As the battle for the future of Syria rages, the grainy Youtube videos of shelled cities and broken bodies, the sound of gunfire and the sight of armed men behind sandbags have become all too familiar.
So too has the struggle of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
“There are 20,000 of us in northern Lebanon,” says Ali al-Kurdi, a refugee who works with the Syrian Local Coordinating Committees to support other refugees.
Lebanese aid workers in the area say that around 5,000 of those refugees have settled in the Wadi Khaled border area, living in converted elementary schools and rooms in private homes. They rely on charity for food, medical care and education for their children. Many have been here for over a year.
Some refugees fled to escape the now mandatory army service for men between 19 and 40. Others fled to escape the Syrian military’s bombardment of their town. Still others have left because there’s no work, and staying in Syria is dangerous. The few recent arrivals have had to bribe Syrian soldiers to cross the nearly impenetrable border in this area.
What all the refugees have in common is a commitment to stay — and not from affection for the the conditions in Lebanon. They remain in Lebanon because they say danger awaits anyone who tries to go back to Syria.
“Anyone who goes back, dies,” said a 20 year-old woman named Noor. “My brother was killed a month ago when he tried to go back and see our mother.”
She says two of her uncles were also arrested when they returned to Syria. “The regime arrested them and they disappeared, and now we don’t know anything about them.”
The uprising interrupted Noor’s first year of study at a university in Homs. She asked that her real name not be used here as she hopes someday to return to her hometown, a place called Tel Killa.
Tel Killa is only a few miles away from Wali Khaled. Before the Syrian uprising, the only sign of the international border in this valley dotted with villages and lush with wheat and other crops was a 20-foot-wide, slow moving stream. Fuel and cigarette smugglers openly shuttled across the border illegally. When the uprising began, many in Tel Killa joined it. Instead of cartons of black-market cigarettes and gas canisters, fighters and weapons moved from Lebanon to Syria.
It wasn’t long before the Syrian Army moved troops into the town and began shelling it. The inhabitants fled across the illegal border crossings to safety in Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled.
Another refugee named Sa’er, who also didn’t want to give his full name, says the Syrian military has now effectively sealed off the border.
“The Syrian military has planted a lot of landmines along the border,” he says. “A lot of people have had their legs blown off by the landmines. So now no one crosses.”
Now, the only route out of Syria is through the legal border crossing in the area. But Syrian soldiers and border guards demand bribes from anyone wanting to leave the Tel Killa area legally.
A woman named Rikat wore a yellow headscarf and blue jeans as she sat in a circle with other female refugees at the school. They passed the afternoon smoking a water pipe as their children played in the hallways. Rikat, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her from possible retribution, fled Tel Killa with her three children in early May 2012. She says she had to pay a $100 bribe to one of the Syrian Army commanders in the town to let her and her family flee.
“He didn’t do it out of the kindness of his heart,” she said of the commander. “If it was up to the Syrian Army’s kindness, then they wouldn’t let us out of the country.”
Saher Dandeshe works with a women’s non-profit organization in the Wadi Khaled village of Mijtal Hammoud and is now helping run a school for the young refugees. She says refugees here have said they’ve paid up to $2000 to come across; but others have paid less. Dandeshe says once the refugees cross to Lebanon, they can’t return to Syria. But they are only given a limited time to stay in Lebanon.
“The Lebanese government needs to do something about this so they’re not staying illegally,” she said. “Allow them to renew their visa, because it’s too dangerous to go back."
Rikat, the refugee in the yellow headscarf, says she fled because the Syrian military continued to shell Tel Killa. “The army wanted to stop the demonstrations, but people kept going out to the streets,” she said. “So the military was shelling more, trying to gain control of the area.”
Tel Killa’s residents have paid a heavy price: Syrian refugees in Lebanon say that out of the town’s 45,000 original inhabitants, only 5,000 are left.
Not all the refugees fled to Wadi Khaled. Some, like Ali Al Kurdi, have found refuge along the main coastal highway north of Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. He and his family are better off than most — they can afford a modest apartment with furniture. But they can’t go back to Syria for fear of arrest, detention, army conscription or death. Kurdi’s oldest son is already detained in Syria. His other son can’t return.
“Five of my friends were forced to enter the army, and we haven’t heard anything from them since,” says Kurdi’s 19-year-old-son, Zeid.
Zeid Kurdi says the Syrian government is specifically conscripting young men from towns that have rebelled.
His father, Ali al-Kurdi, says the Syrian government has tried to paint supporters of the uprising, like himself, as al-Qaeda or Sunni extremists. But he says that’s not right. He pulls an Arabic bible off his shelf, and puts it on the table next to the Koran. He says Syria’s Christian minority and President Bashar al-Assad’s coreligionists, the Alawites, have nothing to fear from the uprising.
“We are a moral revolution,” he said. “This is not revolution of Muslims against Alawites. We love the Alawites.”
But others feel differently.
Back at the school-turned-refugee shelter in Wadi Khaled, a 17-year-old boy named Mahmoud sits on the back of a motorbike, ready to take a ride with a friend to cut through the boredom brought on by power cuts and 18 months living as a refugee. But he can’t go far. He says the Lebanese Army checkpoint just 100 yards away prevents young Sunni Muslim males like himself from leaving the Wadi Khaled area to find work or go to school. But, he says, they will allow the Alawite Syrians to cross the checkpoint.
“The Alawis are not followers of Mohammad’s religion,” he said, his voice filled with resentment. Then, in a statement echoing Sunni anger and resentment in both Lebanon and Syria, he implied that Shiite Muslims and Alawites are infidels.
“They’re not Muslims, they’re Shiites, followers of Bashar al-Assad and [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah.”