A narrow but dense belt of orange orchards strung along Syria’s border with northeast Lebanon has become a deadly hurdle to be crossed by desperate Syrian refugees escaping the violence in the city of Homs and surrounding towns.
Refugees newly arrived in Lebanon recount horror stories of Army troops and pro-regime Shabiha militiamen chasing fleeing Syrians through the orchards and executing them on the spot. Many of the newly arrived refugees are from the town of Qusayr, five miles north of the Lebanese border, which has been shelled and plagued by snipers for several weeks.
“People are thinking if I stay in Qusayr, I’m going to die, so I have nothing to lose by trying to reach the Lebanese border,” says Abu Abbas, a resident of Qusayr who fled the besieged town with his family 10 days ago. “We couldn’t live there any longer. The shelling was nonstop. They were using everything against us – rockets, mortars, machine guns.”
Lebanon, which has long lived under the shadow of its powerful neighbor, has opted for a policy of disassociation with the crisis in Syria. But as the violence worsens in Syria and the flow of refugees increases, Beirut may find that it can no longer ignore the crisis on its doorstep.
Indeed, the Lebanese government is coming under mounting international pressure to provide proper humanitarian assistance to refugees, with 2,000 estimated to have entered the country just since the weekend and an increasing number expected to follow. But the government is torn between responding to that pressure and observing the interests of the Assad regime in Damascus, to which it has close ties.
Yesterday, US Ambassador Maura Connelly urged Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel to provide help for all Syrians fleeing into Lebanon whether civilians, activists, or Army deserters. Meanwhile, Ali Abdul Karim, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, was emphasizing to Prime Minister Najib Mikati the need to secure Lebanon’s border with Syria to prevent the smuggling of arms to rebel groups and the infiltration of anti-regime militants.
On Sunday, the Lebanese Army detained 35 Syrians who crossed into the northern Bekaa Valley on charges of carrying arms. However, 28 of them were subsequently released after it was ascertained that they had not used their weapons in Lebanon.
7,000 refugees get 'no help from the government'
Wearing a brown leather jacket with a thick gray scarf wrapped around his neck, the hollow-eyed Abu Abbas appears still in shock from the experiences he and his family endured in Qusayr.
“There was no electricity, no water, no phones. It was too dangerous to walk to the shops to buy bread because of the snipers,” says the father of three small children. “We could not sleep at night because we never knew when a shell would hit our house.”
One mortar round exploded on the roof of his home, he says, although his family – sheltering on the ground floor – escaped injury.
Abu Abbas's family adds to the more than 7,000 refugees already registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
“That is the number we are hearing, but we have teams doing an assessment in the Bekaa today,” says Dana Sleiman, spokeswoman in Lebanon for the UNHCR.
Most of the refugees have moved in with family and friends in Sunni-populated towns and villages in the Bekaa Valley.
In the remote town of Arsal in the eastern Bekaa, some 200 people have settled into private homes and are being cared for by the local community, according to Ali Hojeiri, the mayor.
“The people here are giving them food and shelter,” he says. “We have had no help from the government at all. It is difficult for us but the Syrians are welcome here.”
Dodging Syrian soldiers en route to safety
Abu Abbas has just returned from the border, where he is awaiting the arrival of his elderly and frail mother and father. He says that the latest information from Qusayr is that the Syrian Army has moved out of the town completely.
“We fear this means they are going to destroy the town over the heads of the people,” he says.
Abu Abbas and his family were one of five families to make the perilous trip from Qusayr to the Lebanese border. Although the distance is relatively short, they were forced to go by foot and take back roads and farm tracks to avoid Army checkpoints.
“We saw lots of soldiers and we had to keep hiding. It was very frightening,” says Khadija, his wife.
They crossed the border safely and hitched a ride to the nearby town of Jdeide, populated mainly by Sunnis and Christians. On reaching a mosque, they encountered a local resident, Ahmad, who on learning they had arrived from Syria offered to take them into his home.
Brutal militia in an orange grove
Now they worry about their relatives who remain behind in Qusayr. On Tuesday, Abu Abbas returned to the border and slipped across for a short distance to look for his parents.
“I was hiding in the orange trees but there were soldiers and Shabiha everywhere chasing people,” he says, referring to the mainly Alawite pro-regime militia. He said that he saw the Shabiha militiamen catch people and kill them on the spot.
“It was horrible. They were running after people and the moment they caught one, they would cut his throat immediately and leave the body on the ground,” he says. Abu Abbas added that he was so frightened, he headed back into Lebanon immediately.
It is impossible to verify his story, although similar claims have been repeatedly aired by Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
For now, like thousands of other refugees in Lebanon, Abu Abbas and his fmaily face an uncertain future, one that is dependent on future developments in Syria. Abu Abbas says there is no chance of returning to Syria until the collapse of Assad’s regime. His wife, Khadija, nods her head.
“We have run away from death,” she says. “You think we are in a hurry to run back to death?”