HERMEL, Lebanon: Residents of northeast Lebanon border towns are becoming increasingly concerned for their own safety as tensions rise over infrastructure issues due to the the deluge of refugees, and security forces erect a barricade along the border to vigilantly monitor ingresses. “The streets, squares and mosques are full of women, men and children refugees of all ages,” said Merhi Fliti, an aid worker and resident of Arsal in Lebanon’s northeast.
“The Lebanese residents in the village can’t find homes to rent now, and there are constant electricity blackouts due to the enormous power demands, leaks in the sewage system and a shortage of drinking water,” he said.
The hordes of arriving refugees have prompted aid organizations to establish temporary camps in and around Arsal, Fliti said.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ latest report, the new arrivals are mostly fleeing Qara in Syria’s mountainous region of Qalamoun, where regime forces backed by Hezbollah have launched an offensive to uproot rebels.
The U.N. agency said civilians were also fleeing from a wider radius. Some 80 percent of the refugees were initially internally displaced from Homs and had settled in Qara earlier this year. More refugees have also been coming from Deir Atiyeh and Nabk as battles rage in their vicinity.
“The increase in the number of refugees has led to several clashes and quarrels between the refugees themselves and between them and local residents over the use of land,” Arsal resident and high school teacher Mohammad al-Hujairi said. Quarrels were mostly a result of disagreements over where tents could be erected, and some refugees had also argued with local property owners over the use of rented rooms and halls for temporary shelter.
“Several quarrels were also caused by traffic incidents,” Hujairi said.
“The refugees have brought danger with them, as airstrikes by the Syrian air force have been constantly targeting the town’s outskirts and neighborhoods that host refugees, in addition to the routes they take to reach Arsal. This has led to the death of two members of the Hujairi family, relatives of mayor Ali al-Hujairi,” he added.
About 3,800 Syrian refugee families arrived to the town in the last two weeks, Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fliti said, adding to the 9,500 families that were already residing in Arsal.
“They brought with them hundreds of cars and motorbikes that are suffocating the town’s narrow streets. Several incidents of theft have been reported lately, with the authorities identifying the thieves,” Fliti said.
He said the congestion and security incidents had led the municipal council to issue a decision forbidding refugees from driving cars or motorcycles through town.
“Bringing the cars into the village without any control creates many risks for residents and refugees because the Syrian regime has been targeting the routes taken by the refugees,” he said. “And then there’s the threat of explosive-laden cars coming to the town.”
The security concerns are not limited to Arsal, but are also felt in other parts of the eastern Bekaa Valley where there are illegal border crossings with Syria. These crossings have become routes for smuggling in refugees and arms and are believed to be the means by which explosive-rigged cars enter the country. More than one has exploded prematurely, with many more cars discovered in the villages of Maqneh and Maamoura.
Ahmad Taha, a resident of Hermel, said when news had spread that three rigged cars had been discovered in the region, possibly with the aim to target the town, the locals spent many sleepless nights as the Army and the Internal Security Forces took extraordinary security measures to find them.
Numerous Hezbollah training camps are located in and around Hermel.
These concerns have prompted the Army to more vigilantly monitor the flow of arriving refugees and their vehicles. Most enter through illegal crossings in Hermel, Arsal, Ras Baalbek, Al-Qaa and Masharih al-Qaa.
Among the security measures implemented by the Army was a 25-kilometer barricade erected along the border that extends from the areas of Al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek toward Arsal.
The barricade is 2.5 meters high and 4 meters wide and is chiefly meant to prevent cars from crossing unnoticed.
A security source told The Daily Star that this barricade was among a series of precautionary measures being taken in the northeastern border areas. In a recent development, the Syrian army has also constructed a barrier made of sandbags along the Syrian side of the border facing Masharih al-Qaa, Jousieh and Wadi al-Naamat.
Fliti explained that the barricade was a major part of the Army’s security plan to control movements along the border, especially in Arsal, which is the only crossing that can be traversed during the winter months, as the others are impassable due to heavy snow.
Separately, in a statement issued this week, key Arsal figures denied reports published in the media that 20 Syrian fighters had entered the town after being wounded battling in Nabk and Yabroud.
The statement expressed disappointment that there were “media professionals who work to serve the interests of certain parties by spreading such news aiming to cause civil strife.”
The statement said that the Army had deployed units along the borders with Yabroud and was erecting a barrier to prevent individuals from entering.
The statement asked that the media be accurate and objective in its reporting, claiming that fabricated news was often published about the town.