Sunday, June 2, 2013

Qusayr families flee to new Lebanon camp

[Originally posted at NOW]

Syrian children play at a new refugee camp in north Lebanon (NOW/Alex Rowell)

Hidden from view behind rows of dark green trees in the verdant farmland surrounding the town of Halba, just 10km from the Syrian border in Lebanon’s far north, dwell the country’s latest refugees from the unrelenting war raging next door. The eighty or so arrivals – mostly women and children – who have sought shelter here in the last four weeks are all residents of Qusayr, fleeing clashes that took an especially fierce turn when regime forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah units, launched a major (and ongoing) attempt to conquer the town on May 19. Unusually for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who typically stay in relatives’ or friends’ homes, these families are housed in tents, comprising an unofficial refugee camp.

Locating the remote camp Thursday with the help of volunteer aid workers, NOW spent an afternoon interviewing the residents, who spoke of violence so horrific that merely surviving the escape to Lebanon was an ordeal.

“We came any way that we could; in cars, trucks, tractors. Accompanied by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), naturally,” said Abdullah, a young man sitting on a thin sponge mattress inside his tent who left Qusayr twenty days ago. “We were under fire from the shabbiha [pro-government militiamen] and Hezbollah.”

Despite living within plain sight of the northeastern Lebanese border, refugees said the presence of Hezbollah forces in the area forced them to make a 40km detour south to the anti-regime town of Arsal, whence they began the longer drive to Halba.

“It took about seven hours on the road,” said Hind, a mother from the village of Zeiteh in another tent sitting with her sister, her mother, and five children. “We were told if the Shiites saw us, they’d either arrest or kill us.”

Having endured two years of warfare – often by relocating to different villages as circumstances required – refugees said it was the unprecedented and terrifying level of violence in recent weeks that compelled them to take flight.

“The destruction there is massive,” said Abdullah. “They’re hitting us with everything; mortars, tanks, MiG fighter jets. There are 100 explosions every minute. They have bombs which can destroy seven houses at a time. Qusayr is just a normal town, what can we do against this?” Air strikes on residential quarters have been frequently captured on video by Qusayr-based activists in recent weeks.

“They’re even using chemical weapons,” says Malik, an elder relative of Abdullah who arrived five days ago. “We’ve seen different colors of smoke – white, yellow, red – with bad smells, and people suffocating.” This echoes a claim made earlier this month by FSA spokesman Louay Almokdad, though no hard evidence has yet emerged to support it.

Despite the regime’s use of such heavy firepower, refugees told NOW the rebels were still holding on to areas of the town and the surrounding countryside.

“It’s back-and-forth,” said Abdullah. “The FSA loses something one day, re-takes it the next.” Relatives still inside the town told him the regime had recently captured a key water station and parts of the al-Dabaa air base. “But the fight is continuing,” he proudly insisted.

Asked what he thought would happen if the town fell entirely to the regime, Abdullah predicted a “humanitarian catastrophe. There are over 30,000 people there, mostly women and children. It’ll be like what happened in Bayda, Baniyas and Houla,” referring to the sites of notorious massacres of civilians. Indeed, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has herself voiced fears of a Bayda-style slaughter in the town if rebel forces are overrun.

Even here in the comparative safety of Lebanon, however, the refugees remain afraid – chiefly of the Hezbollah forces for whom they appear to reserve especial hatred.

“[Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] is a pig, but [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is a bigger one!” exclaimed Ayesha, a sister of Hind who had been silent until that point. As she spoke, her voice rose to a shout, drawing tears from the leathery eyes of her elderly mother next to her.

“We were living in peace, why did the Party of Satan [a play on Hezbollah’s name, the ‘Party of God’] interfere? We are women and children, what do they want with us? Even the regime left us alone in our homes. Bashar is better than them. Even Israel is more merciful than them.”

Security aside, the refugees naturally face humanitarian difficulties as well. Though the camp infrastructure is quickly improving – a concrete toilet with running water and a kitchen unit have sprung up in the last few days – residents have little besides the tents, mattresses and kitchen utensils that have been donated thus far. And with the heat already reaching baking levels, many complained of sickness. There is even a risk of snake attacks – one two-year-old boy’s forearm bore a deep wound from a venomous bite.

Unaware of the procedure and often without the requisite documentation, not a single refugee has registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). As such, a small, student-led team of volunteers called Kilna Labaad (‘We’re all for each other’) runs the camp, with funds coming primarily from a wealthy Lebanese individual in Aley.

“We do fundraising events here in Beirut [to supplement the Aley donations],” said Diana Rifai, a Syrian student volunteering with the organization. “We host events for which every ticket bought will provide a monthly food basket for a family, for example, or a children’s box with diapers and baby milk. We also do clothes drives where people can drop off clothes in Beirut.”

The group hopes to have a Facebook page up and running next week. In the meantime, said Rifai, anyone interested in making a donation can contact her via her personal Facebook account.

Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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