Lana Asfour talks to Syrian refugees in Lebanon near the Syrian border.
In the windswept hills of the northern Bekaa valley, the normally quiet town of Aarsal is experiencing an unusual amount of activity. It is one of the remote border villages in the Jabal Younine mountain range that are seeing an influx of Syrians escaping the violence at home. They started arriving over one year ago when the unrest began, and have continued to cross the border ever since. This week, the number of refugees rose dramatically as Bashar Al Assad widened his assault on several areas. There have also been various incursions by the Syrian army into Lebanese territory, with shelling very close to local farms and houses, and occasional armed clashes between the Syrian army and opposition rebels. The most recent victim was Ali Shabaan, a Lebanese cameraman who was covering events on the border over the weekend and was killed when forty bullets hit his car, while Syria also attacked a refugee camp in Turkey.
There are many refugees in northern Lebanon, mostly in Wadi Khaled – where Shabaan was killed - and in Tripoli. But there are increasing numbers in Bekaa and parts of Beirut. They come with stories of destruction and violence, and find themselves housed locally - usually whole families to a room - during one of the coldest times of the year.
Um Khaled and her family have found shelter in an old abandoned house just off the main road in the centre of Aarsal.
“We’re 23 people,” she says, gesturing at her extended family, who walk in and out of the old house or just sit outside with us under the winter sun and join in the conversation. Nine of them are children. They are all staying in the main room of the house. There is a kitchen that is also used as a bathroom, though it does not have running water. The remaining room houses a family of four, newly arrived from Homs only the day before my visit.
But Um Khaled’s family is a lucky one because almost all of its members managed to escape unharmed - apart from Um Khaled’s grandfather, who is too old to travel - and are now staying together. She explains how her house in the Bab Al Saba'a quarter of Homs was one of the few Sunni houses that was not directly shelled because it was close to several houses belonging to Alawi families.
“They were given weapons and encouraged to fight with us,” she says.
“The Alawis?” I ask, “Your neighbours?”
“Yes. We’ve lived next to them for years, and we even worked with them. There were never any problems between us before.”
Ominously, this is the sort of thing that is often heard when societies whose different sects have coexisted peacefully for long periods begin to fracture. It was said about Lebanon, Yugoslavia and Iraq.
I press her: “And your neighbours, they used the weapons?”
“Yes,” she replies, “I saw them shoot at Sunnis.”
I ask her what she and her family thought of the reception they have had by their Lebanese hosts.
“Very good, hamdulillah (praise be to God).”
While we are gathered on the rickety bench outside the house, an Aarsali resident pulls up in his pick-up truck and joins us. Saud Al Hujeiry is a local carpenter and seems perfectly comfortable with his new neighbours.
I ask him what he thinks of the refugee situation and how the town was finding it.
“Of course it’s difficult,” he replies.
Many of the houses sheltering the refugees are unfinished structures. Because of the general lack of funds and resources in the region, houses are often built slowly, piece by piece. Construction slows or stops during the winter, both because of the weather and because local agricultural produce yields less income. Houses stand on the hillsides with no ceilings, or are complete apart from gaping holes where the windows and doors should be. Al Hujeiry tells me that they have asked the municipality to get windows and doors put in so that the families can be better sheltered. He has helped build a window or two himself.
There are now over 10,000 registered refugees in Lebanon. But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) puts the total number much higher, and some NGOs think it could be as much as double that. They continue to arrive every day, particularly in the Bekaa, and many do not register with the UNHCR or the Lebanese Higher Relief Committee (HRC), either because they are frightened and do not trust anyone, or simply because they do not realize they should. The situation in Turkey and Jordan is not much better, with nearly 30,000 refugees registered there and increasing all the time.
“Most refugees in Wadi Khaled are already registered,” Dana Sleiman, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Lebanon, tells me later. “We want to start proper registration in the Bekaa.” In Wadi Khaled, a rural area of around 30 villages, the UNHCR and HRC have already visited the villages and registered refugees. In the Bekaa, though, numbers are increasing, so there is more reliance on local NGOs and Islamic charities, which share information with the UNHCR.
The Lebanese HRC works in the northern areas from Wadi Khaled to Tripoli, but not in the Bekaa valley. This may be a political decision because the Bekaa is primarily a Shi’a area and Hizbullah has a strong influence there, but is more likely to be logistical. The UNHCR, though, is active wherever refugees are, often working closely with both international and local NGOs and Islamic charities. They are trying to keep up with demands, mainly by providing blankets, medical kits and food packages, fuel and water. But more is needed.
