ARSAL, Lebanon: With an outdated 50-year-old map of his town framing the backdrop of his office, Arsal’s Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fliti talks on the phone with the restlessness of someone who has too many fires to extinguish.
“The situation has been calm for two days,” he told the caller, who was an adviser to U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly. Low cloud cover over the past two days had provided a reprieve from almost daily attacks by Syrian warplanes.
Syrian rockets have struck the mountainous regions in the vicinity of Arsal on a daily basis for several weeks. The sound of military aircraft overhead has become ominously familiar in this Lebanese border town, whose residents staunchly support the Syrian opposition.
“The strikes usually occur in the morning,” Fliti said.
“It’s never just one raid by a single aircraft; it’s more than one raid, and after every raid, there are three or more rockets,” he added.
Most of the rockets have struck the rocky mountain regions surrounding Arsal, where hundreds of Syrian refugees have established tented settlements. Fliti said it was impossible to know the exact number of casualties that had occurred on the Lebanese side of the border.
“We don’t know the names of all the refugees who have been killed or injured. Some of the dead were buried in their villages in Syria,” he said.
The air raids are presumably targeting smuggling routes used to traffic supplies – and fighters – across the nearby Syrian border. An injured Syrian rebel fighter, who gave only his first name, Marwan, was recovering with an amputated leg in a field hospital in Arsal and said his battalion had coordinated his crossing from Homs to Arsal after he suffered serious injury when a shell landed near him in the battle of Qusair.
He had been fighting with the Al-Farouq Battalion, which he said arranged his crossing into Lebanon, though he added that he was unconscious and could not detail how he crossed or who coordinated his entry on the Arsal side.
Dr. Kasem al-Zein, a Syrian doctor who runs a field hospital, said that since January, Syrian warplanes had killed approximately 13 people and wounded 32 others on the Lebanese side of the border since the beginning of the year.
Refugees who have settled in camps just a few kilometers from the town are increasingly uneasy. “The planes are very visible from here, but the shelling is in the next valley over,” said Ahmad, a young Syrian man residing in the camp.
“We can see them every day, and [the strikes] are getting closer,” agreed Abu Mahmoud, also a Syrian refugee.
Umm Walid, a refugee who fled the embattled Syrian town of Sahel 25 days ago, said a narrow escape during a raid prompted her to pack up her tent and move her five children closer to the gathering where Ahmad’s camp was.
“It happened suddenly,” she said, recalling the raid.
“There was nothing, and then we were being bombarded, so we took our things and fled.”
Fighters are believed to be taking refuge in areas on the outskirts of Arsal, something Umm Walid did not confirm directly.
“The raids hit civilians and noncivilians,” she said.
Walid, a fighter with a battalion in the Syrian town of Flita, said he occasionally ventured to the tented gatherings outside Arsal’s outskirts to take breaks from the battlefield. The Daily Star had happened upon him drinking mate atop an unfinished building overlooking the camp.
Mounting anxiety about the air raids extends well beyond the refugee camps on the outskirts of town.
On Jan. 17, rockets struck a residential neighborhood in the heart of the town of Arsal, killing seven people. Zaher Hujeiri, who makes a living by selling sweets in the town and its neighboring villages, lost five of his six children in the attack; the youngest was 2 years old.
A picture of their six smiling faces hang on a wall in his small house. His wife, who cannot muster even a weak smile, made coffee as he recalled the day of the attack.
“At first, one rocket hit nearby,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “People aren’t used to rockets exploding in the middle of the town, and so they rushed to see what had happened. ... Another rocket fell among them,” he said.
While no rockets have hit the town of Arsal since Jan. 17, residents are on edge.
“At first, people thought the attacks were just political messages, but after this particular attack [in the town], they realized that the residential areas of Arsal could be hit as well,” Fliti told The Daily Star.
Israa Hujeiri, 24, was among those injured in the Jan. 14 attack. She sat on the floor, her foot bandaged and stretched to one side as she described the moments after a rocket landed in the living room of her home.
She was about to turn the door knob to enter the room when it happened, she explained. The force of the strike knocked Israa to the floor and destroyed three of her toes.
“I lose my composure when I see the warplanes now,” she said. “I have to run and hide in the other room.”
She said she believed the town was paying a price for its support of the opposition, but added that her support for the Syrian refugees did not waver after the attack.
“We will keep helping them and supporting them.”
The attack left a lasting impression on her 2-year-old niece, Noor. “Now, whenever there are airplanes, she says, ‘Please go away, don’t bomb us,’” Israa said.