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Lebanese mourners carry the body of Khalid Al Hujairi during his funeral in the eastern village of Arsal on the Lebanese-Syrian border on Saturday, after he died of wounds sustained in shootings at the border. Image Credit: AFP

Wadi Khalid, Lebanon: In a rocky valley at the northern tip of Lebanon, three generations of a Syrian farming family cluster around a small gas heater in the derelict schoolhouse that has become their refuge.

Interrupting one another in a rush to be heard, family members describe communities under siege by an iron-fisted state, and village turning against village in a chilling cycle of abductions, beatings and killings.

The account given by the family, echoed by others across a valley brimming with refugees, illustrates Syria's descent from a mostly peaceful uprising into ferocious bloodletting that in some places is beginning to resemble civil war.

Around Homs, military defectors and civilians, most of them members of the Sunni Muslim majority, are taking up arms to defend their communities against security forces controlled by members of President Bashar Al Assad's minority Alawite sect, a small Shiite Muslim offshoot.

Uncorroborated

Sunnis have dominated the anti-government protests. Bodies have been dumped in the streets, conjuring images of the sectarian killing that ripped apart neighbouring Iraq. Because foreign reporters have mostly been barred from Syria, the family's stories couldn't be independently corroborated.

But their accounts were consistent with reports from human rights groups and anti-Al Assad activists. Leaders in this valley, so close that explosions in Syria can be heard, say that as many as 3,000 refugees are being sheltered here by families and in schools.

Umm Faris' family, Sunnis, chafed under the Al Assad family, which has controlled the government for decades. But they never dared speak out. "You didn't think of protesting," Abu Faris said. But when they saw popular uprisings topple longtime rulers in Tunisia and Egypt early this year, they began to wonder whether Syria too could change.

Marches

At first, only a few men from the family took part in small marches down the main road of their village. But when security forces opened fire in March, allegedly shooting one of the protesters in the head, the whole family was galvanised into action.

The more lives lost, the bigger the protests became, they said. Before sunrise one August morning, electricity in the village was cut and armed forces swooped in.

Hoping they would leave the family alone, Abu Faris said, he went out to offer the men water. But he said they descended on his home, smashing dishes and furniture, snatching computers and knocking down the ceiling fans.

Among those taking part in the raid were people they said they recognised from a neighbouring Alawite village who had joined pro-Al Assad militias known as the Shabiha, an expression derived from the Arabic word for ghosts. Al Assad retains considerable support among minorities who fear they will be killed if the government falls.

Seventy-five people were arrested in the village that day, according to the family.

The bodies of two were returned to their families and, of the others, three have not been heard from since, they said.

In another abandoned school nearby, now home to more than 20 families, a gaunt young painter named Abu Farad and his pale, expressionless wife related a painful loss and a much more difficult time fleeing Syria. Abu Farad cradled his newborn son.

They came from the southern Daraa region, where he said he would sit on friends' shoulders and lead protest chants. Security forces came looking for him, and when they didn't find him, took away the couple's three-year-old son. Soon after, Abu Farad was caught.

Home shelled

In detention, he was beaten, cut with razor blades, given electric shocks and then left on the street for dead. Friends found him and hid him. He then learned that his home had been shelled.

He raced back to find a pile of rubble. That's when his wife told him their son's body had been returned with three bullet wounds. When the couple fled, Abu Farad's wife was eight months pregnant with their second child.

They walked for four days, with a bottle of water and two loaves of bread to sustain them. They reached Lebanon late last month and found refuge in the corner of a classroom here. Days later, their second son was born.

— Los Angeles Times