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Refugees’ spirits low ahead of Geneva II

Syrian refugee children pose for a photo in the southern village of Aqbieh, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

NABAA/ZAHLE/SIDON, Lebanon: While the international community waits to see whether Syria’s main opposition groups will attend the Geneva II peace conference slated for next week, Syrian refugee Mustafa Kurdi is indifferent as he packs oranges in the Beirut neighborhood of Nabaa. As far as he is concerned, the peace talks are a sham.

“ Geneva II is a joke,” he says as he tends to customers who casually inspect fruits by his stall. “Did the first one accomplish anything?” he asks, referring to Geneva I, which was held in June 2012 under the aegis of U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan.

“The next one will be the same,” he says emphatically. “If [the international community] really wanted to do something, they would have done it three years ago.”

The U.N.-backed conference, sponsored by the U.S. and Russia, aims to find a political solution to the nearly 3-year-old Syrian civil war by bringing together delegations from both the regime and the opposition to discuss, among other things, the formation of a transitional government.

The conference, scheduled for Jan. 22, faces many obstacles, from the reluctance of many in the fractured opposition to take part, to the ambiguity surrounding the agenda and the controversy over whether Bashar Assad should be allowed any role in the country’s future.

“Just look at the Palestinians – they’ve been here for 50 years,” exclaims Fayez, seated in his blacksmith shop. Fayez, who fled his native Aleppo, believes the Syrian exodus will likely be as protracted as that of the Palestinians in Lebanon.

“I tell you from now on we will be hearing of a Geneva III, IV, V and many more to come,” he says, pointing a soot-covered finger to the sky as though making a vow.

“It’s true, we need to come to an agreement, but we need to be on good terms first,” the blacksmith says, echoing the pronouncement of current U.N. peace envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi that the basis of a political solution does not yet exist.

Just as Russia and the U.S. are at odds over Assad retaining power in the proposed transitional government, so are Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Many told The Daily Star they prefer that the president stay on.

“One million percent [Assad] should stay,” says Malek Hamadeh, buying greens in Nabaa. “The country would have gone to the dogs if it weren’t for him.”

Majid, taking a stroll with his two young daughters, agrees: “I want Assad to stay.”

“I hate the opposition,” he adds, citing internal discord and infighting.

“The opposition has too many factions. Which one is going to represent them when each party has its own interests?” he asks.

Yasser al-Ajamih, also a Syrian resident of Nabaa, is suspicious of the international role in pushing for Geneva II, saying: “I would have more hope if the conference took place in Damascus.”

But for refugees in the Bekaa Valley, the devastation reaped by war has left little sympathy for Assad. Many say they do not want to return to a Syria where he still holds the office of president.

“I hope he doesn’t stay,” says Khadija, waiting in a long queue to receive aid in Saadnayel. “He ruined our homes. If he had made reforms at the very beginning, none of this would have happened. He has to go.”

“It’s been three years, with no education for my children, bloodletting and hunger ... who could agree to go back to that?” she asks.

“ Geneva II? Geneva of death, you mean,” scoffs Abed, also in the queue. “It’s a lost cause, a losing game.”

Nayfeh opts for a moderate stance, saying she does not care who governs Syria so long as she can return to the country soon.

“The important thing is that they all agree and we go back home, it doesn’t matter which side wins,” says the woman, who lost her brother to the war.

“I really hope we can go back home instead of being stranded here. Everyone in my situation wishes for that,” she says. “I hope an agreement will be reached.”

For Mohammad, also from Saadnayel, peace talks cannot bring an end to the Syrian war: “ Geneva II is just talk, it doesn’t reflect what’s happening on the ground.”

“Only fighting will bring about a real solution. The regime is so oppressive, only weapons will see to its end.”

Meanwhile, in a tent settlement off the main road in Zahle, questions about Geneva II are greeted with blank expressions. Barely anyone in the settlement keeps up with international news, says Ahmad, a refugee who resides there.

“What good would [following the news] do? It’s all chaos anyway,” he shrugs. “We don’t process information here anymore.”

A number of agricultural workers in south Lebanon also say they have never heard of the conference, with one of them, Izzudine al-Akhras, saying only that he hopes peace would return to Syria.

From her new home in a large building in Sidon shared by many refugee families, Umm Rouweida is more optimistic.

“The president will not keep his rule, he is going to hell, and the Geneva conference will rid the Syrian people of this ordeal.”

On the highway linking Sidon to Tyre, Khaled al-Sheikha stops his motorcycle carrying his his wife and young son on the side of the road a moment to chat with a reporter.

“We hope an agreement will be reached at the conference,” he says. “I want to go back to Damascus. One of my neighbors told me my home was destroyed, but I dream of going back and living in the rubble.”

Deep in the heart of the south, where thousands of Syrian families have settled along border towns, Samya al-Hayli says she hopes Geneva II will help end the fighting so the refugees can return to their war-torn homeland.

“I ask the participants of the conference, just as they stopped the war in Kosovo, Chechnya and Afghanistan, to end it in Syria,” she says. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 17, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

While the international community waits to see whether Syria's main opposition groups will attend the Geneva II peace conference slated for next week, Syrian refugee Mustafa Kurdi is indifferent as he packs oranges in the Beirut neighborhood of Nabaa.

The U.N.-backed conference, sponsored by the U.S. and Russia, aims to find a political solution to the nearly 3-year-old Syrian civil war by bringing together delegations from both the regime and the opposition to discuss, among other things, the formation of a transitional government.

Just as Russia and the U.S. are at odds over Assad retaining power in the proposed transitional government, so are Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

For refugees in the Bekaa Valley, the devastation reaped by war has left little sympathy for Assad.

A number of agricultural workers in south Lebanon also say they have never heard of the conference, with one of them, Izzudine al-Akhras, saying only that he hopes peace would return to Syria.

From her new home in a large building in Sidon shared by many refugee families, Umm Rouweida is more optimistic.


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