Jon Stephenson Reflects on Life on the Syria-Lebanon Border

The border with Syria at the Lebanese town of Mashta. Photo: Jon Stephenson.
The border with Syria at the Lebanese town of Mashta. Photo: Jon Stephenson.

The civil war in Syria has now entered its fourth year, with some estimates putting the death toll at more than 200,000. The UN reported in September that six-and-a-half million Syrians have been displaced as a result of the conflict, of whom approximately 600,000 have fled to Jordan and a million to Lebanon. Many of these refugees are living in dire circumstances.

Journalist Jon Stephenson wrote this story after spending time last April on Lebanon’s border with Syria.

I SAT ON A ROOFTOP in the Lebanese village of Mashta as a Syrian government aircraft bombed the neighbouring village of Hosson, just across the border. It was a beautiful spring afternoon.

The jet made a terrible noise as it dived towards its target, and a cloud of dust and smoke billowed sideways and upwards from the town. The sound of the explosion rolled down the valley.

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“Bashar is crazy,” said my friend Fouad, raising his arms and shaking his head in disgust. “He is very, very crazy.”

Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria and a former eye doctor, was probably sitting in Damascus, unable to see his military’s handiwork in Hosson. But the craziness was clearly visible in Mashta – if you could get there, that is.

“You cannot go to the border,” an intelligence officer told me on my way to the town. “It’s a restricted area and you do not have permission.”

Fouad’s buddy Anwar had suggested we push on regardless. We jumped on a local bus and slunk in our seats down the back. The Lebanese soldiers at the next checkpoint were busy inspecting cars; they gave the bus to Mashta a cursory look and waved us towards the war.

Fouad walked to the side of his roof and pointed at the nearby hillside. He said a Syrian army rocket had exploded there recently after straying across the border, narrowly missing his home. “Crazy,” he said, laughing in disbelief.

He took me downstairs to the ground floor of his two-storey house, which he’d rented to a family of refugees – part of the human tide that has flooded Lebanon since Syria began to tear itself apart in March 2011.

“Before the war, population Mashta four thousand,” said Fouad, in his heavily-accented English. “Population today twelve thousand. In Mashta come eight thousand Syrians.”

The numbers were hard to believe, but Syrian refugees were everywhere. Like many, the ones in Fouad’s house had come from the embattled city of Homs, once an hour away by road but now in another world altogether.

They had an anxious and unsettled look, which was hardly surprising given the horrors they had witnessed. They’d arrived with little more than the clothes that they were wearing, yet refused to let the westerner leave without offering their hospitality.

“Please,” one man said, “You must join us for tea and food.”

“Sad,” said Fouad, as we left. “Very sad.”

Other Syrians were clustered nearby – some in a refugee camp, others in a school. All of them had the necessities of life, but their conditions were otherwise woeful. Some of the kids played soccer; others stared at me through sad and distant eyes.

I wondered how the refugees could sleep at night when the throaty thunder of bombing in Syria could be clearly heard in the distance. I wondered how it must feel to be on the safe side of the border while your friends and relatives were trapped on the other.

By the end of the day, details of the bombing I’d witnessed had filtered through from Hosson: half-a-dozen women and children were reportedly among the dead and injured – relatives of people in Mashta. The reaction was muted, one of helplessness rather than anger.

Every refugee we met had the same view on the state of life in Syria. The situation in Homs was very bad, they said: fighting was fierce and there was hardly any food. Hospitals were packed but medical supplies were exhausted.

A Syrian government border tower, viewed from the Lebanese town of Mashta. Photo: Jon Stephenson.
A Syrian government border tower, viewed from the Lebanese town of Mashta. Photo: Jon Stephenson.

Bashar’s soldiers were entering homes and killing civilians, they added – even dragging the wounded from their hospital beds to shoot them. Who would come to their aid, they asked me. Where was the international community?

A few of the Syrians had jobs, like the baker I met that week in a shop on Mashta’s main street, churning out naan bread and pizza. “New Zealand!” he said, as if it were paradise.

