Syrian refugees huddle in Lebanon: 30 people, one candle, and no food

One of 30 Syrian refugees sharing a tiny house says many charity workers have visited but never returned. They are among thousands displaced by a Syrian crackdown on a belt of towns near Lebanon.

Hussein Malla/AP
A Syrian child is seen with her family, who fled from the Syrian town of Qusair near Homs, at the Lebanese-Syrian border village of Qaa, eastern Lebanon, March 5. More than a thousand Syrian refugees have poured across the border into Lebanon, among them families with small children carrying only plastic bags filled with their belongings as they fled a regime hunting down its opponents.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

On a foggy late afternoon, Lebanon’s northern border with Syria is a gloomy and ominous landscape of flat stony fields and muddy tracks. The border here is marked by an earthen berm and a row of barbed wire. Beyond it lie verdant orange groves that provide cover for Syrians fleeing the violence in their homeland for the relative safety of Lebanon.

A handful of shepherds, walnut-skinned elderly men wearing thick wool coats and sporting red and white checkered keffiyahs, watch over flocks of fat-tailed sheep. Little else stirs here.

In normal times, the Lebanese customs building on the main road at Qaa, six miles from the border, witnesses heavy daily traffic. The Qaa border crossing connects Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley with Homs, Syria’s third-largest city lying 22 miles north of the frontier. But few want to travel to Homs these days and the only vehicles on the arrow-straight road from the customs building are the odd tractor driven by a local Lebanese farmer and a few southbound minivans with Syrian plates and roofs piled with bags and suitcases to a perilous height.

A week ago, Jaafar, a Syrian laborer, his wife, and three children worked their way across this remote terrain, having escaped the besieged quarter of Bab Amr in Homs and successfully evaded the Army checkpoints and roaming squads of pro-regime militiamen to reach the Lebanese border.

Now, he and his family are among 30 people living in a tiny one-floor house on the edge of Jdeide village in the northern Bekaa, about eight miles farther south.

Jaafar sat huddled with several other Syrians in a sparsely furnished front room that was lined with blankets and bedding donated by a local charity. But they had little else.

“We have 18 blankets but 30 people in the house. There must have been 20 people from charities and organizations coming to see us, count[ing] how many we are and taking our names. But then they never come back and we have nothing, no food, no milk for the children,” he says.

Although they have a roof over their heads, the accommodation is not free. The house was rented to them for 200,000 Lebanese lira ($120) a month.

“It’s not the end of the month yet, but we don’t have any money. We don’t know how we are going to be able to pay the rent,” Jaafar says. “We don’t even have any diesel to fill the stove and keep us warm at night,” he says, indicating an oil-burning stove in the center of the room.

As if by cue, the electricity cuts out and the room plunges into darkness. After a moment fumbling in the dark, someone lights a thin candle and places it on the stove.

“This is the only heat we will have tonight,” Jaafar jokes grimly.

UN humanitarian chief given access to Bab Amr

The most recent influx of an estimated 2,000 refugees has occurred in the past week following the fall of Bab Amr after a monthlong siege by Syrian troops.

On Wednesday, Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, visited the district along with relief agencies. The visit came a day ahead of a closed-door meeting in Geneva grouping relief agencies, including the Red Cross, to consider ways of accessing Syria to distribute humanitarian aid. Reports said that Ms. Amos and other visitors found Bab Amr deserted.

The Syrian Army is focusing its crackdown on the belt of cities and towns in the west, close to the Lebanese border. There are expectations that the next likely target will be the restive Idlib Province in the north, where much of the terrain lies outside the direct control of the state and is patrolled by units of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Meanwhile, Abdo Hussameldin, Syria’s deputy oil minister, has become the highest ranking civilian official in the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to announce his defection.

“I join the revolution of this dignified people,” he said in a videotaped statement that was posted on YouTube.

“I have preferred to do what is right although I know that this regime will burn my house and persecute my family,” he said.

UN envoy Kofi Annan headed to Damascus

In Cairo, Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy to Syria, urged the bickering Syrian opposition to cooperate to resolve the crisis and warned that further militarization would worsen the yearlong conflict.

“I hope that no one is very seriously thinking of using force in this situation,” he told reporters after meeting with Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League secretary-general. “We have to be careful that we don’t introduce a medicine that is worse than the disease,” added the former UN chief who is scheduled to visit Damascus on Saturday.

The international community has been unable to halt the bloodshed in Syria and is undecided on what course of action to take. Some advocate military intervention such as establishing safe havens on Syrian territory or arming the Free Syrian Army. Others warn that such steps will only deepen the conflict and offer no guarantees of success.

That leaves Jaafar and other Syrian refugees in Lebanon mulling an uncertain future.

“We have reached a point where we cannot back down,” he says. “We will keep on fighting until Assad is gone or we are all killed.”

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