x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Lebanese villagers take Syrian refugees into their homes

The UN's refugee agency says 32,000 people have fled Syria since the uprising against Bashar Al Assad's government began last year.

Syrian refugees in a home in Lebanon.
Syrian refugees in a home in Lebanon.

BEKAA VALLEY, LEBANON // Before they managed to escape from Baba Amr, Youssef, his wife and four children were living underground.

The weeks of bombardment and fighting forced them and scores of others to cram into a basement close to their home in the Homs neighbourhood. They had little food or water and it was too dangerous to venture outside.

It was "like the Stone Age", Youssef recalls. "Every time we could get food we would give it to the children. We counted 40 bodies … if you stepped outside it was suicide."

Youssef and his family found refuge 10 days ago in a Lebanese village where families have opened up their homes to the Syrians forced to flee their country.

The estimated 2,000 refugees who have made it across the border into Lebanon's Bekaa valley in recent weeks are part of a flood of Syrians escaping the fighting and finding sanctuary with Syria's neighbours.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy to Syria, told the UN Security Council yesterday that there would be a "serious impact" on the region if the crisis is not handled properly.

The UN's refugee agency says 32,000 have fled since the uprising against Bashar Al Assad's government began last year. More than 7,900 have escaped to Lebanon and 15,000 have crossed into Turkey, including 1,000 in the space of 24 hours on Thursday.

With little sign of a diplomatic breakthrough and the government pushing ahead with military operations, it is unlikely the tide will be stemmed soon.

Syrian troops clashed yesterday with army defectors in several areas near Damascus in the first significant battles there since Mr Assad's forces regained control of the suburbs weeks ago. The fighting came hours before tens of thousands protested in many Syrian towns and cities after Friday prayers, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

Those who were able to flee the violence to the Lebanese village of Jdeideh are relying on the kindness of strangers for shelter. Youssef and his family are among 23 Syrians, mostly women and children, staying in a two-room house. He fled Syria 10 days ago after escaping Baba Amr - where hundreds are believed to have been killed during a four-week assault last month - with the help of the Free Syrian Army.

They left behind their life's savings and belongings.

"We have the keys to our house, but it doesn't matter. There is no house left. It is completely flattened. There is nothing left called Baba Amr. It's a ghost town," Youssef said wearily, as his young daughter clambered into his lap, playing with the black and pink checked scarf around his neck.

There are now about 400 Syrians staying with families in Jdeideh and nearby Faqaa, 15 kilometres from the Syrian border.

There are no tents, or much evidence of a large influx of refugees in the narrow village streets. But inside the local homes, scores of men, women and children are crammed into already cramped quarters. Some of the host families say they are in need of support with limited supplies of food, medicine and milk for babies.

Villagers say there has been limited help from aid groups, but none of the larger-scale assistance provided to other areas where Syrian refugees have fled such as Wadi Khaled in northern Lebanon.

Local residents have taken it upon themselves to help out.

"I'm doing this because I have seen how the regime is slaughtering people," said the 44-year-old man sheltering Youssef and the others from Baba Amr, who gave his name as Abu Abdullah.

One of the leading figures helping Syrians through porous points of the border and then placing them with local families gave his name as Abu Obaidah, 41. "I want to help other families," he said.

Some pay rent, but others are hosted by the community until they can find an alternative arrangement.

Some of the most recent arrivals from Syria are still too traumatised to speak. Others tell stories of mutilated bodies and deadly attacks on civilians.

An extra 15 people are staying inside a modest house in Jdeideh that is normally home to six. The group of Syrian refugees arrived this week from villages near Al Qusayr, a town just across the border that has come under heavy bombardment from government forces. Many of its residents have fled, amid fears of further attacks on the town, an opposition stronghold.

Among the Syrians staying in the home in Jdeideh was Mohammed. He and his extended family fled after tanks rolled into their village 10 days ago and opened fire on houses while people were still inside.

"The next day we went back to my house," said Mohammed, 27, seated on a chair in the middle of the living room, chain-smoking cigarettes.

"Everything was destroyed and looted. In the bedroom they left women's underwear on the beds and wrote on the walls: 'You're lucky there were no women here today'. We thought. it's time to leave. We weren't so scared for our lives as we were scared of the women being raped."

With the help of FSA rebels, Mohammed and his family began the journey from their village to the Lebanese border just before dawn. The normal 30-minute trip took six hours, as they dodged checkpoints and took a route that crossed hills and where trees provided cover. Finally across the border, they were met by Lebanese contacts. Mohammed and his family made it out safely, but others have been killed on the way, some refugees say.

Umm Maher's son died before his family made it to Lebanon. Sitting cross-legged beside a wood-fuelled heater in the centre of a small room in the village of Faqaa, the 55-year-old described how her 30-year-old son - who she says was not involved in anti-government demonstrations - was arrested three months ago during a raid on their home in the town of Telbisi.

"Five days after they took him, we found his body dumped in a drain," she said, tears trickling down her cheeks. "His ear was cut off and the back of his head was gone. He had many gunshots on his body and his knees were smashed."

Umm Maher and several family members decided to flee the violence and escaped into Lebanon three weeks ago.

"I would go back to Syria to rescue my other son, but apart from that I will only go when the regime falls," she said. "Inshallah that will be soon."

 

zconstantine@thenational.ae