MASNAA, Lebanon: Reports of a mass exodus of refugees into Lebanon in recent days have proven false, but Syrians at the border expressed fear of both chemical weapons and possible U.S. airstrikes, and many complained of stricter border controls.
Just a few dozen meters inside Lebanon, a mother and daughter from eastern Ghouta, the site of last week’s alleged chemical attack outside Damascus, awaited assistance from a Qatari-funded reception center operating out of two trailers.
Recalling the early morning of Aug. 21, they said they awoke to the sounds of explosions and soon realized they were having difficulty breathing. They barricaded themselves in the bathroom, stuffed a towel under the door and covered their mouths with wet cloths until the gas cleared. When they emerged, they said, they found entire families had been wiped out.
“Shall I tell you what we saw with our own eyes? We saw everyone lying on the ground from the chemicals, dead children,” the mother said, adding that eastern Ghouta had been under siege by the regime for over a year and residents were already struggling with shortages of food, water and medicine. “It would make a stone cry.”
“Look at this child who survived the chemicals,” she said, pointing to a small boy who immediately buried himself in her skirts. “Thank God we got out alive. It’s incomprehensible.”
In spite of the atrocities they have witnessed, however, neither was convinced that foreign intervention in the form of airstrikes would lead to fewer deaths in the long run.
“The world’s reaction? The world has gone crazy,” said the daughter. “We don’t know what good will come of this, what will happen ... we don’t know if they are going to hit civilians or the regime’s bases.”
“They will surely hit civilians with these strikes, because the people are always the ones who suffer in the end.”
The family waited 10 hours to enter Lebanon, where they have no family and no place to stay yet. In any case, said the daughter, they can’t go back.
“We’re afraid of chemical weapons.”
She said she hoped for a political solution to the conflict, but lamented that “neither side wants that.”
Inside one of the trailers, Omar Mohammad al-Luwaiss, the executive director of the Qatari Al-Asmakh Charity Association, was overseeing the distribution of aid boxes containing food, sanitary supplies and other basic goods to new arrivals. By mid-morning, he said they had already processed 25 families, double the usual number.
“We have some displaced Syrians who don’t know where they are going, women, children; it’s their first time in Lebanon and they are operating blindly, so we founded this office to give out advanced aid as soon as they cross into Lebanon,” he explained, adding that the U.N. takes several months to register refugees. The center has distributed aid to over 7,000 families over the course of 11 months, he boasted.
Luwaiss said many Syrians were being denied entry by General Security for damaged documents. In some cases, he said, Lebanese border personnel are invoking a little-used law forbidding minors from traveling without their father’s permission to deny entry to unaccompanied women and children.
A Palestinian man from Yarmouk camp outside Damascus who was also waiting for assistance complained that he had been separated from his family after General Security reportedly stopped allowing Palestinians to enter several weeks ago. General Security has not commented on reports that it tightened restrictions on Palestinians, but multiple sources at the border confirmed the shift in policy.
“I can’t go to them and they can’t come here,” said the man, who introduced himself as Abu Mohammad.
A spokesperson for UNRWA, which handles Palestinian affairs, said they were “seeking clarification” from General Security regarding these reports.
Joelle Eid, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, said the agency was not aware of any cases of Lebanese authorities denying entry to Syrian families without a father. In fact, she said, UNHCR border monitors, who are granted intermittent access, report that Lebanese authorities are usually less strict with women and children, even when it comes to missing or damaged documentation.
Eid went on to say that rumors of a dramatic rise in the number of refugees following last week’s alleged chemical attack outside Damascus and the looming threat of U.S.-led airstrikes were unfounded.
According to information provided to the UNHCR by General Security, approximately 15,000 Syrians entered the country between Tuesday and Wednesday, but 10,000 left during the same period. This represents only a slight rise from recent daily averages which hovered around 10,000 arrivals compared to 8,000 departures.
Sources at the northern crossings at Arida and Abboudieh said border activity had risen by between 20 and 25 percent, but in both directions.
“Nothing is unusual with regard to [border] restrictions,” Eid said, adding that the agency is currently negotiating with the Lebanese government to set up reception centers and to station monitors at the border permanently.
“All that we know is that [General Security] is being stricter and that they are applying the law,” she added. “They have legitimate security concerns, but we want to ensure that these don’t hinder people who need humanitarian access to enter Lebanon.”
Many Syrians crossing into Lebanon declined to speak to reporters, while others dismissed questions, saying “everything is fine” or “there’s nothing happening.”
Salwa, a young woman from Damascus who only gave her first name, said she was flying out of Beirut airport to visit her parents in Jordan.
“I’m going to visit and then I’m coming back,” she said. “The situation has nothing to do with it.”
She described the atmosphere in the capital as “normal.”
Those waiting to return to Syria expressed trepidation, but seemed to prefer the uncertainty of home to the insecurity of life in exile.
“We were just visiting [Lebanon],” said one young woman when asked why she was returning to Syria in light of possible airstrikes.
“We are very afraid, honestly, because we live in a military area” in the heart of Damascus, she said. “It’s in God’s hands.” – Additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh and Rakan al-Fakih