage, spoke on Capitol Hill of the dangers facing Armenians and other Christians in Syria.
Given the widespread devastation during more than three years of war that has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and destroyed scores of towns in Syria, sparing Kasab from ruin will probably be a difficult task.
Uncertainty hangs over the newest residents of Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud neighborhood, a cluttered, animated district of narrow streets and multi-story apartment buildings that is a signature Armenian diaspora community.
Like so many other displaced Syrians, the Kasab exiles don’t know when, or if, they will go home. Even before the rebel onslaught, the war had wiped out the lucrative tourism business in Kasab, once a popular summer retreat because of its altitude and relatively cool weather. Many had already returned to the business of their ancestors: tending fruit orchards.
“We all went back to farming,” said Rafi, 44.
Some Kasab exiles call for an international solution that will force a rebel withdrawal or even create a demilitarized zone. But prospects for such a deal appear dim amid the geopolitical crosscurrents of the Syrian war.
Turkey is a close U.S. ally and the eastern bulwark of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Washington, like Ankara, seeks the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has provided assistance to anti-Assad rebels.
A more likely scenario — a protracted government offensive to recapture the town — could leave Kasab in ruins. Government and opposition forces have been fighting in territory outside the town.
Kasab exiles say their ancestral homes are occupied by rebels, including elements of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabat al Nusra, or Al Nusra Front, whose ranks include non-Syrian fighters. A Moroccan fighter and former inmate at the U.S. lockup on Guantanamo Bay was among those killed in the Kasab area in recent fighting, various websites reported.
“I telephoned my house and someone answered, ‘We are Jabat al Nusra,’” recalled Maral, 40, still stunned at the turmoil that has torn apart her once tranquil family life. “They are helping themselves to our food, to our homes.”
The day of the attack, she noted, was Mother’s Day in Syria. Many had prepared pastries and other treats.
She and others bemoan their current predicament: dependence on the generosity of relatives and friends, the inability to enroll children in schools, the absence of homes where most resided all their lives — all of the unfortunate realities of life as a refugee, now so familiar to multitudes of Syrians. That they are better off than many Syrian refugees living in tents and abandoned buildings is of little consolation.
“People have been very kind to us, they are sharing everything,” said Maral, a mother of three. “But Kasab is our home, not here. We all dream about Kasab. We dream about what we left behind.”