Syrian Families Seek Refuge in Wadi Khaled
Fleeing violence in Syria, Umm Maher left her husband and six sons behind and crossed into northern Lebanon, where she now shares a single room with 12 other family members.
"At night we roll out these mattresses and I sleep next to my daughter, two daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren," says the 60-year-old, pointing at futons rolled up against the wall.
"All I want is to go home to my husband, to my sons."
Umm Maher, who comes from the Syrian border village of Tall Kalakh, says the hospitality of the nearby Lebanese region of Wadi Khaled has allowed her and hundreds of others to seek refuge as unrest spread across their country.
More than 1,000 Syrians -- mainly women and children -- have since mid-week crossed into north Lebanon by foot from Tall Kalakh, two kilometers from the border.
Carrying mattresses and other basics, they enter Lebanon through Al-Buqayaa, an unofficial border crossing in Wadi Khaled, located in the Lebanese district of Akkar.
They say their town has been the scene of clashes between security forces and anti-regime protesters.
Tall Kalakh is a majority Sunni town, notorious for cross-border smuggling that falls in an area inhabited mainly by Alawites.
Now, the town has joined the list of Syrian communities which are braving the rule of Assad with once-unimaginable protests demanding the fall of his Baath regime.
"My husband asked me to take our kids and leave this morning because he was afraid new protests would begin" after the weekly Muslim prayers, said 50-year-old Umm Mohammed Farha, a mother of five who crossed on Friday.
"Yesterday we lost water and power (supplies) for a couple of hours, and this morning we saw about 10 tanks roll into town and that was when I decided to leave our house," said the Tall Kalakh resident.
Other Syrians who have arrived in Wadi Khaled, however, are unabashed in voicing support for their embattled president.
"May God protect Syria and its president," said Sabah al-Azzi, 50, who crossed into Wadi Khaled with her daughter and four grandchildren.
"We are here only to visit relatives. The media reports about protests in Syria are all lies."
Syria has been rocked since March 15 by increasingly deadly pro-democracy demonstrations against decades of rule by the Alawite-controlled Baath party.
Between 450 and 500 people have been killed, activists say, as security forces try to crush the uprising with live rounds and tear gas. More than 30 were killed on Friday alone, according to activists and Syrian officials.
But protesters in Tall Kalakh are also demanding the release of fellow townsfolk who have been arrested on charges of smuggling across the porous Lebanese-Syrian border.
Umm Khaled, 55, said she feared the situation in her hometown was turning hazardously unstable.
"I have three children. They were arrested a year and a half ago on smuggling charges, and only one has been released," she told Agence France Presse.
"The regime has armed the Alawite villages surrounding us and we have been defending ourselves after they started shooting at our homes," she added. "We will not allow anyone to trample on our dignity.
"Had my husband let me, I would have stayed and fought for my village."