Syria's Refugees Are Haunted By the Horrors Left Behind

Article Summary
From Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, Syrian refugees recount their journeys across the border into uneasy safety of their neighbor. The majority of these displaced are middle and upper class people, writes Nagia al-Hossary, but many face the same challenges as other Syrian refugees: personal insecurity and unending fear. 

Traveling from Aleppo to the Lebanese-Syrian border is a journey that took ​​a Lebanese woman and her ​​Syrian family over nine hours. They traveled in the middle of the night, and neither she nor her children got a wink of sleep. The family left behind a brother and sister, both married, who were unable to escape from Syria's second largest city and one of history’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. This city is currently preparing to face a fate that the whole world fears will be a massacre.

The woman has not yet caught her breath. She arrived at her brother’s house in Barelias, a town in the Central Bekaa. Her brother had urged her to come to Lebanon, rather than flee to another region in Syria or into any Turkish territory near Aleppo. She lives in a state of fear that, according to her, is the result of "the daily bombardment we used to hear in the vicinity of the building in which we live.”

Her fear is more of a destabilizing shock; she has been destabilized in the same way her safe havens were destabilized. The widow fled along with dozens of other escapees in a coach bus. She left at 1:00 AM and arrived in Lebanon at 10:00 AM, crossing many Syrian checkpoints along the way. At each checkpoint officers would simply ask the driver about his destination and then allow him to continue. Once they reached the outskirts of Damascus, she added, "the bus drove quickly without entering the city and continued on to the Lebanese border. At the border we completed the usual entry procedures and did not face any obstacles.”

Like all of the newly displaced Syrians in Lebanon, the woman refused to give her name. At first she was hesitant to talk about what she and her family had experienced in Aleppo, only mentioning general information. However, her daughter started talking about the daily shelling and those who had died. Her daughter said, "We would hear about deaths yet would not actually see them, since no one dared to leave the house." The lady’s daughter spoke about the acute shortage of gas and the evacuation warnings that lower-income areas in Aleppo are receiving. She believed that her middle-class neighborhood would eventually receive these warnings.

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This Syrian widow lived in Lebanon during the civil war before moving to Aleppo in the 1980s and marrying. Her experiences with war in Lebanon may have helped her anticipate the heavy gunfire and how to pack the essentials in such cases of displacement. However, Syrians are not experts when it comes to war, which has led to some fleeing barefoot to Lebanon.

Sahar has not stopped crying for several weeks, since the day she fled with her family from the city of Homs to Barelias. She said she left barefoot and forgot to bring medication for her anemic child. Sahar openly expresses the horror she felt in the city that was "incessantly shelled," which instilled an everlasting fear into her 8-year-old son, Abdul Rahman.

Sahar points to a foam mattress in the corner of the room that her family inhabits. This mattress was donated by one of the region's residents. "See how we sleep?” Sahar asked.

At first, we could not even tell there was a child in the room. We only noticed two foam mattresses, stacked on top of one another, with a pillow on top. However, there was a small foot hanging out from between the two mattresses, and it was that of Abdul Rahman. His mother said: "This is how he is. He only sleeps like that. He's scared whenever someone knocks on the door or whenever a cooking pot falls on the ground. He hides between the two mattresses thinking [the noise] is a rocket!"

“Why Are You Fleeing?”

Sahar, who fasts during Ramadan, recalls how she spent the Muslim holy month last year in the bottom floor of her building in Homs. “They bombed everything, destroyed mosques and schools. We used to move from one neighborhood to another to avoid death, which kept haunting us. The soldiers used to ask us why we were fleeing, saying ‘the situation is normal.’ One time, I tried to return to my apartment to retrieve some clothes, but regime soldiers stopped me. The officer asked me: ‘How can you prove that you are the owner of the apartment and not a thief?’ I told him I was carrying the property deed, so he let me in. However, the building had been razed to the ground. I tried to pull clothes out from under the rubble, but they were torn.”

She adds: “Random arrests are taking place. [Pro-government soldiers] break doors, raid houses and take away young men if they do not like the way they look. They took my husband and I had to pay 100,000 Syrian Pounds [$1556] for his release. They also took my neighbor’s husband and asked for 275,000 Syrian Pounds [$4280] to set him free. People are being crammed into prisons, where there is no place to sit and they must remain standing.”

She adds: “Wherever there are rebels, mass destruction takes place. They come to neighborhoods equipped with fuel and set fire to everything.”

Sahar wishes to return to her country “sooner rather than later,” and says she was scared at first to register her name as a refugee for fear that the Syrian regime would punish her for having “exposed” them.

Sahar talks about the aid families are receiving at the site, which include “beans and rice that are difficult to cook.” She is relying on the support of her two children, who have begun work in produce packaging. “But how much longer can we survive like this?” she cries.

Sahar’s neighbor is busy drying tomato paste in a plastic container. As she uses her hand to brush away the many flies, she talks about funds being paid to officers belonging to the Syria Trust [for Development] to depart to Lebanon.

She says that “families are prohibited from leaving all together at once, especially the children. My brother, for example, was forced to pay 25,000 Syrian Pounds [$389] to be able to take his children out [of Syria] with him three days ago. As a result of clashes between the army and the rebels, he and his family were forced to leave their neighborhood in Damascus without taking along any belongings.”

