In Lebanon, a rape and murder galvanize anti-Syrian fervor

It was almost dawn in the northern Lebanese hamlet of Miziara when the killer made his way to the young woman’s bedroom.

He threatened her with a knife, then bound her with cable ties and raped her before slipping a plastic bag over her head, suffocating her.

He cleaned up the room and left.

The suspect caught a day later was a Syrian caretaker, Basel Hmoudi, who had worked at the wealthy Chidiac family’s mansion for three years. He confessed to the slaying last month, authorities said. The victim, Raya Chidiac, was 26.

The case might have proceeded quietly as the suspect faced murder charges, but his status as one of about 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, many of them refugees fleeing the vicious six-year civil war raging through their country, has made it a rallying cry for the growing number of Lebanese who want all Syrians to go elsewhere.

“They are raiders of the land and honor,” Karim Bouchmone, Chidiac’s fiance, said during a recent demonstration in Miziara organized by the Raya Chidiac Initiative, which aims to reduce the number of Syrians in Lebanon.

Lebanon is among several countries neighboring Syria that have seen large numbers of refugees crossing their borders, with Turkey ranking as the largest recipient at more than 3 million people.

There has been growing concern in Lebanon and other countries that the refugees are taking jobs, albeit many menial ones, and may never return home. Refugees in Lebanon, including more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees, make up almost a quarter of the country’s population of 6 million.

In the immediate aftermath of the Chidiac killing, Miziara’s residents mobilized to expel all Syrians living in the village, located in the Zgharta district, even bringing trucks to shuttle refugees and workers to neighboring villages.

The municipality also demanded that landlords cancel rental contracts with Syrian tenants, annul their kafala — a legal guarantee granted by a Lebanese employer to a foreigner — and fire them from any jobs in the village.

It later modified its demands, allowing Syrians to work in the village while stipulating they would have to leave by the end of the work day. Any violators, said the municipality, would be prosecuted.

“People here don’t want any Syrians in Miziara, and they won’t back down from this,” said Maroun Dina, who heads the village’s municipal council. “All of Lebanon has a problem with this.”

Dozens of residents at the recent demonstration expressed similar concerns. Many came with placards rejecting Syrians’ presence in the country.

One complaint was that the influx of predominantly Sunni Muslim Syrians into northern Lebanon, traditionally a Christian bastion, was “changing the identity” of the area, said Michael Doueihi, a retired executive, who was at the demonstration.

“The Syrians’ presence in Lebanon is causing a demographic change. This is one of the holiest Christian sites in the area. Their habits, their culture … their religious beliefs are different from the beliefs of this community,” Doueihi said.

According to figures from the municipality, approximately 5,300 Syrians live in Zgharta city (1,500 of them had come before the war). Roughly 14,000 live in the Zgharta district.

Rose Chedwary, a resident of Zgharta’s old quarter, said residents would oppose Lebanese landlords who rented to Syrians.

“No a thousand times over for mixing between our children and theirs,” she said.Our lives are not like theirs. We are the people of this land. Let them leave.”

Others, like Alberto Nakad, one of the organizers of the Raya Chidiac Initiative, said Syrians had left no jobs for Lebanese.

“Syrians are finally our brothers … and economically it’s better for them to be here. But it’s not better for us, and we have a lot of unemployment because of this,” he said.

Nakad said there had always been a large presence of seasonal blue-collar workers from Syria in the area, but that the war had meant they no longer left.

The last six years have seen increasingly draconian measures imposed upon Syrians: In many towns and villages across Lebanon, Syrians have a curfew and are not allowed to gather in public spaces. Businesses owned by Syrians have been closed, while new regulations have barred them from white-collar jobs and made work permits difficult to get.

Authorities have erected checkpoints all over the country in a bid to boost security.

“Life has been extremely difficult for the 1.5 million refugees here,” said Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Lebanon, with an eye on Palestinian refugee camps that have become de facto permanent settlements in the country, has repeatedly refused to set up formal camps for Syrian refugees.

The move gave rise to a predatory rental market where Syrians seek shelter in disused factories, warehouses or barns or set up tents near farmlands. Others crowd into rooms at informal hotels where they pay almost nothing per night. The living areas often lack toilets, running water or electricity.

Ghassan Tayoun, deputy mayor of Zgharta, said Chidiac’s killing spurred calls on municipalities to regulate rental properties, account for the refugees there and prevent overcrowding.

“But we honestly don’t think this kind of pressure will last,” Tayoun said. “It’s necessary from a humanitarian point of view, but according to a study we did, it’s four times more lucrative for landlords to do informal dwellings.”

The Chidiac slaying has also coincided with increasingly strident rhetoric from Lebanese politicians complaining about Syrians and calling for them to be sent back to Syria.

That has caused alarm among aid organizations and rights groups, Khawaja said.

“Syria is still a war zone … and any forced returns of Syrians to a war zone would be illegal,” he said.

Soon after Syrians were expelled, a number of Syrian civil society groups circulated a letter on social media written by activist Fadi Shamieh saying that although the anger of Miziara’s residents was understandable, “expelling innocent workers who work in the village for low wages and in fields that Lebanese normally do not enter hurts the village.”

“How would the municipality of Miziara feel if all the Lebanese were kicked out of a country because of a crime committed by a Lebanese person among them?” Shamieh wrote.

The criticism, however, appears to have had little effect on the government’s plans. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil tweeted: “Every foreigner staying on our lands against our will is an invader.”

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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