Among the Syrian Refugees in Lebanon posted at http://www.chronosmag.eu
Boštjan Videmšek, Bekaa Valley
Isra al Hosny is twenty one years old. Seven months ago, she and her parents fled the ransacked city of Homs. Her mother and father were the ones who persuaded Isra to leave the city; her own choice would have been to stay. By then, Homs had been turned into a ghost town, or better yet Syria’s own Vukovar. Isra’s family had spent their last two years there living in a quarter that saw everyday fighting in the streets. This was nothing unusual, it was simply par for the course. By then, entire blocks had been turned into a war zone. Everyone was running out of food, fuel and water. On some days, it felt like almost everyone was going mad with fear.
Roughly four months after their wedding, the fighting claimed the life of Isra’s husband. That was the moment her two older brothers decided to join the rebel forces. As of the time of writing, they are still fighting in Homs. Now and then, Isra tells me, they manage to get in touch by phone. They recently mentioned that many of her acquaintances who had remained are now starving. They make meals out of leaves, they are burning up the wooden tiles from their bathrooms for heat. There is no help in sight.
“They are doomed,” Isra whimpers tiredly: “The government got them surrounded from all sides. They keep throwing bombs on them from the air. I know I’ll never forget the sound of those planes. I know exactly which bomb killed my husband, please believe me! Ten days ago, my brothers and a crowd of other people tried to break out of the city – they found a secret underground tunnel leading to the liberated territories! The plan was to ultimately get here to Lebanon, somehow. Oh, I couldn’t wait to see them!” But the whole thing went horribly wrong. While the people trying to escape were using the tunnel, a plane flew over and dropped a bomb exactly on target. 65 people were killed. “Luckily,” Isra winces: “my brothers’ unit stayed back to guard the rear. They both managed to survive. They are now hiding in basements. All I can do is pray.”
I am talking to this brave young girl in an officially non-existent camp on the outskirts of the city of Zahle in Bekaa Valley. In there, Lebanon had rounded up most of what now amounts to a million refugees from Syria. “Us refugees,” Isra explains to me: “I’m told we now make almost one quarter of Lebanon’s population.” In under a second, her piercing dark eyes are brimming with tears and she slouches back down again. Embarrassed, she averts her head and tries to apologise.
Isra is one of the six teachers volunteering to tutor Syrian children in the camp. Because of what the less-than-delicate call ‘the Palestinian question’, Lebanese laws prohibit both the setting up of refugee camps and the issuing of official refugee status. In reality, this is a horrendous detriment to the refugees’ situation, and it also severely limits the effectiveness of various humanitarian organisations.
When the war broke out, Isra had just started her senior year in college. Her major subject had been English literature. She had always adored books, she tells me ‒especially poetry. The written word is something she feels quite willing to die for. In her case, this is not simply another high-flying turn of phrase, the kind you’d expect from teenage European intellectuals after three beers in some trendy café. No: with Isra, it is a proven fact. On account of the war, her college had been closed for quite a while. But three months ago, she got word that it was temporary reopened. So she made a few quick calculations that almost immediately turned into a plan, a plan she didn’t share with anyone. No matter what the cost, she would make her way back to Homs and pass her English Poetry exam.
She finally informed her parents of her crazy venture – “I’ve always been a crazy girl!” she tells me with a shy grin – just before she left. Her parents were smitten with fear, but there was no realistic way for them to prevent their daughter from returning to hell. The sort of will this tall and slender girl has was simply unstoppable. “It was really awful. So many checkpoints. The government soldiers tried to arrest me many times. At one point, they were dragging me out of the car. But in the end, I managed to reach Homs. I really couldn’t tell you how. I stayed there for four weeks. I studied by candlelight. I was hungry, and there was shooting all around. But I did pass the exam – that part wasn’t difficult at all. As soon as I passed, I returned to Lebanon. The return trip was much easier. Now, it would no longer have been possible,” Isra says standing in front of the camp’s two small classrooms. Her voice strikes me as somewhat distracted ‒ it was as if she was describing some boring TV show and not the story that should have brought tears to the eyes of the most blasé listener. From inside, we can hear children’s patter and a loud, almost rhythmic cough.
