LEBANON: “We used to hear about the exile of the Palestinians. Now, we’re just like them,” sighed Farhat Mustafa al-Kurdi who fears Syrian refugees will become forgotten victims of his homeland’s conflict.
Most of his fellow refugees in Wadi Khaled, just inside northern Lebanon, fled the neighbouring flashpoint province of Homs in central Syria.
They say they are “harassed” by men working for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, accused of abducting Syrians and Lebanese as far inside Lebanon as Tripoli, the country’s largest northern city.
In the courtyard of a school rehabilitated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in al Rama village, 2km from the border, children played together, oblivious to the distressed look of their parents.
“I pace in the courtyard of the school as if in prison. It’s worse than a prison,” said Farhat, a man of 39 with a frizzy beard who fled his village of Tall Kalakh at the outbreak of Syria’s anti-regime revolt last year.
The refugees’ exile drags on in this school, and subsistence, already scarce, has been reduced to a trickle.
“In the past, we received assistance from NGOs every month. For two months, we have received almost nothing. Wadi Khaled has become a forgotten place,” 27-year-old Ahmad said.
“We have become like animals, we just eat to survive,” he said. “Better to die than to live like this.”
Ahmad, an electrician, said he is able to “earn between 5,000 and 6,000 Lebanese pounds (about four dollars) for small jobs.” But staple foods are scarce: “Chicken? Meat? You’re dreaming!”
To live under the bombs is better
Manal, a 33-year-old mother of three, agreed: “There was a lot more aid before. Today, we eat once a day. “Sometimes I tell myself that to live in Tall Kalakh under the bombs is better.”
In April, the UNHCR expressed concern about lack of funds to meet the needs of 61,000 Syrian refugees in the region, including more than 22,000 living in Lebanon, particularly in already poor Wadi Khaled.
“We continue to help refugees, but it is true that security incidents in recent weeks have slowed the process,” admitted Dana Sleiman, UNHRC spokeswoman in Lebanon.
Apart from lack of funds, danger has become palpable at the porous border, with frequent gunfire from Syrian troops and a spate of kidnappings blamed on “henchmen of Bashar.”
Clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian regime gunmen on Saturday killed 10 people in Tripoli, Lebanese security and medical officials said.
Northern Lebanon was already rocked in May by deadly clashes between pro- and anti-Assad residents of the port city and the killing of a Sunni sheikh by Lebanese army gunfire, raising fears of a spillover of the unrest into Lebanon.
Syria’s opposition has accused Damascus of “increased attacks on Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees” at the border, “kidnapping wounded in hospitals” and using “mercenaries of the regime to set up checkpoints” inside Lebanon.
Supporters of Damascus, meanwhile, accuse the pro-Western opposition in Beirut of turning Lebanon — which for three decades was dominated politically and militarily by Damascus — into a “platform” for the Syrian rebels.
“There are supporters of the regime who come to interrogate us on what we do and tell us to leave”, Suheib, a Syrian activist, told AFP. “We were in Tripoli at first and they harassed us there too, so we left.”
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