ZAYTA, Syria (Reuters) - One hot night last summer, Rajaa Taher grabbed a few essentials and fled her home in the Syrian village of Saqarja with her husband and children, escaping across farmlands to Zayta just a few hundred metres away.
Taher, a Shi’ite, said she was threatened by Sunni Muslim rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad in the largely unmarked border region where Syria merges into Lebanon - an old smuggling area where Syrians and Lebanese, Shi’ites and Sunnis once lived together oblivious to national or sectarian boundaries.
Now the border region has become one of many flashpoints in Syria’s increasingly violent and sectarian conflict, which threatens more and more to drag in its tiny neighbour Lebanon, where many Sunnis back the revolt and many Shi’ites back Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
If the bloodshed seeps into Lebanon, where sectarian faultlines have been exacerbated by the nearly two years of crisis in Syria, the countryside around Taher’s village nestled just north of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley may be one of the gateways for the spread.
The area is of strategic importance for the rebels who would be able to link Homs province in Syria to Sunni areas inside Lebanon for weapons and fighters. It is important for Lebanon’s Shi’ite militants Hezbollah to stop the rebels from taking over these Shi’ites villages as they will be a stone’s throw away from Hermel, one of the group’s strongholds.
Already rebels accuse Hezbollah of sending forces into the area to fight alongside Assad’s army - a charge the group denies, although it says there are Hezbollah members living and fighting among the estimated 30,000 Lebanese nationals in two dozen religiously mixed villages but with Shi’ites in the majority just inside Syria.
Taher and other Shi’ite and Alawite villagers tell another story, saying Sunni rebels have intimidated, expelled and killed Shi’ites as they seek to control territory close to Syria’s third largest city, Homs.
“We were neighbours. We lived there together for years and years,” said the 39-year-old woman, dressed in black like many others displaced from nearby villages.
“Then they sent us a message...that we are Shi’ites and we have no right to own land or a house or anything and we have to leave. They burned the house. They took our cows,” she said.
“They took my brother-in-law and we don’t know what happened to him. We left the village when they started calling from the mosque speakers for Jihad. We left under bullets,” she said tearfully, adding that her nephew was recently killed.
“What do they want from us? We were all one family living together ... Do they hate us just because we are Shi’ites?”
There is little to suggest that the dusty road heading towards Zayta from northern Lebanon is crossing into another country, aside from one small checkpoint where Syrian troops sit lazily waving cars through.
The road becomes a tree-lined avenue, passing through fields green with the shoots of wheat seedlings as it approaches Zayta, the biggest village in the region. Even though ninety percent of the residents are Lebanese, the village is Syrian.
A few residents sit outside the houses scattered on the village edge. Cows graze and give visitors a careless look.
But the tranquil outskirts and open fields contrast with the centre of the village, where houses are packed close together and residents tell tales of being forced from their villages nearby and fighting back against the rebels.
In Zayta, where pictures of Assad hang in schools and public buildings, people describe the fighting as self-defence against rebels driven by hardline jihadi ideology who used to drive into the village, waving their guns and threatening the residents. Residents say they formed armed groups, known as ‘Popular Committees’, to defend their lives and their land.
“The Syrian army had greater priorities than these small villages so people sold their land or their cattle and bought weapons,” said Abu Hussein, regional head of the Popular Committees. He declined to say how many fighters were involved, but said they were enough for the task.
“Most of the people here have relatives inside Lebanon who offered help but we refused... So far we have been capable of pushing back the attacks so we do not need help,” he said.
Last month clashes erupted between rebels and the Popular Committees and at least two Shi’ite fighters and five rebels were killed.
Despite his insistence that the villagers were fighting only in self-defence and without outside assistance, rebels have repeatedly accused Hezbollah - an ally of Assad’s which has relied for years on weapons from Syria - of taking part.
They point to recent funerals in Lebanon for Hezbollah fighters who the group say were killed performing “their jihadi duties”, without specifying where or exactly how they died.
Abu Hussein said the powerful group, which fought the Israeli army to a standstill in a 34-day war seven years ago, was neither helping “formally nor in secret”.
“But it cannot at the same time stop its supporters or even those among its ranks from defending themselves, their land and possessions,” he said.
His comments echoed those of Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who denies sending guerrillas into Syria but says that the border villages are home to many Hezbollah fighters.
“They took up arms and bought weapons. We used to send them food rations the way we sent them to other people, but they sold the rations in order to buy weapons,” he said in October. “I cannot prevent them if they decide to stay and fight.”
The poor concrete houses now embrace more than one family as residents welcome Shi’ites and Alawites displaced from nearby villages. They share their food too.
With rebels and Islamists dominating the town of Qusair, Saqarja and other Sunni villages in Homs, the nearby city of Hermel on the Lebanese side has become essential to Zayta and nearby villages. Some residents take the 15-minute journey into Lebanon to buy their basic goods.
Those displaced in Zayta say they were pushed out of their homes in Homs or Qusair by rebel forces and fear that Sunni fighters may soon target Zayta.
Already young men have been kidnapped from Zayta, sparking a wave of tit-for-tat kidnappings, they say.
Free Syrian army fighters used to drive into the village from neighbouring Saqarja in pickup trucks to snatch young men. At one point the rebels took 21 men from one family, the Jaafars, who then kidnapped villagers from the other side, leading to a prisoner swap.
Abdullah al-Zain, a young man in his 20s, was snatched by rebels along with a friend from outside his hardware shop in Zayta and taken to Saqarja.
“I was standing right here with my friend at around noon when they came,” he told Reuters from outside the shop. He said they blindfolded him and his friend and held them in Saqarja for six days.
“They used all kinds of torture on me. All the time I was blindfolded, a man would come to me and out the edge of the knife on my neck and tell me: Say your prayers am going to slaughter you now,” he said.
“I would say it and then he would laugh and remove the knife. He would do this at least eight times a day,” he said. “All the time they wanted me to say that I am a shabbiha (fighter) of Assad.”
“Then I heard that my friends kidnapped some of them and there was a swap. We were thrown here on the street,” he said, adding that he now fights with the Popular Committees.
Many attempts to reconcile between the towns failed. But the kidnappings have stopped since the Popular Committees were formed and now, almost every man aged between 18 and 50 is armed and has joined up.
Another woman from Saqarja said that before they escaped they used to see men coming to her neighbour’s house with long beards and flip flops - the accustomed look of ultra-conservative Sunnis.
“We did not think it was important. We thought they were their relatives from Saudi Arabia or something. But then our neighbours became like them and then they asked us to go.”
The villagers in Zayta say that much of their land has been confiscated by the rebels and they are now unable to plant it.
Kaaboul, a young Syrian fighter who was displaced from a neighbouring village with a Sunni majority said he joined a Popular Committee five months ago.
“The so-called (rebel) Free Army has confiscated our land. We have land that we used to plant with potatoes but they took it from us. I want it back,” he said.
“I am fighting here because I hope one day I will return to my village. I believe in God and even if after 100 years we will go back.”
His friends, wearing camouflage uniform and carrying Kalashnikov rifles, smile and agree.
“We are fighting to get our land back,” said one. “We are not fighting for Assad to stay as president - this is just a detail. My land and my house are very important to me.”
Editing by Dominic Evans and Sonya Hepinstall