Each of the two cramped classrooms provides a reasonably upbeat and stable environment for 35 children, both boys and girls between the ages of four and fourteen. It is obvious that the teachers – all of them young Syrian refugees – share a close bond with the children. The facilities have been provided by a well-standing local company; Unicef took care of the little plastic chairs, schoolbags, notebooks and pens. At the time of my visit, this was the only school for refugees in Lebanon operating under a solid roof. Like all the others, this one started out in the open, depending solely on the goodwill and the initiative of the teachers, who kept visiting the neighbouring camps to recruit children. Depressingly, they discovered that while the vast majority of the children was eager to come, their parents didn’t feel that schooling was a particularly high priority right then. In the words of Roberta Russo, the UNHCR’s spokeswoman in Beirut: “It is hardest on the children. Back in Syria, most of them had been in school. Over here, this is simply not an option for so many of them. Many of the mothers, for example, have been forced to send their sons to look for work. It is the only way for the family to survive. And at the moment, there isn’t much that can be done. It is a terrible tragedy, so many children stripped of their education. It is a horrendous thing for the entire society, and also for its future. The Syrian children themselves tell me how fond they had been of school, and how terribly they miss it. For them, their school days represent security, peace, stability, optimism, hope, joy and friendship. Did you know that 70 percent of the children her in these camps fail to leave their new lodgings even once a week? It’s a shocking statistic, isn’t it? And in this respect, things are especially hard on the girls. Most of these children have been deeply traumatised. They need a whole lot of help, not least of all some proper psychological assistance.”
Isra, too, would surely qualify for that sort of assistance. Her every move speaks of profound trauma and a long string of losses too painful to contemplate. But instead of receiving aid, she and her peers are doing their best to offer it to the children. “I write a lot,” she confides: “I keep a diary. I write down many of these stories all around me. Who knows, maybe someday somebody will want to read them…” She tells me this in the dusty courtyard of one of the world’s smallest schools, as a sudden if not entirely unexpected peal of children’s laughter rings out from inside, a loud and defiant cry of hope.
The Greatest Humanitarian Tragedy in Modern History
For the past two years, Bekaa Valley, lodged between Beirut, the snowy peaks of ‘the Arab Alps’ and the Syrian border, has been the site of an unspeakable tragedy. While it holds true that the Syrian refugees dispersed all over Lebanon, the greatest number of them had converged on this valley, a large part of which is controlled by the Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Last year, it was the movement entering the war on the side of the president Bashar al-Assad that thoroughly changed the balance of power both on Syrian battlegrounds and in Lebanese politics. One million refugees, most of them Sunnis, radically transformed the country’s demographics and poured much fuel on the fire of sectarian strife. The still festering wounds of the Lebanese civil war (1975 – 1990) were soon reopened. The situation in the valley rapidly deteriorated last spring when, with Hezbollah’s assistance, the Syrian government reclaimed the strategically vital town of Al Qusair, which lies very near the border. In the weeks to follow, the valley saw a steady influx of Sunni extremists. Once more, Lebanon was seeing the return of the deadly car bombs and suicide bombers. On the day of my visit, one of the latter blew himself up in the nearby town of Hermel. The toll was four killed and twenty-six wounded.
The battle for Al Qusair was one of the worst in the three years of the Syrian war, itself the most savage conflict of our time. After the city was reduced to rubble, the number of people fleeing for the Lebanese border went through the roof. Even now, some 3000 new refugees get registered with the UNHCR every day. Yet the realistic way of looking at that number is to note only a fraction of the entire mass has the will and the energy to get swamped in the ridiculous bureaucracy. Those who have it worst are often unwilling or actually unable to leave their pitiful dwellings – an ancient canvas tent on the windy barrens, perhaps, or a ramshackle cardboard hut.
One of these people is Mr. Assy Hassan al Khalid. The father of nine children, he packed up his family and fled to Lebanon immediately after the fall of Al Qusair. It was his misfortune to get severely wounded in the incessant fighting, so, on arrival, they first took him to the local hospital. The cost of the operation which made sure he retained the control of his legs was covered by an anonymous Palestinian gentleman. Now, together with his children and two wives, he lives in a barely standing tent, which provides scant protection from the vicious mountain winds.