Fouad and I took some pizza and went to a clearing in an olive grove to chat with local Lebanese. Like most in the town they had relatives in Hosson; all were opposed to the Syrian government, and all supported the rebels that were fighting Bashar’s forces.

They showed me cellphone video of the fighting and pictures of the dead and wounded. One showed a little girl with a puzzled look and both legs torn off at the knee, her shredded and bloodied skin hanging horribly in folds.

No one knew what to say. Fouad just shook his head.

Bullet holes in a house at the Lebanese border town of Mashta. Locals say the Syrian government forces frequently fire across the border. Photo: Jon Stephenson.
Bullet holes in a house at the Lebanese border town of Mashta. Locals say the Syrian government forces frequently fire across the border. Photo: Jon Stephenson.
Later he drove me around Mashta in his bloated, belching Mercedes, pointing to buildings pock-marked by bullets.

“Look here, Mr Jon,” he said, parking by a house near the border. “Army Syria do that.” He shook his head again.

“Be careful,” he added, as we got out of the car. “There is very danger. Soldier Syria, he shoot anytime.”

A handful of locals had been crossing the border to shoot back at the army – so-called mujahideen, committed to defending their Sunni brethren from Bashar’s Shia-led regime, which is backed by Shia-dominated Iran and the Shia militant movement Hezbollah. Mustafa was one of them.

We found him at his parents’ home, so close to Syria that we could clearly see one of Bashar’s tanks – a low dark shape in the tall grass; a metallic crocodile waiting to strike. In the distance, on a ridge, perched a Syrian border tower.

Mustafa was 25, slightly-built and softly-spoken, with short black hair and a semi-beard, wearing jeans and a faded green jacket. He sat in the living room watching news about Syria on satellite TV.

For Mustafa the war was deeply personal: his father was Lebanese but his mother was Syrian, and his relatives in nearby Hosson were among those suffering. One of his cousins had been killed there.

“I went to fight in Hosson because Bashar sent his aircraft not to kill rebels but to murder women and children,” he told me. “It is dangerous, but I’m not afraid of dying.”

Mustafa said he’d fought with the rebels on three occasions in the past two years and was planning to go back soon to Syria. He invited me to join him.

It was tempting, but risky. “Thanks,” I replied. “Maybe later.”

I called Fouad when I returned to Lebanon in autumn, hoping to arrange another meeting with Mustafa. But Fouad had bad news.

“Mustafa mujahid is dead,” he said, using the Arabic word for Islamic holy warrior. He told me Mustafa had been killed a few weeks earlier, during heavy fighting at Hosson.

To his family and friends he’ll be a shahid – a martyr who gave his life in a righteous cause, defending Sunni civilians from the army of a Shia tyrant. To me it was just another pointless death in a savage and senseless war.

Jon Stephenson has received numerous awards for his journalism, including the Bayeux-Calvados Prize for War Correspondents which he won in 2006 for a two-part Metro magazine feature from Iraq, and again in 2011 for his investigation on New Zealand’s involvement in the transfer of detainees to torture in Afghanistan – again published in Metro magazine. This is Jon’s first feature published in TheDailyBlog.

WANT TO HELP? Donations for emergency relief to Syrian refugees can be made to any of the following organisations:


  1. This article offers a humanitarian, kiwi perspective on a dirty war about which almost no one in NZ cares. Here we are with our local media obsessed with what Kate is wearing, drooling over the infantile antics of baby George or trying to connect Dotcom with Adolph Hitler.

    Stephenson’s valuable work is all but ignored by the mainstream and the gatekeepers of the various outlets who seem to want to endlessly pander to celebrities and sensational revelations about their daily indiscretions.

    They do us and our society a great disservice by treating us like mushrooms… kept in the dark and fed on bullshit

  2. “To me it was just another pointless death in a savage and senseless war.”
    Stephenson is a good journalist, but he also expresses a Western detachment from a war for which the West is culpable, having indulged Assad’s dictatorship and refused to arm the revolution.
    This detachment, unwillingness to see the ‘sense’ of this war, is an unfortunate expression of Eurocentrism.