Accounts from Damascus

On July 18 and 19, a number of displaced Syrians experienced pivotal life-and-death moments. They were displaced from the Damascus suburbs and the Sayyida Zainab neighborhood to the town of Al-Marj in western Bekaa [in Lebanon], specifically to Al-Marj public elementary school.

A few men sat on wooden chairs in the school playground, staring at the horizon with tired eyes, sad faces and bodies that have become paralyzed by the extreme heat, fasting and the impact of the ordeal. Women sat cross-legged in the school corridors, watching children play with plastic bottles.

The number of rooms that were evacuated at the school to host the refugees is small compared to the demand. Sixteen families currently occupy these rooms. It is the only school in the western Bekaa that the Lebanese government permitted to open its doors for Syrian refugees. There is another school in Majdal Anjar that was allowed to receive refugees to the central Bekaa. This has left scores of families without shelter. Also, apartments for rent are no longer available because of high demand. This has prompted some to seek housing in villages and towns in the far western Bekaa. Those who were not staying with family or relatives headed to Beirut, but were not able to rent even a single room due to the high rental fees. After spending the entire day on the pavement at the Masnaa border crossing on July 18, a Syrian family was hosted by a Lebanese citizen. However, the Lebanese man noted that “they decided to return to Damascus two days ago, but regretted their decision due to the heavy shelling [taking place there]. They have told us on the phone that they can no longer bear the situation, and now we are worried about them.”

A Mercedes car entered the school playground. The “Sheikh,” as the men in attendance called him, stepped out. A veiled girl who had come to ask about him was told “he is the person working on finding shelter for your family.” Bashir al-Jarrah, who said he was responsible for the refugee center in Al-Marj, stated: “The [Lebanese] government is falling short in its responsibilities toward the people.” He noted that “30,000 refugees entered Lebanon in one week. The well-off went to Beirut or the mountains, and some had rented homes previously.” He added that “69 families have sought refuge in Al-Marj,” saying that international organizations come to count the number of refugees but do not provide aid.

The men do not complain about their current situation, but they speak in detail about their experiences in the Damascus suburbs. Some men from Ali al-Wahsh street in the Sayyida Zainab neighborhood said: “On Wednesday, December 18 at dawn, we heard people chanting ‘Allahu Akbar [God Is Great]’ and calls for jihad were made at mosques, consistent with the language of the rebels. [Strangers] knocked at our door and said ‘either you are with us, or you leave.’ But we did not know whether they were rebels or regime loyalists since they were wearing civilian clothes. We did not do what they said. At five in the afternoon, random shooting and tank shelling began. There were people in the streets, and a number of children and adults were injured. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) used anti-aircraft missiles. The clashes lasted for two to three hours, during which Sgt. Maher al-Humr of the FSA was killed. We decided to bury him after the Maghrib [sunset] prayer. As we approached the cemetery, we heard the roar of aircraft hovering above us. We were nearly 1,200 people, and we were chanting against the regime. The first rocket fell. The bodies of many mourners were torn into pieces or burned. Those who fled to the alleys survived. A second and third rocket fell. When the shelling stopped, we took the bodies to mosques and the wounded to homes. We announced over loudspeakers: ‘Anyone who knows medicine, come help us.’” The men added: “Some of the wounded survived and others died as a result of their wounds. We dug a mass grave after counting the bodies of 106 martyrs. But many of the bodies were defaced by shells and thus were buried as anonymous persons. We then fled to Lebanon, because it is the closest place geographically.”

One of the young men said that he is in continuous contact via Facebook with those who remain in his neighborhood. He cited them as saying that homes were destroyed over the heads of their owners. He asserted that those young men “are no longer afraid of the regime’s control over the Internet.” He added that “the regime has deployed officers from the Alawite sect to man security check points.” He also spoke about field executions, arrests and non-Syrian soldiers roaming in the streets.

Separation of Families

Um Abdallah, who was dying her hair in the room she shares with her brother and children, said that she ran away from the Midan neighborhood to other neighborhoods because of the shelling. “We were trapped in the firefight between the regime army and the FSA. The bombing followed us wherever we fled.

After my nephew came from abroad and asked us to leave with him to Lebanon, we decided to flee because the situation had become unbearable.” Um-Abdallah talked about cases where families were completely separated and later managed to reunite. She complained of the difficulty of fleeing with “children who do not have identity cards due to the closure of municipal offices and census bureaux.”

The weekly report issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the situation of displaced Syrians included preliminary estimates that indicate that “most of the newly displaced do not need urgent humanitarian aid because they belong to the middle and upper classes.” However, the report predicted that the long period of displacement would negatively affect both middle and upper-class families. The report stressed the need to “devise contingency plans for all possible cases and scenarios in order to meet the potential needs of future displacement situations.”

The concerns of aid agencies differ from those of the refugees, though they sometimes overlap. The refugees are concerned with the fate of their children and their children’s education. They fear the supporters of the regime, who are following them to the places of displacement. They are afraid of disease because they do not have medical coverage. They are worried about a possible change in position by their hosts, who may ask them to leave at any time. They lament houses that were razed to the ground, and are besieged by unemployment. Many of the displaced prefer sleep to awareness. They bury their faces in pillows to take a break from an oppression they cannot justify or comprehend. It is exactly like young Abdul Rahman, who squeezed himself between two mattresses to escape from fear, no longer having the energy to endure it.

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