Syrian refugees in Lebanon are casting their votes ahead of Syria's presidential election next week. The election is seen as Bashar Assad's rigged bid for legitimacy — but many refugees believe that if they don't vote, they'll never be allowed back home.
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Syria, a country torn apart by civil war, holds a presidential election next week. Western governments say the election is a farce, guaranteed to give President Bashar al-Assad another term. Some refugees who have fled the war and ex-pats who moved abroad before the fighting are already voting at Syrian embassies in other countries. NPR's Alice Fordham reports that the scene in Beirut is a mix of enthusiasm and fear.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: There's a kind of crazed, festive atmosphere to the road up to the Syrian Embassy in Beirut today. Thousands of people are streaming up to cast their vote in the expatriate elections here and when they're asked who they are going to vote for everybody's got the same answer...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bashar al-Assad.
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FORDHAM: God, Syria, Bashar and that's it, they cry. Amid miles of vehicles backed up on the road, his face is seen over and over. People wave banners of the president in combat fatigues riding an Eagle. With our blood we vote for Bashar, say the posters.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through translator) Syria is one nation, one people. Bashar al-Assad is for all of Syria, for all of the Arab world. Welcome. Our feelings are all happiness.
FORDHAM: That's Ally Asa (ph) from the city of Tartus. Only Syrians who left the country legally can vote, not those who fled without permission, many of whom oppose Assad. The expatriate vote is taking place in some countries and not others, depending on relations with Syria. But Lebanon's is the largest and everyone insists they've come not just voluntarily, but with wild enthusiasm.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FORDHAM: But Syrians in Beirut say many were pressured to show up. One middle-aged man, the head of the family who's afraid to give his name or be recorded, say six men came to his house. They were from Hezbollah, Assad's key ally and said if he didn't vote they'd give his name to the Syrian border authorities and stop him going home. Several other Syrians in Beirut tell similar stories. Another Syrian works in a bakery and wouldn't give his name because he fears repercussions.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) In the area where we live, there are people who came in a threatening way and said if you're not going to go vote we're going to kick you out of the house.
FORDHAM: Hezbollah denies this, but even without threats, many believe if they don't vote, they'll never be allowed back. They think Assad has control of Syria and his people are watching the polling booths.
ASSEM HAMSHO: (Through translator) These are simple people. Most of them chat amongst themselves and tell each other, I'm going to vote because if tomorrow I don't vote, I won't be allowed back into Syria.
FORDHAM: That's Assem Hamsho. He says representatives of Assad's Baath party visited camps to tell people to vote.
HAMSHO: (Through translator) The revolution wasn't able to offer them any safety and the international community wasn't able to give them a real refuge that would allow them to speak to their true opinions.
FORDHAM: Hamsho says the election is a show. No one pretends otherwise but the country is a battlefield with few heroes and one side making clear gains. And that's reason enough for many to use this chance to side with Assad. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.
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