    • I can see that you are a Westerner from your name, so the question that comes to my mind is what makes you think that you understand the situation in Syria better than Mr Stephenson? What makes you think you are not suffering from Euro-centrism? I can assure you that Mr Stephenson spent more time in the Middle East than you, and talked to Middle Easterners more than you talked. I am from there. I met him many times over there and I know how he works.
      What really catches my attention here is that you and Vaughan are advocating war. You are supporting opposing sides but both of you see war as the solution for this conflict, and both of you hated Mr Stephenson’s work. To me that is a proof that is Mr Stephenson’s work reflects a humanitarian approach to the conflict, and that he is on the right track. He is reporting facts that do not serve the war agenda, facts reflecting dreams of refugees. Those dreams must be an end to a war that tore their country and their lives.

  3. Assad was democratically elected and maintains healthy support within the Syrian population. Unfortunately for Washington, they know if democratic elections were held tomorrow, Assad would win comfortably.

    Obama wants to topple another democratically elected Govt – Washington wants Assad gone because he refuses to play by Barry’s rules.

    Quote: “. . .since Syria began to tear itself apart in March 2011.”

    Bullshit, Syria is NOT tearing itself apart. The destabilisation that has/is taking place is at the behest of Washington, using proxy ‘rebel’ forces in the form of al-Qaeda et al. So much for the so-called War On Terror!

    US / NATO et al are conducting another WAR OF TERROR using Turkey to initiate false flag operations using chemical weapons to try and frame Assad, giving the murderous Pentagon thugs the excuse they need to topple Assad.

    Washington is tearing Syria apart – the Syrian Army is defending their sovereign Nation. We must be careful not to become a Washington mouth-piece, and not disseminate the lies / Western propaganda bullshit that pervades our mainstream media. Obama needs to go for the war criminal that he is – write about that Jon.

    The War on Syria has Taken a U-turn – Assad Is There to Stay:

    • I am not sure where you are from sir but I am sure about one thing; The words Assad and democracy cannot be used in the same sentence.
      I was just a cross the border when his father passed away and I saw how “democratically” was the transition. How the parliament changed the laws to fit him on the next day, and how 37 days after he was the president. I can call that anything but democratically elected.
      The revolution in Syria started as peaceful demonstrations. So to say: “The destabilisation that has/is taking place is at the behest of Washington, using proxy ‘rebel’ force” is wrong. There were no rebel forces at the beginning of the revolution. People took off to the streets looking for democracy, but they found live bullets, tanks’ shells and jet fighters. Blaming everything on the Americans does not really work in this case.
      To be fair though, Bashar Alassad gave his people four choices: death, exile, slavery or becoming his thugs.

      • Mr Stephenson reports this as religious war. Sectarian.
        There is much evidence of it being provoked and sustained by western covert actions with global ‘interests’ to exploit.

        There are mutilated children everywhere. It is our civilizations gift to the future. And goddamn every utility of their pain for propaganda.
        Both ‘sides’ of this attrition….this protraction, can be accused of war crimes. The alNusra brigade use of ‘kitchen sarin’ via Turkey and the disgusting placement of the bodies of children reported stolen from the Alawite village massacres in Latakia for the staged Ghouta ‘gas attack’; for example.
        I imagine the relatives in the north will feel just as hard toward ‘rebel’ brigades engineering Ghouta atrocity as Nazayer might think of Bashir Assad. Who may well be all that is said of him; but look who is awaiting in the wings. alNusra. AlCiada.
        NATO R2P.
        If that same alNusra false flag had succeeded, crossing the Obama rat-line….sorry, ‘red-line’; NATO/USA and their attendants would have released 2000lb bombs on the infrastructure – that is the STREETS – of Damascus, killing hundreds if not thousands of civilians- in a ‘humanitarian intervention’; in aid of the ‘democracy’ we flutter at through these contrivances.
        To aid the loosing alNusra mercenary jihadists.
        Research operation GLADIO as it pertains to the present situation.
        It is easy to find and may help discussion going forward.

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