“It is good that the snow is melted” Assy Hassan tells me: “If nothing else, it’s a little warmer than it was.” His younger children all go around barefoot. Their emaciated skeletons are covered with what can only be described as rags. Osman, his oldest son, sits quietly in front of the entrance to the tent. During the shelling of Al Qusair, a piece of shrapnel hit him in the head. “He is not entirely himself any more. Most of the time, he doesn’t say a word, and he keeps wandering around. He desperately needs help,” his mother implores me as we stand and watch the boy.
“It was… Armageddon. You do know what that means?! The end of the world. We were attacked from all sides. By planes and by tanks. The army and Hezbollah. We could not defend ourselves. There were so few of us, and we were so poorly armed. We were exhausted from constant attacks. Bodies were lying everywhere. They killed my parents, then my brother was mowed down. My other brother is now rotting in one of the regime’s prisons. I don’t have any sure way of knowing if he’s alive or dead. Listen, it was terrible! Houses were collapsing left and right. My entire city is gone. Our big and lovely house is gone. Our lives are gone.”
Assy Hassan al Khalid needed no prompting to tell me all this. Clearly, the man was still in a profound state of shock. “We were doing well, you know! I had my trade, and there was plenty of work for all of us. If you stayed out of politics, the regime left you alone. But when the protests started, it changed and they attacked us. We had to defend ourselves. The revolution? No, it is simply not worth it. So many people killed. Our country now in ruins… We will never be able to go back and live a normal life. It’s no use to die for politics. Everything has gone to hell. Suddenly, our country is filled with extremists. Where did they come from? Huh? What do they want? Why is it like this?!”
These sentiments were echoed by pretty much the majority of the people I talked to in the camps all over Lebanon. The revolution is dead. In fact, Syria itself is dead. The original rebel forces had been decisively defeated. The rebellion had been quashed – first by the regime, and then by the various extremist Sunni groups quietly backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. By now, it is safe to say the revolution devoured its own children and then spat out a world of hurt. As a result, we are observing the greatest humanitarian tragedy in the tragedy-choked Middle East after the Palestinian naqba of 1948. Not only Syria has been affected: something revoltingly similar may very soon start happening to Lebanon. Over here, too, the Sunni-Shiite tensions are bordering on irreparable hatred.
This is another part of the reason why Lebanon has seen such a resurgence of war-time economy.
Since the law states there can be no such thing as an official refugee camp, the majority of the fleeing masses are forced to pay staggeringly steep rents for their tents or cardboard dwellings. It is a take-it-or-leave-it deal from them as soon as they cross the border. A large number of Syrian families has been caught into the vicious circle of debt. A lot of that debt is being paid off by the children through slave labour, prostitution and drug trafficking. You can see these Syrian children everywhere, roaming the streets of Beirut in a zombie-like trance and begging for alms, you can see them ransacking the dumpsters for scraps of only half-rotted food. Where, one feels compelled to ask, are the humanitarian organisations? Where is the international community? Where are the Lebanese authorities? Where is the much-flaunted Muslim solidarity? One telling fact: just three weeks ago, Saudi Arabia made a generous ‘donation’ of three billion dollars to the Lebanese army so it could buy French arms.
“We desperately need help! We need a lot of it, and we need it now! And I’m not talking only humanitarian relief. Lebanon is in desperate need of broader assistance. Decisive action needs to be taken to build the necessary infrastructure and to take care of the logistics. It is crucial to agree to some sustainable way of shouldering this overwhelming burden. 97 percent of all refugees from Syria are stationed in the bordering countries. A massive international investment is crucial! At the same time, we need to do everything humanly possible to end the war,” I was told in Beirut UNCHR’s Roberta Russo. . .
Each month, Assy Hassan al Khalid is forced to pay the Lebanese landowner where the ‘unofficial’ refugee camp is located 160 dollars in rent. For this shocking sum, his family gets the use of a few square meters of ground, and that’s it.
