BEIRUT: Syrian refugees are barred from leaving Arsal and in urgent need of medical care, said medical professionals and aid workers inside the embattled border town.
Mahmoud Ezzedine, Arsal’s representative of the Lebanese NGO Shabab al-Umma, said the camps on the outskirts of the town where militants were believed to have been hiding before launching their attacks on Saturday were empty due to the heavy bombardment in the area.
“They [the refugees] all left to nearby houses in the town,” he said. “All the camps have been evacuated because of the bombings.”
Ezzedine has personally seen the development of refugee camps on the outskirts of the town, inaccessible to international organizations because it lies past the last Army checkpoint before the Syrian frontier.
He said some refugees had been seriously injured and required medical care. “They need to leave Arsal,” he said. “Some of them took the road to Labweh, but that’s the farthest they could reach because the Army checkpoint on the road didn’t let them pass, and it’s the only way out.”
While Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said Wednesday that the clashes were proof that refugee camps could serve as a cover for terrorists, Ezzedine said not all camps on the outskirts were giving shelter to rebels.
“It’s easy for militants to hide in refugee camps, that’s why the Army is targeting the camps,” he said, claiming indiscriminate artillery fire had set fire to some tent clusters. “Of course most refugees are not helping them, they hate them.”
Ezzedine added that from what he had gathered the militants had emerged from camps further into no man’s land. “I heard of nine of them, who were staying with 100 families around the area of Wadi Hamid.”
A key condition demanded by ISIS militants in a cease-fire deal brokered by the Committee of Muslim Scholars Wednesday was that a statement be issued by the Army assuring them that Syrian refugees in Arsal would be safe from revenge attacks once they withdrew.
Refugees complained that their supplies were running dangerously low. “We have no electricity and no gas,” said Amra, a young Syrian woman living in Arsal. “We have some canned food that will last at most three or four days,” she said, her voice frantic. “Everyone is scared and we need help.”
Yehia, also a refugee, said he had sought refuge from the violence in the basement of a building in Arsal. He and his family had been living in a refugee camp that was hit by a rocket of unknown origin. He said many who were wounded during the shelling and ensuing inferno have been unable to receive treatment. “We have many wounded here, but the hospital we know is already full.”
According to the Social Affairs Ministry, there was no specific government decision barring Syrians from leaving Arsal.
“There is no explicit policy preventing Syrians from leaving Arsal,” Makram Malaeb, the head of the ministry’s refugee unit, told The Daily Star, adding that their inability to leave the town likely stemmed from lack of documentation.
“Because Arsal is not an official border so a lot of people who crossed in don’t have documentation,” he said, adding that the main issue facing Syrians in Arsal was lack of access to shelter and food. “Their food is covered by the [World Food Program], but access is the main issue.”
The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has registered 42,000 Syrians in Arsal, said humanitarian planning and assessment was “very much ongoing,” according to spokesperson Mona Monzer.
Monzer added that the security situation had prevented the medical evacuation of those severely wounded outside Arsal.
Medical professionals in the town complained of dwindling supplies.
“We need everything, we need drugs, chest tubes, feeding tubes, sutures, bandages,” said Dr. Bassem al-Faris, a Syrian doctor who manages Al-Rahma Hospital in Arsal. About 22 patients, he said, needed to be evacuated from the town.
In Dr. Kassem al-Zein’s field hospital, about 370 Syrian patients and 51 Lebanese were being treated by Wednesday afternoon. The most severe cases were injuries sustained from bombardment, he told The Daily Star. Of the fatalities, he said about 37 had died in his hospital since Saturday, nine of them Lebanese and 10 Syrians “who died because they could not leave Arsal.”
Zein said 14-year-old Syrian Mohammad Walid was the “most serious case” of them all. “He will die within the hour if he isn’t evacuated,” he said at around 3:30 p.m. Walid suffered from a critical head injury after a bomb fell in their refugee camp Monday at around 11 a.m.
To seek treatment outside of Arsal, Lebanese citizens must drive their vehicles to the Army checkpoint, after which point they can seek help from the Red Cross-established makeshift infirmary and transit center.
Asked why the Lebanese Red Cross has not been able to enter the town of Arsal to retrieve patients, chief of Emergency Services Georges Kettani said “the Army does not allow it.”