HERMEL, Lebanon (AP) — In Shiite towns and villages near the border with Syria, residents who support Hezbollah are bearing the brunt of the militant Lebanese group’s growing involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Shells fired by Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni rebels regularly fall on the town, killing civilians, scaring off visitors and keeping schools and many shops shuttered.
Many believe the shelling is a message from Sunni extremists that there would be a price to pay for supporting the Shiite Muslim group.
This week, 20-year-old Loulou Awad was the latest victim of growing sectarian hatred on both sides of the border.
It was around sunset Monday when the first rocket from Syria slammed into her hometown of Hermel, a predominantly Shiite area in Lebanon’s northeastern corner. The hotel management student ran to the roof of her uncle’s house across the street from her parents’ apartment to see the damage.
Fifteen minutes later, the second rocket fell on the roof of her parents’ building, spraying shrapnel everywhere, including some that struck her head.
Her father, Abdullah, and her mother, Salma, were watching the main evening news bulletin when the second rocket hit their two-story house. The electricity was cut and dust filled the rooms. With the help of a lighter, Awad helped his wife outside their damaged home and rushed to the roof across the street where he found his daughter, face down, with shrapnel wounds in the back of her head.
“I knew immediately that she was dead,” said Awad taking a deep breath.
Rocket attacks on Hermel and nearby villages have killed three and wounded 21 over the past two months, according to residents and local officials.
The attacks appear to be retaliation for Hezbollah fighters’ support to President Bashar Assad’s forces in battles in the central Syrian province of Homs.
The Hermel region is overwhelmingly Shiite, and Hezbollah enjoys wide support among the population here. The town’s main Sabeel Square is decorated with giant posters of both Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and Assad.
Salma Awad said the loss of her daughter will not affect her support for Hezbollah.
“We are all for Sayyed Hassan (Nasrallah)” said Awad, dressed in black mourning clothes and holding a picture of her dead daughter.
Fighting between Hezbollah and Syrian opposition fighters began last year, mostly in Syrian border villages where many Lebanese Shiites have lived for decades.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war increased sharply in April, when the group’s fighters and Syrian government forces began a major offensive to recapture Qusair, which had fallen to the rebels shortly after the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
The regime and the opposition both value Qusair, which lies along a land corridor linking two Assad’s strongholds, the capital of Damascus and an area along the Mediterranean coast that is the heartland of his minority Alawite sect. For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon, just 10 kilometers (six miles) away.
Lebanon’s population is deeply divided over the war in Syria, with Sunnis supporting the rebels and Shiites backing Assad’s regime, dominated by Alawites — whose religion is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Hezbollah’s very public and bloody foray fighting alongside Assad’s regime against rebels in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war is a strategic shift for the group and one that comes with a steep price.
It risks wrecking the group’s already eroding image among many Lebanese as their champion and protector against Israel, which it drove out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and fought to a standstill in 2006.
By declaring war on Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, Hezbollah risks sparking retaliation from Lebanese Sunnis supporting their Syrian brethren or from the rebels themselves carrying out attacks against the Shiite group on its home turf in Lebanon. Recent rocket fire against a pro-Hezbollah neighborhood of Beirut underlined the threat of violence spreading.
In Hermel, a town with a population of nearly 70,000, the attacks now come on almost daily basis.
Mayor Bassam Taha said more than 65 rockets have hit the area in the past two months. He added that many families have fled with their children to areas outside rocket range.
“When rockets start falling, my little daughter hides in the corner,” said Taha, blowing on a cigarette while sitting behind his desk at his office in the center of town.
Before Syria’s uprising, which eventually turned into a civil war, residents of Hermel used to go to Qusair, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, for shopping or treatment at hospitals and clinics where prices were lower than in Lebanon.
A few weeks after the uprising began, a Lebanese citizen from Hermel who had been living in the Syrian village of Nizariyeh near Qusair for more than 20 years was killed by Sunni extremists in front of his house, Taha said.
Sectarian tensions have been simmering since then and worsened as the rebels captured some areas on the border with Lebanon last year, he said.
Tension peaked in April after Hezbollah fighters began openly crossing the border to fight in Syria.
Earlier this week, activists released a video showing rebels firing Russian-made Grad rockets toward Hermel. A rebel appeared in the video vowing to continue shelling Hezbollah’s stronghold inside Lebanon “until they withdraw from our territories.”
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
Rebels now regularly refer to Hezbollah, or Party of God, as “party of the devil.”
The rocket attacks have transformed life in Hermel, where streets are less crowded these days and schools have been closed for weeks. Many shops are also closed and restaurants around the Orontes river, famous for their fresh fish, are empty.
The rocket attacks have also stopped the flow of tourists and sports fans who came in large numbers every weekend for river rafting.
A day after Loulou Awad was killed, a rocket hit the home of Ali Qataya, a 48-year-old butcher, in central Hermel, wounding two women and causing extensive damage.
About three hours later, another rocket hit the same house, wounding three men who came to inspect the damage. Qataya’s mother and wife were lightly wounded by the first rocket.
“I fell on the ground and started bleeding” said Ali Jawhari, 23, bandaged where shrapnel hit him on the forehead and legs. “I heard its buzz then the explosion hit. I had no time to run away.”
There are fears that the rocket fire could expand and lead to sectarian battles in this region as well. So far, most of the street fighting has taken place in the coastal city of Tripoli about 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, where at least 28 people have been killed and over 200 wounded recently.
Jawhari’s father, Nayef, claimed that at least some of the rockets hitting Hermel were fired from the Lebanese Sunni town of Arsal, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, where support for the rebels fighting to topple Assad runs high. The claims could not be verified.
He said Hermel residents, a tribal region where even non-Hezbollah combatants have artillery and mortars, should impose a “formula of terror” from now on.
“The security of Arsal should be like the security of Hermel. When they fire a rocket, we fire 10. They wound one, we wound 10,” he said.