Memories of its own civil war dampen Lebanon's desire to help Syrian refugees

Lebanese fears about another civil war are stymieing assistance for the 200,000 mostly Sunni Syrians who have fled to Lebanon. Their arrival could destabilize the country's fragile balance.

Nicholas Blanford
Yassaer Hadaji (r.) stands beside other Syrian refugees who are among some 60 members of an extended family who fled the fighting in Syria a month ago and are now living in makeshift huts near Majdal Anjar in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley.

References to the “Onion Factory,” an abandoned farm once used by Syrian intelligence agents as an interrogation center and prison for Lebanese detainees, still send a shudder through residents of this Sunni town.

But today, nearly eight years after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew his army from Lebanon, the Onion Factory has become home to a new generation of Assad regime victims – an extended family of about 60 Syrian refugees who have fled the bloody conflict roiling Syria to find desperate sanctuary in makeshift huts around the grim former prison.

“Our situation here is miserable. We have no food, no diesel for heating, nothing,” says Yasser Hadaji, who arrived in Majdal Anjar with his family six weeks ago, having fled from Raqqa, a town in northern Syria.

Mr. Hadaji and his extended family are among an estimated 200,000 Syrians who have fled their homes to seek shelter in Lebanon as refugees, stirring sectarian concerns in a country that is deeply divided over the war raging in Syria and placing a massive burden on the cash-strapped Lebanese government.

Lebanon has so far resisted building camps like those constructed in Jordan and Turkey. The notion of refugee camps has a particular political and sectarian undertone here because of the sizable Palestinian refugee population that has lived in a dozen slumlike camps throughout the country since 1948. Many Lebanese recall that the presence of armed Palestinian factions in Lebanon was a contributing factor to the 1975-90 civil war.

Furthermore, there has been resistance for decades, particularly among Christians, against allowing the mainly Sunni Palestinian refugees to assimilate into Lebanese society in case it upsets the delicate sectarian balance in the country. That is why, out of all the Arab nations hosting Palestinians, those in Lebanon live in the worst conditions and have the least civil rights.

Sunni 'military bases'? 

In the absence of camps, most Syrian refugees are instead staying with relatives and friends, renting accommodation if they have the funds, squatting in abandoned buildings, or living in tents and huts.

Unlike Turkey and Jordan, two other countries neighboring Syria that have absorbed refugees, Lebanon is a tiny nation of some four million people which lacks the resources to host such a large refugee population. Two days ago, Lebanon appealed to the Arab League for $180 million in aid to cater to the needs of the refugees, according to a plan drawn up by the government two weeks ago. The Arab League agreed to dispatch a fact-finding team to assess the status of the refugees.

“The situation has become worrisome and stressful on a large scale, especially as the government’s plan was designed based on the presence of 200,000 refugees while the number, I think, has surpassed 200,000,” Wael Abu Faour, Lebanese minister for social affairs, told the meeting. He said that the $180 million would be used to provide health, social, and education services, including the enrollment of 30,000 Syrian children in public schools.

Gibran Bassil, the energy minister and a member of the mainly Christian Free Patriotic Movement, has been an outspoken critic of establishing refugee camps for Syrians, warning that they could become “military bases” for the armed Syrian opposition.

“The number of refugees must be reduced to a minimum by returning them to safe Syrian regions or deporting them to other countries,” Mr. Bassil tweeted during a government debate on the issue two weeks ago.

But his views appear to carry limited weight in Lebanon where, despite the polarization between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime, the plight of the refugees has drawn broad sympathy.

Even Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant Shiite Hezbollah which is an ally of the Assad regime, has called for the border with Syria to remain open for refugees.

“We urge that handling the refugees should be from a human angle and should not be politicized in any way,” he said during a speech on Jan. 4. “Therefore, families that seek sanctuary in Lebanon and count on its government and people should be supported, whether they are pro or against the Syrian regime.”

'Not like the Palestinians'

The claim that refugee camps could harbor anti-Assad militants gained little sympathy from the Syrians living beside the Onion Farm.

“We left our land and country not to form military groups but to live and eat,” says Salah al-Ahmad. “If we get peace in our country we’ll leave right away. Our situation is not like the Palestinians.”

Mr. Ahmad and the other refugees said they had no choice but to leave Raqqa because of the heavy fighting in the area between Syrian government troops and rebel forces.

“My house was destroyed in an air raid and my nephew, Yasser, was killed,” Ahmad says.

With the assistance of local Lebanese, the refugees have built simple huts made of timber frames covered in plastic sheets tied down with rope. The huts provide scant shelter against the winter weather, especially last week, when Lebanon experienced the most severe snow storm in more than a decade. Snow covered the flat Bekaa valley and a stiff icy breeze blew from the snowy mountain peaks to the east.

The Syrian men shook their heads when asked if they were aware of the history of the Onion Farm, where Lebanese were once imprisoned and interrogated by the Assad regime’s intelligence apparatus.

“I know exactly what went on here,” says Hanadi, a short Lebanese woman who lives in a small house beside the farm. “The Syrians tortured and killed people in that place.”

The Syrian men looked sympathetic.

“We hope Assad will be brought down tomorrow,” says Jassem al-Hassan to nods of approval from the others.

Ironically, personal and pro-Assad regime graffiti is still discernible on the walls of the Onion Farm. One was presumably written by a soldier from a village in northern Syria billeted at the Onion Farm more than a decade ago: “Faisal Ahmad Abu Ahmad from Kafra [village], Azaz [nearby town], 11/3/2000,” it reads.

Another says simply, "Long live President Assad."

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