Um Khaled’s mother, who is even more feisty than her daughter, complains that all they have to eat is rice. When she realized that government forces were surrounding and beginning to shell her neighbourhood in Homs, and remembering what happened in Hama in 1982, she cannily stocked up on canned and preserved food.
“We were eating full meals throughout the shelling,” she says. “But here we only have rice.”
Many family members cite among their highest needs electricity and fuel to be able to cook, and most of all, they need water and toilets. “There are so many women among us,” Um Khaled’s mother says, "and we have to walk to the municipality every time we need the toilet."
“And I need a room for myself,” she adds, with a straight face but a sparkle in her eye, “or my husband will divorce me.”
Um Khaled’s mother, whose sister was killed by the bombing in Homs, is 45 years old and five months pregnant. “Even from here,” she says, pointing to her small bulge, “the baby is saying isqat al nizam (fall of the regime).”
“And if the government doesn’t fall?” I ask.
“We’ll go to Jordan or Libya.”
The conversation is interrupted as Um Khaled’s cousin Ahmed approaches the house, limping. He is greeted by each member of the family in turn. A member of the Free Syrian Army, he has literally just arrived from Syria, which explains the pleasure and respect evident in his reception.
His beard and dusty clothes indicate that he has been on the road, and he recounts the route he took across the farmland of neighbouring border town Al Qaa. He also brings news from Homs. The Syrian Army has left Baba Amr after its intense attack, but only its Alawi residents have returned there.
I ask why he is limping. He was shot a few weeks earlier. He lifts his trousers and shows me two dark holes on either side of his thigh, where the bullet entered and exited. “The doctor told me to rest for two weeks, but I didn’t rest more than 24 hours.” Ahmed has been making the journey to and from Syria for several weeks, helping families to escape into Lebanon.
One of the young women from the other family living in the house is clearly sadder and less defiant than Um Khaled and her family, but no less eager to talk. She
arrived from Homs with her sister-in-law and the latter’s two children the day before my visit. She has no idea where her husband is, and has no way of getting in touch with him. When I ask if she has any children she shakes her head sadly. “I was pregnant,” she says, “but I lost the baby, out of fear, during the shelling.”
One of the most important needs of refugees arriving in Lebanon is medical care, including psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress. Fabio Forgione, Head of Mission for Lebanon at Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF), tells me later that while mental health is included in their primary care provision, for those who have experienced or witnessed trauma and violence, treatment needs to include “prompt intervention with specific therapies, especially with children, so that the consequences will not last.” Most of these therapies involve psychosocial activities, allowing both adults and children to share the experience with others in groups. But, Forgione points out, it is “not extremely easy to have access to people needing mental health. There’s usually a stigma attached to it.”
MSF is also trying to fill what Forgione pinpoints as “the most remarkable gap” in addressing the needs of refugees, which is the provision of medical care for chronic conditions. Local and international NGOs, as well as the Lebanese government, have been good at providing care and hospitalization for injured refugees, but not for those with diseases needing long treatment, such as diabetes and hypertension. The gap is apparent because in Syria, unlike in Lebanon, the regular drugs needed for such conditions are free.
Further up the hill from the centre of Aarsal, where Medecins Sans Frontières has set up a makeshift clinic, there is a yellow block of one-room flats housing several Syrian families. Here, I talked to families from Homs, Idlib and Qseir. Some of the most recent arrivals in Aarsal are from Qseir, the region between Homs and the Lebanese border, which the regime had newly begun to shell.
These families also cited gas for cooking as an important need, while the most recent arrivals still had not received enough blankets. Two different families spoke of kidnappings. Mohammed, a young man from No’t al No’man near Idlib saw his neighbour being taken.
“Four men came and held russiyeh (Kalashnikovs) to his head,” Mohammed says. “He was with some friends, but they only took him. They locked the others in the house, but my neighbour’s father was nearby in his shop and people immediately told him what had happened, so he got on his motorbike and followed the kidnappers.”
The father paid the kidnappers the ransom they asked for and his son was returned. But other kidnapping victims were not so lucky, and Mohammed’s mother speaks of another kidnapping in which the victim was returned dead. I ask Mohammed who these kidnappers were. He isn’t sure. Three were wearing black, he says, which suggests that they belonged to the shabiha (the Alawi paramilitary group working for the government), but one was wearing an army uniform. Mohammed’s neighbour was a wanted activist, but it sounds as though rogue members of the army and the shabiha are acting on their own and exploiting the lawless situation for their own profit.
