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The perils of 'friendly fire' in Lebanon

Residents in this northern town live in fear after daily cross-border firing by Syrian forces.

Last updated: 11 Feb 2014 12:35
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Despite shelling, refugees and goods continue to flow into Lebanon from Syria [Basma Atassi/Al Jazeera]

Aboudiyeh, Lebanon - Loubnan al-Merweb wakes up in the morning with the sound of artillery fire still ringing in his ears. He steps out of his two-storey house in the Lebanese town of Aboudiyeh to collect shell shrapnel from his front yard.

Shelling has become part of everyday life in this northern town on the border with Syria. Merweb's children spend most nights under their beds, terrified by the loud blasts.

The family's bullet-riddled concrete house has a picturesque view of green Syrian hills and terrain, but also of three nearby military bases. From one hill, a DShK machine gun mounted on a vehicle aims directly into Aboudiyeh.

A tank is stationed under a Syrian telecommunications tower with soldiers nearby, its high-velocity gun also points towards the Lebanese border town.

Slightly to the east between the olive groves, the Syrian flag can be seen fluttering over the border crossing. A copper sculpture of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the late father of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is placed on top of the white administration building.

My own analysis is that the regime continues to shell because they fear the possibility of infiltration, not because of infiltration itself.

- Loubnan al-Merweb, local imam

Almost on a daily basis as night falls, the Syrian army starts firing heavy weaponry into Lebanon. Many houses and mosques in Aboudiyeh, in Akkar province, bear the marks of the nearly three-year-old Syrian war, which has killed 130,000 people, driven millions from their homes, and devastated cities.

One building that the Syrian military suspected was being used by rebels now resembles a brick of Swiss cheese, a striking symbol of the conflict's spillover into Akkar.

Syrian forces fire into Lebanon to thwart fighters attempting to enter the bordering province of Homs. They often say they are retaliating against "armed terrorist groups" in Lebanon firing across the frontier.

The bombardment intensified recently after Syrian and Lebanese fighters from the village of Mashta al-Hassan infiltrated the Syrian town of Zara and killed 11 people, including a Syrian army officer.

Lebanon's Hezbollah-led government, which supports Assad, has come under heavy criticism for largely remaining silent over the continuous Syrian border violations.

'Friendly fire'?

This week, the Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted by local media as saying the bombing campaign by Syria comes as the government in Damascus fights "terrorist groups", and the shelling can be considered "friendly fire". Mansour later reportedly denied making the statement.

A week earlier, a bullet fired from Syria pierced the forehead of an elderly Lebanese man inside his house in Aboudiyeh.

"How friendly is that fire?" asked Khaled Ayyash, a resident.

The people of Aboudiyeh deny their town harbours any armed groups. Fighters and civilians crossed the porous border of Akkar province illegally during the early days of the conflict. But after the Syrian army recaptured most of the border area from rebels, built a high fence and beefed up security, infiltration became much more difficult.

Loubnan al-Merweb's village on Lebanon's border receives constant fire from Syrian forces [Basma Atassi/Al Jazeera]

"My own analysis is that the regime continues to shell because they fear the possibility of infiltration, not because of infiltration itself," Merweb, a 39-year-old imam in the town's main mosque, told Al Jazeera.

In Aboudiyeh, like most of Lebanon, the population is split along sectarian lines, supporting rival sides in Syria's bloody war.

The Sunnis, who are the majority in the town, back the Syrian opposition. The Alawites, who account for one-third of Aboudiyeh's people, have sided with Assad and his forces.

The shelling of Lebanese border towns, which began more than a year ago, has not only resulted in casualties, but also paralysed life in areas directly exposed to cross-border fire.

Children, including those of the Merweb family, have stopped using the football pitch because it has been shot at several times. Many farmers no longer go to their fields out of fear of falling shells.

The busy road that connects Akkar border villages is nearly deserted after dark. Those who must use it at night drive at high speed with their lights off to avoid being targeted by gunfire that regularly erupts along the route.

Despite the insecurity in Aboudiyeh, travellers, refugees and goods continue to flow into Lebanon through the town's border crossing in the mornings.

Aboudiyeh residents collect bullets and shrapnel [Basma Atassi]

No escape

A Syrian family that fled the town of Talkalakh now resides just across the border in Aboudiyeh.

The war continues to haunt them in their place of refuge, as they endure the shelling in Aboudiyeh while hearing the sound of bombardment echoing from their hometown.

"We are not comfortable here. There is always the fear of being kidnapped and taken to Syria.

There is no one who could protect us here,the father of the family told Al Jazeera. He did not want to be named, citing threats to his life.

We are not comfortable here. There is always the fear of being kidnapped and taken to Syria. There is no one who could protect us here.

- Syrian refugee in Lebanon

Last year, in several separate incidents, young Lebanese men considered to be sympathetic to the rebels in Syria were kidnapped by Assad loyalists and taken to Syria.

They were only released after residents of Aboudiyeh blocked the main road that connects Lebanon to Syria.

The Syrian family Al Jazeera met has no choice but to live in fear near the border. Because several of its members fled Syria without identification cards after their house was shelled, they cannot move freely through Lebanese army checkpoints outside the town.

Meanwhile, most of Merweb's neighbours have abandoned their homes and left for safer parts of Lebanon. As an imam, however, he said he has a moral obligation to stay.

"My job is to calm people and help those who cannot leave the town withstand the difficulty through patience and prayers," Merweb said.

His wife sits next to him in their front yard, nodding her head in approval, while holding a piece of shrapnel in her hand.

"I need to show people that we should not give up on our town."

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Al Jazeera
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