Fleeing For Lebanon, Syrian Christians Are Stranded Between Regime And Rebels

A Syrian refugee who has just crossed the border into Lebanon
A Syrian refugee who has just crossed the border into Lebanon
Laure Stephan

BEIRUT - Elias, a 42-year-old Syrian, is chain smoking under the silent gaze of his children. This Christian farmer abandoned his lands, near the Lebanese border, leaving behind conflicts he felt had nothing to do with him, but tormented by the future of Syria and the fate of his minority religion there.

Together with 20 members of his family, he fled the clashes between the insurgents and Bashar-Al-Assad's forces, and the "thugs who are taking advantage of the chaos." Since then he has settled at his parents' in Zahleh, a city in the Lebanese Bekaa governorate that is mostly Christian. With his family, he is one of the handful of Christians among the approximately 37,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Elias gets flustered when asked about the position of Christians in Syria. They represent five to 10 percent of the population and are often described as close to the Assads -- or at the very least, passive. Elias says his home village, Rableh, is "100 percent Christian and 100 percent pro-Assad." Then he corrects himself: "Christians in Syria are neutral. They are neither with the regime nor with the rebels.”

The farmer never subscribed to the uprising. "At the beginning of the movement, I attended demonstrations in Homs or Al-Qusayr," -- his village is near these two insurgent cities -- "But I didn't identify with it. It isn't a multi-religious movement. Most Christians and Alawites stayed home," he says. "I don't want the war."

Yet among the icons of the revolution, there are Christians like Bassel Shéhadé. This young filmmaker was killed on May 28 in Homs where he was filming the uprising and the repression. His funeral in Damascus was banned by the regime.

In Bauchrieh, Beirut's Christian suburb, images of the Virgin Mary and a cross decorate the living room of a tiny two-room apartment where two Syrian families squeeze in together. Georges, 18, and Tony, 16, find it hard to talk. "It would have been simpler if there hadn’t been an uprising," finally says the eldest. "Everything would have stayed the way it was, the way we were used to."

The two Christian orthodox brothers witnessed the regime assaults on their city, Zabadani, which is west of Damascus near the Lebanese border. They saw their father die under loyalist bombs during the winter of 2011. "When he died, after the bombings and the unjust civilian deaths, we finally opened our eyes and realized we had supported the regime because we were afraid," says Tony. "We didn't go down to protest in the street, but in our hearts, we had joined the revolution."

Manipulated by the regime

Now orphans (their mother died when they were little), Tony and Georges took back sideroads to cross the border with their sister Mariam, 20, her baby and her husband. The young woman is angry. "When we heard the stories about the Christians in Homs, we were scared," she says. "There were rapes, kidnappings. The regime blamed the rebels, but it was more likely shabiha (pro-regime militias). For months, the regime tried to terrorize Christians, by fueling rumors that Sunnis and rebels were going to slit our throats. The regime manipulated us."

In the house in Zahleh, Elias' mother also speaks of "atrocities committed by rebels against Christians in Homs." She says she is scared, but Elias doesn't let her finish. "The conflict isn't between Sunnis and Alawites, or Sunnis and Christians, but between pro and anti-regime. The "atrocities" mother is talking about -- the kidnappings in Al-Qusayr of relatives of Christians working for the regime forces -- "don't happen because you are Christian, but because you are with the regime.”

In his village, Elias saw many insurgents who came to stock up on supplies. He rejects the regime rhetoric, which accuses Islamist gangs of being responsible for the uprising. "There are a few fundamentalists among the rebels, guys we'd never seen before. But the demonstrators are people like you and me, not extremists. They belong to the Sunni majority, which wants to reclaim its rights as a majority," he says.

Most of the Syrian Catholic Churches hierarchy supported the regime for a long time, before showing more restraint, most notably after the Vatican expressed worries. In Bauchrieh, Mariam is convinced that "the bishops want to save their hides." "That's why they say nothing about the repression," she says. "But not all of them are with the regime."

Elias believes that the number of victims (more than 23,000, according to opposition activists) is "exaggerated," and hopes that "Bashar's regime will stay in place, because otherwise it will be a real civil war."

For his part, young George dreams of a return to stability. "I'm not afraid of power returning in the Sunni majority's hands, as long as the future state is fair," he says.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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