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Ersal pays a high price for backing the Syrian revolt and assuming its humanitarian burden. The city and its environs host more than 25,000 refugees in addition to its existing population of 40,000 Lebanese. Tents pitched on rocky ground and makeshift houses are scattered around the city and its outskirts along the Syrian border.
Ersal’s leaders claim that their humanitarian support for the refugees is the reason behind a spate of summer attacks. Then there’s Ersal’s geographical location: it is the only Sunni enclave in a heavily Shiite area.
Neither side tries to hide its affiliation. Black pickup trucks driven to Ersal from Syria are adorned with hand-painted revolution flags. But in the surrounding Shiite areas, roads are lined by giant posters of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria.
Earlier this summer, local leaders were determined to convey that their relations with the surrounding Shiite localities were completely normal. “Everything is fine,” they answered, smiles strained.
The death of four Shia men near Ersal on June 16 was a turning point for this town. A group of gunmen who were convinced the murderers were from Ersal blocked the only access road to the city from Laboueh, a village located at the foot of the mountain upon which Ersal sits. It remained under siege for five days, and by the end, bread was scarce.
A delegation of politicians sent from Beirut finally restored calm. But the truce was tenuous. The killing of the four Shiites had not occurred in a vacuum: five days before, the brother of a well-known Salafi sheik from Ersal had been shot in the head. The killing took place on the road to Hermel, a Hezbollah fiefdom. On June 12, Syrian troops lobbed six rockets into the center of Ersal. Some houses were damaged and one man was hospitalized.
An elderly Ersal resident named Youssef was sleeping on his sofa when a missile shattered his windows. “The Syrian regime wants us to stop supporting the revolution, but it is what we chose to do,” he said. While most won’t admit they are scared of the situation, a few divulge anxiety. “Five Syrian men living in Ersal were on their way to Tripoli and were severely beaten up in Laboueh,” one Syrian refugee here said. “We feel very isolated.”
The Last Smuggling Route
Ersal is a strategic base for the Syrian rebels. Since the Syrian regime and Hezbollah took back the entire Qusayr region and continued to advance in Homs province and towards Damascus province, its position is critical.
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In June, many rebels were taking time to rest here with their families, who had fled the deteriorating situation several months before. In a tiny room, Ahmed, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army’s large Farouk brigade, sat on a mattress on the ground.
He had escaped to Ersal after fighting Hezbollah in Qusayr, but was determined to go back. “I am here for 10 to 15 days maximum, waiting to get new weapons,” he said. “The sooner I go back, the better.” (Wounded fighters and civilians also pass through Ersal on their way to public hospitals in the Bekaa, where they are not always welcome.
Ersal is also a historic smuggling route between Syria and Lebanon. At the end of a dusty road surrounded by mountains is a luxurious house. Its owner, Mahmoud, said he had the foresight to leave oil smuggling for the more lucrative weapons trade a few months before the Syrian revolt militarized.
“Business was booming even before the first peaceful demonstrations started,” he said. “We predicted that the regime would reject any dialogue and would deal with the people violently.”
Until now, Mahmoud has managed to smuggle weapons shipments to Syria. The journey has grown more dangerous. “For more than two weeks the border has been heavily bombed,” he said.
Once Neighbors, Now Enemies
In the Ersal region, where Shiites and Sunnis once did business, a mutual distrust is on the rise.
One local leader (who did not want to be named) said he fears that residents could fall into a dangerous trap. “We are afraid that Ersal is being provoked. When we react, it will provide an excuse for the surrounding Shiite areas to attack the city,” he said.
In neighboring Laboueh, the distrust is just as pronounced. “In Ersal they are all terrorists who support Jabhat al-Nusra,” a young man yelled. Taxis are rarely willing to travel back and forth.
In Ersal, the atmosphere is similar. A Syrian rebel fighter explained calmly why he launched several rockets towards Hermel: “The Hezbollah members who fight in Syria with the regime are from there.” He showed no empathy for the civilian casualties of his rockets. “I don’t care if I kill Shia civilians. Hezbollah does the same thing with Sunni civilians in Syria.”
Many civilians are just as angry as the fighters. Even Tarek, a jovial hairdresser with a fancy salon in the middle of town, gets upset when he talks about his Shiite neighbors, saying their provocations have gone too far.
“I used to be against the idea of helping the Syrian rebels attack Lebanese Shiites, but now I changed my mind,” he said, shouting his views loudly enough for all of his clients to hear.