MASHARIH AL-QAA, Lebanon: The Russian Mi-24 helicopter gunship, just visible in the dawn haze, performed large sedate circles high above the Syrian border village of Jusiyah, seemingly confident that it faced no threat from the Free Syrian Army fighters hidden below.
As it flew over the village again, a powerful blast among the buildings sent up a cloud of black smoke and a shockwave that thumped across the border into Lebanon and over the flat fields and orchards of Masharih al-Qaa to the south.
“The helicopters are dropping barrels filled with TNT,” said Ismael, a Lebanese volunteer with the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade, a component of the larger Omar Farouq Brigade, one of the leading FSA units.
“We lost 10 of our men yesterday [Tuesday] when one of those explosive barrels landed on a fighting position,” he added gazing at the helicopter with a hand shading his eyes.
Masharih al-Qaa, home to mainly Sunni-populated farms scattered across a flat agricultural landscape in the northeast corner of the Bekaa, has become a de facto safe haven for the FSA engaged in daily battles against the Syrian regime across the border. Several FSA fighters were resting from the fighting in a large tent erected beside a small farmhouse a little more than a kilometer from the border and surrounded by fields of cabbage, lentils and potatoes.
The authorities generally have turned a blind eye to the FSA activities in Masharih al-Qaa, which lies north of the customs post in the town of Qaa. In return, the FSA militants say that they leave their weapons behind before crossing the border and do not launch attacks from here against Syrian troops.
Ismael, previously a farmer from Masharih al-Qaa, and his companions in the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade, a mix of Lebanese, Syrians and other Arab nationalities, have been engaged in bloody battles just across the border. Late last week, the Syrian military stepped up its air and artillery strikes against Jusiyah in an attempt to crush the FSA fighters in the village.
The FSA militants claimed to have shot down a MiG fighter jet Friday which was on a low level bombing run over Jusiyah.
“It was almost at tree top level and we hit it with a Shilka,” said Khalil, another Lebanese volunteer with the Jusiyah Martyrs Brigade, referring to a 23mm anti-aircraft cannon. He added that the jet had crashed near Qusayr, 5 kilometers to the north, and that the captured MiG pilot was a Russian who was being held prisoner.
While the story of the downed MiG and Russian pilot appeared to be widely known among FSA militants interviewed over a 24-hour period in Masharih al-Qaa, it was impossible to corroborate the claim and there were no references to the incident elsewhere.As the sun sank behind the towering mountains to the west, a generator clattered into action, providing some light inside the tent and power for a small TV set that flickered images of news updates on the war in Syria. The generator was not so loud, however, to drown out the crump of artillery shelling just across the border.
Jusiyah’s location on the border with Lebanon makes it a strategic asset for the FSA as it allows militants to enter and exit Syria with relative ease. But the intensified shelling and aerial bombardments have reduced the FSA’s control and left them desperately short of food and ammunition.
“There’s no food, no water, no milk for the children. Jusiyah was in our hands but you can say it’s in the regime’s hands now,” said Hussein, a middle-aged Syrian and former irrigation engineer who leads a unit in the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade.
During the night, fighters from the brigade tried to snatch a few hours sleep, lying on foam mattresses on the floor and ignoring the distant artillery fire. Occasionally, ringing cellphones informed the fighters that more of their colleagues, friends or family were attempting to slip into Lebanon through the mountains.
“It seems everyone’s leaving the area tonight,” said one fighter.
Bursts of heavy machine-gun fire from a Syrian army position on the border punctured the night air. Red dots of tracer flew slowly through the darkness as the Syrian soldiers attempted to intercept militants and refugees scrambling across the barren mountain slopes in a dash for the cover of the orchards in Masharih al-Qaa.
By dawn, an estimated 500 to 700 people had escaped Jusiyah overnight. A group of a dozen women and small children sat wide-eyed with exhaustion on the floor of a small room, having walked in the darkness for 10 hours.
“It was a very hard journey. We had to walk and then stop for cover to avoid the machine-gun fire,” said Abu Ahmad, a thickly bearded Lebanese militant who had accompanied his wife, two children and mother from Jusiyah. “I had to get them out. But my father is still in Jusiyah. He refused to leave.”
His cellphone rang. A friend on the line told Abu Ahmad that his group had been lost somewhere on the border.
“Are you near the peach trees or the plum trees?” Abu Ahmad asked.
“I don’t know, wait,” said a tinny voice over the phone’s loudspeaker. “I think the plum trees.”
“Okay, we are coming to get you,” Abu Ahmad said.
“Please bring some water with you. We haven’t had any since yesterday,” the voice replied.
The helicopter gunship floated above Jusiyah as artillery shells continued to explode in the vicinity.
“It will be a setback if we lose Jusiyah to the regime,” said Hussein, adding: “If we control Jusiyah, we can reach Qusayr and if we can reach Qusayr, we can reach Homs.”
Squinting at the distant helicopter, he added: “We need anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles. That’s all. With those, we can win this war.”