AL QASR, Lebanon — Each evening, Ali Jamal and other men in this border town grab their Kalashnikov assault rifles, jump on their motorbikes and ride across the irrigation canal into Syria to protect their homes.
The enemies are Sunni rebel “terrorists,” he says, who target Jamal and his neighbors because they are Shiite Muslims.
“Imagine, these people used to be our neighbors,” said the 40-year-old farmer, perplexed by the transformation. “Now they want to kidnap and kill us.”
Tensions gripping the villages along the border here between northeastern Lebanon and Syria illustrate the increasingly sectarian nature of the 2-year-old Syrian conflict and the risks it poses for the entire region.
The predominant narrative of the Syrian war is that of a tyrannical government largely run by members of a Shiite sect, the Alawites, brutalizing a people yearning for freedom.
However, in the largely Shiite towns and villages of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, people who have fled Syria tell a different story. They speak of an “ethnic cleansing” campaign carried out by rebels intent on creating an Islamic state run by Syria’s Sunni majority.
In the face of rebel attacks, Shiites in dozens of villages just inside Syria have fled here to a part of Lebanon dominated by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, the villagers and Hezbollah representatives say. Those who have been displaced credit Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., with providing shelter and security.
Hezbollah counts Syrian President Bashar Assad among its staunchest allies, along with longtime patron Iran. The three players make up what they call the “axis of resistance” against the United States and Israel.
The Shiite militants’ alleged involvement in the Syrian war has become a major topic of contention and one more reason for those pushing the West to arm the Syrian rebels, who have their own baggage, including the presence of Al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants.
Hezbollah has acknowledged training, arming and providing logistical support to Syrian Shiites with family ties to Lebanon, who it says face attack from Syrian rebel forces. Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria, but they were defending towns along the border and were not deployed alongside Syrian troops, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said.
A visit to the border area arranged with Hezbollah representatives provided a glimpse into a war raging along the Orontes River basin in towns and villages near the city of Qusair, just a few miles from the Lebanese frontier.
The largely agricultural area, with snowcapped peaks in the distance, is of considerable strategic importance. Rebel forces covet it as a transit corridor for fighters and weaponry, a flow the Syrian military is trying to choke off.
Shells allegedly fired by rebels have been landing here in Al Qasr, so far without casualties. The rebels counter that Syrian government bombardment has targeted the nearby Lebanese area of Arsal, a mostly Sunni border zone where residents sympathize with the rebellion and where arms and personnel are reportedly smuggled to opposition brigades.
In Al Qasr, unmarked Hezbollah units in trademark black SUVs maintain a discreet security presence. Here and in the neighboring town of Hermel, posters bear heroic likenesses of Assad, fallen Hezbollah members and Iranian political and religious figures such as the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The isolated zone is reached via an Iranian-built blacktop highway featuring light posts powered by solar panels, a jarring site in a zone where most roads are of the washboard persuasion.
Hezbollah representatives say those fighting the rebels inside Syria are Shiite townsmen defending their homes across the border, not on-duty party militiamen.
“My loyalty is with Hezbollah, but I am not controlled by them,” said Jamal, a father of four.
He spoke outside a house in this Lebanese border town where, he says, four Shiite families totaling 29 people — 21 children and 8 adults — from the Syrian village of Zayta, two miles away, have relocated because of rebel attacks. Hezbollah pays the rent.
“Before this war, we all got along, no one cared about sects,” said Jamal. “Now everything has changed completely.”
He said he sold a pair of cows to purchase two AK-47 assault rifles for about $2,000 each, and keeps them stashed near the border. Each evening, he, his brother and other men from Zayta cross and set up guard to protect their homes and property in Syria. Their wives and children remain in Lebanon.
Jamal and others interviewed here said Sunni rebels, many of them from neighboring villages, have attacked Shiites, chasing people from their homes and in some cases shelling and setting fire to their enclaves.
His home was shelled last year, Jamal said, and he moved his family to Lebanon. He has Lebanese citizenship, a lingering consequence of how borders were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago.
“Why should I be forced to leave my home by armed groups?” he asked. “We don’t have much to fight with, just our rifles, but we will defend what is ours.”
Near Al Qasr’s main mosque, bedecked with yellow Hezbollah flags, a shattered stone fence marks a spot where residents say a mortar shell landed in February. “It would have blown up the entire mosque if it had exploded,” said a Hezbollah militiaman, Khader, who declined to give his last name for security reasons.
Nearby, a concrete irrigation ditch marks the border. Across the way, relaxed Syrian troops, including several in sneakers, staff an observation post as farmers tend to wheat fields and olive groves. They were the only Syrian soldiers visible during the visit to the border area.
Standing at the irrigation canal, another militiaman showed a reporter a grisly cellphone video in which a man said to be a Syrian rebel appears to use a machete to decapitate a captive. Such videos circulate freely on all sides of the divide. The Hezbollah fighter, who gave his name as Mehdi, claimed the victim was killed because he was a Shiite.
In the adjacent town of Hermel, Ali Haydar Kheyr Din, 46, recounted how he was kidnapped by rebels on a Syrian road and held for four days. His captors went through his cellphone contacts one by one and accused him of being a Hezbollah operative, said Din, who says his family owns a factory in Homs.
“You’re Shiite, of course you’re Hezbollah,” said one of the captors, according to Din. He said he was blindfolded for most of the time he was captive. “Tell us how you get the arms into Syria,” the rebel interrogator demanded at the home where he was held.
Din denied involvement with Hezbollah. He doubted from the beginning that he would get out alive, but the rebels didn’t abuse him physically and an associate in the area managed to get him released, he said.
“I didn’t want to be maimed, to have an eye gouged out or a leg cut off with a power saw, because I had heard that kind of thing happened to some people,” he recalled. “I told them I preferred it if they just sprayed me with a machine gun and get it over with quickly.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.