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DALHAMIEH, Lebanon – Rolling up a green dress sleeve, 12-year-old Syrian refugee *Reina murmurs “chemical, chemical.” Her arm, what’s left of it, is distorted, wrinked and swollen – looking more more like a gnarled and ancient tree root than a human limb.
Inside her family’s shelter, a grimy hut made from a frame of uneven-sized timbers nailed together and covered in plastic sheetings and tarpaulin, others gather round. Most decline to have their full name quoted out of fear of reprisals.
“Look, look,” says Safaa, 16, pulling down a snot-covered sleeve from her baby daughter Noufa’s arm. Scabs and blotches cover the infant’s wrist and foream. Clasping the child to her chest, she stoops to reveal shins covered in rotten wounds, greying at the edges and crusted over in between.
Over the course of Syria’s two-year civil war, both the government and rebels accuse each other of using chemical weapons, a charge both sides deny.
To the untrained eye, it is impossible to verify what caused the girls’ injuries, but Safaa and Reina and the scrum of older refugees gathering around are adamant about the source: some sort of chemical contained in shells fired by the Syrian Army during attacks on their home area of Baba Amr, a much-bloodied district of the long-besieged Syrian city of Homs. It has been the site of government and rebel offensives over much of the past two years of Syria’s increasingly bloody civil war.
With over 6,000 people killed, this March was the deadliest month of the war so far, according to statistics compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
The fighting in Syria, which has killed between 70,000 and 120,000 people, according to varying estimates, is having an increasing impact here in Lebanon, which shares most of its land borders to the east and north with Syria.
Safaa and Reina are among 20 Syrian refugee families staying in this small camp, a half-hour from the Lebanon-Syria border and an hour’s drive from Beirut, over Mount Lebanon and down into the Bekaa Valley. Sunni Muslims from Homs, these refugees are now staying in a Lebanese Shia-majority area, not far from roads where billboards of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomenei are plain to see.
All the arrivals to this camp avoided Syrian checkpoints when escaping into Lebanon. “We were afraid the army would arrest us, shoot us, anything,” says Mervate, who unlike the other ladies interviewed was at first willing to have her full name used but then changed her mind. “We came across the mountains,” she says, preferring not to disclose the route they took.
Syrian fighter jets have struck inside Lebanon at locations where they say rebels have crossed from Syria, while murky tit-for-tat kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon, often in the Bekaa Valley –Alawites likely taken by rebels and Sunnis taken by government forces – mean that this area is not safe for refugees.
Some have been here for over a year, while some have just arrived in recent days, part of a massive influx that the United Nations puts at some 400,000 people. Other estimates, however, including one by Lebanonese President Michel Suleiman, say there are around one million refugees, equivalent to a quarter of the population of Lebanon itself.
Najla Chahda, Director of Caritas Lebanon’s Migrant Center, which is assisting around 100,000 of the refugees around the country, says the influx is hard to handle. “Shelter is a big problem, sometimes it is too expensive, sometimes there is just no room. We have found several cases of refugees sleeping on the road.”
For the refugees, cross-border sectarian, business and clan links mean that most of them in Lebanon do not stay in camps, but with family, friends or work contacts. In as much as a full headcount is possible, most are Sunni, although there are some Syrian Shia, Alawites and Christians among them.
Lebanon’s 4.1 million population has a long history of hosting refugees, both during and since its own often gruesome 1975-1990 civil war. There have been hundreds of thousands of refugees from Palestine and Iraq at different times, with many of the former still in camps around Lebanon.
But with Syria, it’s different. The Syrian Army occupied Lebanon until 2005, when an international outcry helped force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hand in the aftermath of the assassination of the Saudi-backed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The assassination was widely blamed on a plot by Iran, Syria and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement.
Nor is Lebanon’s current domestic politial situation free of the sectarian fissures that are tearing apart Syria. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned in March, citing the cabinet’s refusal to extend the term of the Sunni police chief.
More broadly, Mikati sounded a warning about the growing impact of the war next door, remarking after his resignation that “The region is descending into the unknown; regional fires are infecting us with their heat; and internal divisions are leaving deep scars.” He called on the the country’s political parties to “shoulder their responsibility.”
Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims generally support the political allies of Hariri, along with a chunk of the Christians who make up 40 percent of the country’s population. The Shia, however, are mostly on the politically-dominant Hezbollah side, supported by other Christian parties and the Druze, a minority Muslim sect. It is as if Lebanon’s sectarian politics are a shadow-play of Syria’s, where the mostly Sunni oppostion is fighting an Alawite (read Shia)-led government.
Lebanon’s political divides, in turn, more or less spell out which side one takes on developments in Syria, with Hezbollah and its allies accusing jihadist groups such as the Nusra Front of not only playing a major part in the rebellion against Assad, but of infiltrating Lebanon. In turn, Sunnis in Lebanon accuse Hezbollah of fighting directly on the Assad side in Syria, sending men and weapons across the border.
In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, Syrian refugees blend in as best they can in the town, but a Sunni-Alawite flashpoint area in Tripoli has seen several gunflights in recent months, often, it seems, in reaction to the latest atrocity inside Syria.
Yassir left Homs, Syria’s third-biggest city and site of the some of the largest anti-government protests, a year ago. Now he works as a waiter in Tripoli, serving pizza and pasta and filling hookah pipes for well-heeled customers reclining on soft couches in a restaurant near the main coastal road to Beirut.
Almost all of his family left and are now in Tripoli, but they are still worried. “I am here a year now, my family have almost all left, but my uncle is still there, and we don’t know about him, we don’t know if he is OK,” he says.
There have been Syria-linked sectarian clashes elsewhere in the country. In Sidon, site of an old Crusader fort and a 45-minute drive south of Beirut, Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad Assir has staged protests and fought gunbattles with Hezbollah, which he accuses of siding with the Syrian government in the civil war there.
The Syrian newcomers in Sidon, known locally in Arabic as Saida and a mostly Sunni town squeezed along the Meditteranean coast by hills behind, stay in apartments, with relatives or wherever they can.
Locals have made them welcome. Mohamed al-Madina, a pharmacist, says that “Plenty of people are still coming, but they find housing very easily. They are mostly Sunna (Sunni), like the people here.”
For the small group of Syrian refugees back in Dalhamieh, in the sun-baked Bekaa Valley where snow-slabbed mountains rise in the distance on either side, they aren’t concerned about sectarian issues. Their worries are more basic.
“We know there are Shia, Sunni, Christian here,” says Mervate, “but for us, finding money to build shelter, for food, for medicine for the children, that is more important.”
— Simon Roughneen previously reported from the Middle East in 2008 and 2010.
*some of the refugees asked that their full names not be usedShow