ARSAL, Lebanon: “Tell him where your home is now, girl.”“It burned.”
The little girl stood by quietly in a corner of a basement building where dozens of Syrian refugees had taken refuge for a second time, left with nothing as the charred and blackened remains of their tents stood baking in the Arsal heat, overtaken by flies.
Chunks of the camps that housed refugees here stood excised by the fighting that raged in the town last week between the Lebanese Army and militants from the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), with just blackened concrete left where small tents once stood.
Refugees unanimously denied that there were gunmen in their camps, though any such claims were impossible to verify. But beyond that, many were rendered homeless by the shelling of the camps, and they now fear reprisals by the angered residents that once sheltered them, fearing a future choice between staying in a community that might turn hostile and insecure yet again, or returning home to a raging civil war.
“We are finished,” said one refugee, whose tent was destroyed, as she cradled her 8-month-old daughter, named Bara’a, Arabic for “innocence.” Like the other refugees, they declined to give their names for fear of reprisals.
“Our country is gone, we came here and built a tent and now it’s gone,” she said. “We are just homeless on the street and in the wild.”
Refugees in the camps told similar harrowing tales of shelling and seeking refuge in the basements of empty, nearby stone buildings as their tents caught fire. The ones that were burned left nothing but tiny stone bases where their rooms once stood, garbage and soot piled on the periphery, water tanks melted in the scorching blaze.
“It’s their right [to be scared], their camps were burned,” said Ahmad Fliti, the deputy mayor of Arsal. “The absence of the state was paid for by the Lebanese Army, Lebanese citizens and Syrian civilians.”
“Everyone paid a price,” he added.
Fliti, who, like the rest of the town, seemed exhausted by the ordeal, said the crisis in Arsal was the result of lax borders and the lack of a refugee policy by successive Lebanese governments.
Fliti said Lebanon ought to build refugee camps for the more than 100,000 refugees in Arsal on the Turkish and Jordanian model between the town and Syria, keeping track of those who enter and leave, and should take serious control of the borders.
He blamed the proliferation of militants in the area on the situation in the Qalamoun mountains. There, the Syrian regime backed by Hezbollah had fought rebels to wrest control of the border province. But he said the regime had given wide berth to the militants, ending the fighting in many villages there through truces that allowed them much freedom in the mountains straddling the border.
The crisis, during which some Arsalis died defending the Army, was precipitated by the state’s abandonment of its duties, he said.
“The Syrian revolution lost, Syrian refugees lost, Arsal’s people lost and the Lebanese Army lost,” he said.
Fliti is unsure how residents in the Sunni-majority town, which has long supported the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad, will react. He said there may be reprisals, but the anger might pass.
But Ali Fliti, a resident whose cousin died with a gunshot wound during the clashes, believes otherwise. He said he wants the refugees out of the town.
“They all have to leave the town, no camp should remain,” he said. “We let them into our homes and treated them well and look what happened. They destroyed the town.”
Many have already left, he said: “ Syria is 15 minutes away.”
Fliti believes many of the gunmen emerged from the camps, and said he saw some in the vicinity himself, while a minority came from the mountainous border regions, though the refugees deny this.
The resident said the emergence of the gunmen was sudden and surprising. They roamed the streets, faces covered with large beards, and some carried swords. They shot residents who defied them or who were deemed infidels, he said.
“You couldn’t leave the house to even get bread,” he added.
Fliti said the majority of residents rejoiced with the arrival of the Army. But beyond that, there is anger at the state’s abandonment. Electricity is on only five hours a day when it is available, and politicians only care about the town in election season, he said.
Nevertheless, Arsal seemed to have returned to life. Residents wandered the streets, shops were opened and the sprawling town was alive.
Patients with less dire ailments streamed into the local Arsal field hospital, where Kassem al-Zein worked. The doctor was tired as he recounted the past few days when the hospital treated hundreds he said were wounded during the fighting.
A report prepared by the hospital placed the number of wounded treated there during the fighting at 489, and the dead at 53, 19 of whom were children up to 15 years old. The majority were Syrians, and most of the injuries were shrapnel wounds likely caused by shells, while 92 were wounded by gunfire.
During the clashes, militants had positioned themselves near the hospital, the top part of which is a mosque, though Zein said they didn’t enter the hospital itself, which was rumored to be near where police officers captured by the gunmen were being held.
Zein said he hoped innocent refugees would not be blamed for the attacks.
“The people are angry because they were displaced, houses were destroyed and people died, but they don’t understand that the refugees had nothing to do with the start and end of it,” he said. “Inshallah these days will pass.”
But nearby, at the Bebein refugee camp, a child stood at the edge of what used to be his tiny, square tent. And a few feet away, families squatting in an abandoned building said they no longer could afford bread and lacked shelter. No assistance had arrived yet, and an elderly refugee’s voice rises as he says that his cousin was beaten up while trying to buy medicine for him earlier in the day.
The man, from Qusair, said he sheltered Lebanese refugees who fled there during the 2006 war. But the refugees here are now being called “beggars” and “nawar,” an epithet used to describe the destitute.
He also is adamant that no terrorists emerged from their midst.
“I swear to God no terrorists came here,” he said. “If my son was a terrorist, I would tell him stay in Syria, fight and die in Syria.”
“If my son was a terrorist and they slaughtered him I would be waving the Lebanese flag,” he added.