www.theedgereview.com – digital/app download available here (subscription)
By SIMON ROUGHNEEN / Zahle, Lebanon
Yassir Shebat is still getting used to his new surroundings in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Zahle, a town in eastern Lebanon known for its vineyards and scenic location in a valley between the hills of Beirut and the Syrian border.
“In Aleppo, we had a three bedroom house, a nice life,” Yassir Shebat told The Edge Review, leaning against a pockmarked timber buttress supporting the 4-metre-by-4-metre shelter where he and 14 family members have stayed for the past three weeks.
“Before the war, I mean,” he added, pointing, resignedly, around the claustrophobic interior of the shack.
Syria’s grueling, brutal conflict is just 15 miles from this sun-lit town in the Bekaa Valley, a region that hosts around a third of the estimated one million Syrian refugees now in Lebanon. Around Zahle, the vineyards are interspersed with clusters of shiny white and blue-and-grey tents and tarpaulin-covered shacks.
For Shebat, the fighting is no more than a three-week-old memory. “We moved from place to place, until finally there was nowhere left that was safe,” he said, recalling a terrifying final few months in Lebanon’s war-ravaged neighbour.
Estimates of the death toll of the war in Syria vary. The United Nations has stopped counting the dead because it says it cannot verify the numbers, but around 140,000 people are thought to have been killed. Out of a pre-war population of 21.4 million, almost 10 million people need aid, and almost as many have been driven from their homes, either inside Syria, or escaping to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the main refugee destinations.
Shebat’s family fled first from Aleppo, the biggest city in Syria and in recent months a target of government “barrel bomb” attacks that have targeted rebel-held districts – the latest outrage in an increasingly complex war that has seen the government of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, hold out against a fractious armed opposition, which is in turn supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States – and al-Qaeda.
Both sides in the Syrian war have support in Lebanon too. The Shia militia Hezbollah – which, like Assad, is backed by Iran – has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to bolster Assad, who is opposed by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
In retaliation, Iranian diplomatic buildings and Shia civilian areas in Beirut have been attacked by terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda – fighters who have become increasingly prominent on the anti-Assad side in Syria’s civil war, although often fighting against other opposition groups as well as against the Syrian Army.
Ten people were killed in explosions carried out near the Iranian cultural center in Beirut on February 19, while Mohamed Shatah, a prominent member of the anti-Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon, was assassinated in late December.
From 1975-1990, it was Lebanon that was the war-ravaged country – with Syria, then a peaceful if authoritarian state, seen as a reviled occupier by many, though not all, Lebanese. And now, though those tables are turned and Lebanon has been at peace since 1990, there is a growing fear that a spillover of the conflict in Syria could undermine this small country’s precarious stability.
Lebanon itself was without a government for almost year, until February 15. The new administration, though it takes in almost all of Lebanon’s main parties – a mix of Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as the country’s roughly one-third Christians – is seen as a stop-gap ahead of presidential elections and the passing of a new electoral law.
In the meantime, with no end to the Syrian war in sight, the influx of refugees looks set to continue, pulling at Lebanon’s already-stretched resources. The roughly one million Syrian refugees inside Lebanon is a massive influx for a country that is only two-thirds the size of Timor-Leste and with a population of just 4.3 million people.
Lebanese officials have put the cost of keeping the refugees at around US$1 billion so far, and Jean Khoury, communications officer for Caritas Lebanon, said that more outside assistance is needed to help cope with the number of people who have crossed from Syria.
Pointing around the same camp where Yassir Shebat is now staying, Khoury says that despite the fact that various non-governmental organisations and agencies – including Caritas – are all providing different forms of assistance in the refugee camps, there is a huge aid shortfall.
“We would like to appeal for the international community to do more,” he told The Edge Review. “Practical assistance, such as helping to fund the rent for refugees and food items are both badly needed, and never forget the best solution, when the situation permits, is to go back to their homeland where they can finally live in dignity.”
With refugee camps taking up space in some of Lebanon’s prime agricultural land, farmers and landowners charge the equivalent of US$670 per tent, per year. In the fields around, refugee men and women work on vineyards and plantations, earning money that families need to survive and a way for the refugees to pay for the tent space.
Siham Ali has been a refugee for 10 months, staying in a tent with her husband and four children a few feet from Shabat. She now teaches at a school set up in the camp – a reminder of a life left behind in Syria. “We were OK there,” she told The Edge Review. “But now, everything has changed and we have lost so much.”
Around the tent used as a makeshift classroom, a handful of kids run around, some with schoolbooks in their hands, some yelling, some wanting to pose for photographs.
A few boys, aged between 5 and 8, fight over a four-foot long cardboard tube. The winner, exuberant, yanks his prize away from the others and hoists the tube onto his shoulder. Pointing it at the group, he mimics a soldier letting off a shoulder-fired missile, and yells “Boooom!”
As the kids played war, a grey van pulled up outside the camp, which sits beside the road from Zahle to Baalbek, about 20 miles north in the Bekaa Valley.
A man hopped out, brandishing a handful of tatty-looking documents, dirt gathering where the dog-ears bent. “Our papers,” he said, telling the mix of aid workers and Syrian refugees gathering around that he and his family had crossed the border that same day.
In Zahle, most of the town’s residents are Christian, while 20 miles north, in Baalbek, most are Shia Muslim. There, hawkers sell Hezbollah t-shirts to a dwindling number of visitors coming to see the town’s eye-catching Roman ruins, which in more peaceful times are a prime tourist draw. Another 20 minutes north again is Arsal, a mostly Sunni Muslim town and an alleged redoubt for anti-Assad fighters. Just 6 miles from the Syrian border, Arsal is sometimes a target for Syrian airstrikes.
Breathless, the man introduced himself. “Omar, Omar,” he said, adding that he had fled in his packed van heavy fighting in Qalamoun, just across the Lebanon-Syria border, where the Syrian government, backed by Hezbollah, is trying to dislodge Sunni fighters.
“We want to register as refugees, where should we go?” He was already turning back toward the van as an orchestra of voices, accompanied by swinging, pointing hands, waved him toward Zahle.Show