Fleeing Syrian activists are finding a haven in Libya

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 22, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — Syrian activists fleeing persecution for taking part in the six-month-old revolt against their government are flocking to Libya, where they face no visa requirements and can find work easily because of the exodus of foreign laborers during the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi.

With fresh bullet wounds, emotional trauma and little cash, the Syrians trade experiences with one another largely without fear of Syrian President Bashar Assad's security apparatus. They also are consulting with Libyan activists on the merit of armed rebellion, with many now convinced that taking up weapons is their only hope for toppling Assad, who remains firmly in place despite months of peaceful protests, tougher sanctions and calls from the United States and Europe for his ouster.

Several Syrians who hail from the flash point towns of Deraa, Homs and Hama, interviewed here this week, said a minority of protesters already had used weapons against Assad's forces. They described rogue attacks on checkpoints and convoys, and one told of his role in bombing a bus that was carrying militia members.

The only obstacles to wider violence, they said, are a scarcity of guns and the threat of regime airstrikes.

"We're discussing weapons, but we don't even have weapons," said Amer Abdelkarim Rifai, 47, a carpenter from Homs who fled to Libya a month ago after serving time in prison for protesting. "Our cities are ghost towns now, with schools closed and shops empty, but we'll die of starvation before we stop this revolution."

"At this point, if weapons were available, we'd all go out as fighters," agreed Abu Abdo, a slim 26-year-old vegetable seller, also from Homs, who met the other men when he arrived Tuesday in Libya. He used a pseudonym to protect his family in Syria. "We came out peacefully and they killed us. This is not a fair fight."

With outside journalists barred from Syria, it's been impossible to report with certainty what's taking place in the country, where as many as 2,600 people have been killed — by United Nations estimates — in Assad's crackdown on political dissidents, who've held massive rallies throughout Syria for months. Assad's government has asserted that it was responding to armed attacks, a position that most observers think is exaggerated.

The refugees in Libya, however, provide a rare inside look at what's taken place in their country in recent months.

A man from Deraa choked up several times as he recounted how, less than two weeks ago, he and three friends built a homemade bomb packed with nails and ball bearings and lobbed it at a bus that belonged to the regime's feared Shabiha militia. He said there were injuries, but no deaths.

His account was impossible to verify. On Sept. 7, however, the Syrian state news service SANA reported an attack that matched his description, saying that about 11 law enforcement personnel and four civilians — including a father and his two sons — were injured when an "armed terrorist group" attacked a military bus near Deraa. The agency said the explosive device used contained metal pieces, steel nails and metal balls to cause the largest possible number of casualties.

Authorities figured out who was behind the attack on the same day, he said, so he bribed his way out of the country that night and headed for Libya. Using the route that most Syrians have taken, he flew to Cairo and then made the 18-hour drive to Benghazi in a minibus filled with his compatriots.

The man, a burly construction worker with a heart tattooed on his arm, fidgeted and chain-smoked throughout a two-hour interview. His eyes filled with tears as he described his month in prison after being rounded up at a protest. He rolled up his trouser cuff to reveal a scarlet bullet wound just below his kneecap. It had swollen his leg to twice the size of the other.

"I have hellfire in my heart now from all I've seen in my city," said the man, who used the pseudonym Abu Laith for security reasons. "If I had a chance to kill them all, I wouldn't hesitate."

Other Syrians who recently escaped to Libya, however, say armed rebellion is too risky. It could cost the protest movement international legitimacy and might provide the Assad regime with even greater incentive to use force. They note that Assad's minority Alawite sect is better armed than the protesters are, who for the most part are Sunni Muslim Arabs, Kurds and Christians.

While some say they would favor the West taking stronger action, as the NATO alliance did in Libya, they fear that civil war in Syria would invite a foreign military occupation.

"Regardless of whether the international community stands with us, we must keep our protests peaceful," said another Deraa native, Abu Mohamed, 40, a soft-spoken pharmacist with salt-and-pepper hair. He barely had time to say goodbye to his two daughters before escaping Sept. 15 after a warning that authorities were coming to arrest him for his role in the protests.

"We wish the West would kick out all the Syrian diplomats, impose a no-fly zone and force the regime to let the media and the Red Crescent see what we're enduring," Abu Mohamed said. "This regime must be completely isolated."

Exactly how many Syrians have entered Libya since Gadhafi's regime collapsed is unknown, but they easily number in the hundreds, according to a newly formed group called the Libyan National Coalition to Support the Syrian Revolution.

The group was founded by Mohamed al Jammal, an Islamic studies professor who was born in Hama, Syria, but has lived in Libya for years and is close to the Libyan revolutionary committee in Benghazi.

The new group assists the shellshocked new arrivals in adjusting to life here. It also documents their stories of abuses and helps them keep in touch with relatives and fellow activists via satellite phones.

For now, members of the coalition said, they're urging protesters to keep their demonstrations peaceful, but they acknowledge that their contacts in Syria are growing antsy.

"If we turn violent, all of Syria will be a graveyard," said Abdel Ilah Ramdoun, a Homs-born activist and a spokesman for the Libyan-Syrian support coalition. "Now, Assad kills maybe 10 people a day. If we use weapons, that number will be in the hundreds, maybe thousands."

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