Saturday, February 22, 2014

Arsal on a knife-edge

[Originally posted at NOW]

As Syrians flee new regime airstrikes, Arsal residents fear they may be next.

A girl from Qalamoun who arrived in Wadi Hmayed within the last week (NOW/Alex Rowell)

WADI HMAYED, Lebanon – High up in the rocky, khaki moonscape of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, to the east of the border town of Arsal, stands an army checkpoint that marks the de facto limit of the Lebanese state’s sovereignty. Beyond it lie a series of barren valleys that form a kind of lawless no-man’s-land, technically Lebanese soil but effectively annexed to the Syrian war zone, where regime air strikes, rebel rocket launches, and mutual ambushes and kidnappings happen on a regular basis. Because the Lebanese army itself has no presence in Wadi Hmayed, as the area is known, access is forbidden without special permission, and most international organizations, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), do not operate here.

And yet it is here that the bulk of the more than 10,000 new refugee arrivals from the adjacent Qalamoun region of Syria have settled in the past week, fleeing the intense bombardment of the nearby city of Yabrud to a few collections of tents erected by independent NGOs. They’re among the most vulnerable refugees in the country – none has registered with UNHCR so far, and many say they don’t want to – but, having made it out of Qalamoun, most said they were just grateful to be alive when NOW visited one of the camp sites Friday afternoon.

“Praise be to God,” said a remarkably cheerful old man, squatting on the gravel outside his tent, his six children and grandchildren sitting on slender mattresses inside. “We have everything we need here.”

“I haven’t showered since I arrived four days ago, and I have nothing but the clothes on my back, but praise be to God, we’re all happy here,” said a grinning adolescent at a second tent.

Asked what compelled them to leave Yabrud in the last week, they described scenes of immense and indiscriminate bombardment by the Syrian air force.

“The airplanes were bombing our houses, what else could we do?” said one young man, as a crowd gathered outside his tent. “We have kids they killed there. I saw a tank run over a six-year-old boy. And all the time they were dropping barrel bombs. There are still many people buried under the rubble.”

“Initially the regime said they were targeting ‘terrorists’,” said another young man. “But they killed more civilians than fighters.”

Although from Wadi Hmayed they are still close enough to Qalamoun to see the fighter jets on occasion, the refugees said they had no plans to move further inside Lebanon. Some, indeed, were not aware it was even an option – the old man, for instance, was surprised when NOW suggested he could relocate to the Beqaa Valley. As for registering with UNHCR, they were generally divided between those who didn’t know how to and those who didn’t want to.

“Where’s Zahle?” asked a young man unsarcastically, when NOW inquired whether he would be traveling to the UNHCR registration center there (the nearest one to Arsal). The ones who did know where Zahle was were often unwilling, however, to make the trip, fearing harassment or worse at the numerous army and Hezbollah checkpoints on the road from Arsal (NOW was stopped and searched on the return journey by the army, the army intelligence unit, and Hezbollah gunmen). Unless and until they register, they will have to make do with the basic aid UNHCR is able to provide them via its independent NGO partners, as well as what those NGOs themselves can offer. UNHCR spokesperson Joelle Eid told NOW this pre-registration aid includes hygiene and baby kits, stoves, blankets, fuel vouchers, food supplies, and medical assistance where needed.

Arsal in the crosshairs?

Back on the other side of the army checkpoint, in Arsal itself the tension sparked by recent events is palpable. It is this town, after all, that Hezbollah accuses of being the gateway through which car bombs, allegedly rigged in Syria, make their way inside Lebanon, where seven have exploded since the start of 2014 alone. Indeed, just 10 days ago, the army intercepted an explosives-laden car on its way out of Arsal.

For residents here, such accusations are part of a longstanding campaign to target the town for supporting the Syrian opposition. Last month, a rocket attack on the town center killed eight people, including six children, and though a claim of responsibility by the Syrian jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham group surfaced online, Arsal residents issued a statement pointing the finger at Hezbollah.

“We are being punished, because from day one we were the first to support the Syrian revolution, and to treat the Syrian wounded, and receive refugees,” the town’s Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fleeti tells NOW in his office, looking drained as he drags on a cigarette.

Asked about reports that Arsal’s outskirts, including Wadi Hmayed, could be the Syrian regime’s next target should it succeed in Yabrud, Fleeti shifts nervously in his seat.

“If there’s anything we fear, it’s regime airstrikes. We’re not afraid of Hezbollah, because we think they’re smarter than to invade Arsal. If Hezbollah invades Arsal, it will be a civil war for sure, so it’s more convenient for them to let Syria do the work. Yes, who knows, maybe the regime will do in Arsal what it’s doing in Syria.”

One of Arsal’s biggest problems, Fleeti argues, is its negative media image as a hostile “terrorist” hub, which has increasingly turned public opinion against it since the recent wave of car bombings began.

“We’re not takfiris here, we’re Lebanese, and we want to be under the state’s authority,” he tells NOW. “Arsal’s residents are paying with their own blood for all these explosions. Look at Abdallah Izz al-Din, who was an innocent victim killed in the most recent Bir Hassan bombs, and at first they suspected he was the suicide bomber because it can’t be that someone from Arsal is a victim.”

Nevertheless, the more than two years of brutal warfare in Syria have undoubtedly drawn a minority of Arsal’s more than 80,000 residents (some 60% of whom are now Syrians) in the direction of militant fundamentalist ideology. Black-and-white banners bearing Islamist calligraphy decorate the back windows of several cars cruising through the cramped streets. A number of men, especially the youth, groom their facial hair in the Salafist style. And in the tents in Wadi Hmayed, one refugee scarcely out of his teens gave an ominous reply when asked what would happen if the regime succeeded in its Yabrud offensive.

“If the regime wins, all of us young men will go and join the jihad.”

Some names have been withheld at the interviewees’ requests.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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