Amani, a softly spoken and serious 15 year-old girl, is a recent arrival in Aarsal from Qseir. She is responsible for her two brothers and paternal grandmother. Her mother is still in Syria looking after her parents, and her father is in hospital in Tripoli because he was shot by a sniper when he went to buy bread from the local bakery. Amani had witnessed this.
Her 16 year-old brother shows me photos on his mobile phone of their father lying semi-conscious in hospital. He explains exactly how the bullet hit him: in through the neck and out through the jaw.
“His mother doesn’t know how bad it is,” Amani says quietly. The children are protecting her until they know more about their father’s condition.
None of the children I spoke to have been to school in months. Schools had closed down when the attacks had begun. Amani tells me that hers, Yasser Khan Kan School in Qseir, is being used as a military base.
There were more stories of events in Syria. People said they had seen Iranian gunmen. At least, they were assumed to be Iranian because they spoke a foreign language and “they were dark with big black beards.” They shot at people indiscriminately, whether Alawi, Sunni or Christian. They didn’t seem to know who to hit, one young man said. Someone also said the army had poisoned a water tank in Qseir. No one drank from it after that. There was no way to clarify details or confirm these stories of course, but the situation in the refugees’ hometowns was clearly chaotic and dangerous.
On the steps outside the MSF clinic, the portly mayor of Aarsal, Ali al Hujeiry, was making himself available to a variety of Syrian refugees. An old couple from Qseir was complaining that they had not had enough blankets. A lady with three children came to see one of the MSF doctors.
Most of the refugees in the northern Bekaa arrived through the official border crossing of Joucy in the neighbouring town, Al Qaa. The Lebanese government had just issued an order that border police let in all fleeing refugees, but at Al Qaa they hadn’t yet heard this, so some had to get through elsewhere. In fact, most of the border is open; if there’s no one patrolling it, you can simply walk across the fields and farmland around Al Qaa from Syria into Lebanon.
The border around here has always been porous. A local wanting to see a doctor or go shopping would usually go to Homs in Syria because it’s closer than Tripoli or Baalbek in Lebanon, and wouldn’t bother going through the official border crossing. Akkar, in the north of Lebanon, and the Bekaa valley are relatively poor regions, and it is common for residents to buy products in Syria because they’re cheaper there. These include all sorts of groceries, milk and meat, pesticides, animal feed, and motorbikes. The passage from buying goods cheaply to less legal activities is a smooth one. Buying diesel and gas over the border, for instance, constitutes smuggling because they are taxable goods. Less common – and most illegal - is the smuggling of weapons, which is bound to become a greater issue as opposition fighters taking refuge in Lebanon want to arm themselves and smuggle weapons into Syria.
To prevent rebel fighters from crossing the border and smuggling weapons, the Syrian government has started planting landmines along its borders with Lebanon and Turkey. This of course makes it harder for refugees to flee. At official Syrian checkpoints, more people are being stopped and prevented from leaving. But the area around Al Qaa and Hermel has not been planted with landmines because some Lebanese Shi’a families from the area own farmland that lies on both sides of the border. Here the fields and farmland, tidily tilled, dotted with the pretty pink blossoms of the green almond trees, and flanked on one side by the Ante-Lebanon Mountains, extend as far as the eye can see, deep into Syria.
Al Qaa is deceptively quiet and only a few clues point to a greater picture. Parked just off the main road that leads directly to the official border crossing, is a dark van. A few paces away, a man leans against a garden wall, probably the driver waiting for refugees to arrive and be driven to nearby border towns like Aarsal. Refugees avoid the Shi’a towns and villages, fearing that Hizbullah members will turn them over to the Syrian government. Aarsal is a Sunni town and Al Qaa Christian. Emerging from the checkpoint itself, a busload of people creeks heavily towards town. “They’re just labourers and workers,” says the border guard, seeing us draw up in the car and watch. Perhaps he was told to turn a blind eye, since there were obviously women and children on the bus, and its roof was laden with badly wrapped luggage.
Immediately after my return to Beirut, and despite various international attempts to encourage a ceasefire, Syrian troops fired into Lebanon near Al Qaa, and advanced into the farmlands of Al Qaa. There were clashes between the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army, and mortar shelling close to buildings on the edge of town. Both Syrian refugees and Lebanese residents fled to safer areas. Local reports and Reuters revealed that the Lebanese government had confiscated two truckloads of weapons near Al Qaa heading towards Syria.
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