“We are up to our necks in debt,” Assy Hassan tells me with something very close to despair. “We’ve got nothing left. We’ve already sold everything we could. At night we’re burning up plastic for at least some warmth. My children are sick, but we can’t afford the treatments. We’re hungry – we’re so very hungry… How is this possible? There is no help. Nothing. No one even comes to see how we are doing. It is as if we don’t exist. All we’ve got left is our faith in God and in each other.” The poor man searches my face for response. “Are we not people?” he finally asks me: “Why are we being treated like animals? Why?”
The Death of the Revolution
“I would never have gone to war if I had known what was going to happen to us. I admit this openly. I fought with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). After the initial round of protests, when the regime launched the assault on Homs, we had no choice but to grab rifles and fight back. Up until then, we were living normal lives. Okay, no, we were not free men – but if we minded our own business and kept out of politics, they left us pretty much alone.” I am told this by a man named Maziad Khalid al Dahab in front of his temporary accommodations in yet another refugee camp west of Zahle. The Syrian government’s bombing campaign had cost him his right eye, and he tells me his left one isn’t too good either. The only thing he can be sure of is that there will be no work for him in Lebanon. There is precious little of it for the Syrian men in perfect fettle, and even when they do get it, the pay is maybe half of what it used to be. ‘The refugee’s wage’is what the angry and endlessly humiliated Syrians call it.
“If I had known what would follow, I wouldn’t have joined the protests. Yes, it’s an awful thing to say, but it’s true. We believed in the revolution. And now we no longer have a country. We no longer have anything we could call a home! We are rats now, that is what we are. Over here, they’re squeezing us for all they can get. You see this, this hole here?” Maziad motions toward some sort of a crude agricultural structure in the middle of a deserted field, with a fetid brook running past. “We actually pay 200 dollars a month to live here. Can you believe that? But what choice do we have? Once a month, the United Nations send us a food parcel. No no, I’m not complaining, it is desperately needed , but that is all the help we get! We’ve got nothing , our savings are long gone. My three children are freezing. There are thirteen of us living on sixteen square meters of space! My cousin has got six children and a pregnant wife.”
Maziad’s tale is at the same time heart-wrenching and numbingly typical. Despite the war, he says his wish is to return home as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter that, in Homs, he’s got literally nothing to return to. Here in Lebanon, he claims, things are even worse. Tired of humiliation and extortion, his uncle returned to Syria three weeks ago. As soon as he crossed the border, he vanished without a trace.
As we stand there talking, a large group of men approaches and joins in. A heated debate is soon underway, most of it revolving around whether there had ever been any sense in the Syrian revolution. Most of these people, it is painfully easy to establish, have been stripped of all illusions. Idealism is now but a dirty word. All they have left is this huge wasteland everywhere around them prowled by human vulture of every stripe one can imagine.
“I no longer trust anyone. Not even my relatives. I left Idlib on my own. I did fight for a while, but then I decided there was no point. My wife was killed in a rocket attack. We had been married for four months. Most of my comrades and my friends have been killed. They were replaced by people I didn’t know. They weren’t even from our city. There were many foreigners among them. So one day I jumped on a motorbike and headed south. All I wanted was to get out of Syria. At one of the checkpoints, I was beaten by the government soldiers. I was severely injured – my spine is bent, so I am unable to work. The truth is, I’m completely useless,” I was told at another camp by the twenty-year-old Zuher Mohammed, a student from Idlib. We were standing in a courtyard where his peers were busily mixing concrete. After he said his piece, Zuher kept silently staring at me for almost a minute. “Yes, of course I’m against the war,” he said eventually: “I’m also against all extremists, against Bashar al-Assad, against Hezbollah and against the Saudis. All of them completely destroyed our country and our way of life. I am now alone in the world. I don’t have anything you could call a goal or even a wish. Peace is impossible. My wife is never coming back. I will never have children.”
. . .
The next day, several rockets exploded in the vicinity of the refugee camp located in one of the neighbouring Lebanese towns. Seven people were killed, many were injured. The tensions are rising on the daily basis. Is war coming back home, in Lebanon?
|ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 10 (02.2014)|