BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Arsal reels under waves of Syrian air raids and refugees

  • Wounded from a Syrian air raid, Mohammad says he now fears planes. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

ARSAL, Lebanon: Blood seeped through the cast on Mohammad’s arm. His parents stood bewildered as his slightest movements drew moans of pain.

The 9-year-old refugee was playing outdoors at a small settlement for the displaced two kilometers from the town center when a Syrian regime air raid shattered his elbow joint.

“I wasn’t afraid of planes, but now I am,” he said, barely mustering the strength to speak.

Air raids are an almost daily fact of life for the residents of this embattled northeastern town, home to tens of thousands of refugees.

The lifting of a siege by nearby Labweh is revealing a growing humanitarian crisis, with nearly 500 families arriving during the three-day blockade after fleeing the Syrian border town of Yabroud, where troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and backed by Hezbollah fighters claimed victory over rebels.

Arsal was blockaded after a rocket attack killed a Labweh resident. Locals there say Arsal is harboring Syrian rebels.

Arsal itself feels lively. Profane graffiti insulting Assad greets visitors, and the rebel Syrian flag is drawn on the walls of the local cemetery. The gray and brown color palette that dominates the town complements the rugged mountain terrain that stands in the distance, rocky hills through which many across the border take flight.

Each day more refugees crowd into the tents lining the outskirts of the town, forced to take shelter with other refugees amid a dearth of humanitarian assistance caused by last week’s rainstorms and this week’s siege.

Ali Hujeiri, the head of Arsal’s municipality, says the town is now home to 106,000 refugees.

Hujeiri said Arsal had been subjected to double standards at the onset of the Syria crisis. A local resident could not carry a small gun without being reprimanded, he said, whereas Hezbollah could go and fight in Syria without repercussions.

The Army deployed to Arsal Wednesday. The town was one of the areas in Lebanon with the largest Army presence even before the current crisis, with about 3,000 soldiers manning nine separate checkpoints, according to Hujeiri.

The Army still maintains an inspection point at the entrance to Arsal. It also has a significant presence in the nearby town of Labweh, which has been subjected to rocket attacks by radical Syrian militants.

Inside Arsal, there are precious few signs of the Army, though residents say they have seen troops carrying out patrols.

Hezbollah also has two checkpoints, at both entrances to Labweh.

Hujeiri said the Army’s presence was a “guarantee” for the majority-Sunni Arsal, protecting the residents from all sides in the conflict.

“I wish nobody would carry weapons, neither us nor Hezbollah,” he added.

But like many of his townspeople, Hujeiri said the pressure on the town would not change his sympathy with the Syrian uprising.

“I’m with the revolution in Syria and I support it,” he said. “But I do not support the war moving to Lebanon. The revolution is in Syria.”

The only solution, he said, is for Hezbollah to leave Syria and for Lebanon to remain neutral toward the conflict.

Arsal is feeling the toll of the crisis. Hujeiri appeared dismissive of the siege itself, saying neighboring villages are fabricating stories about Arsal to justify their blockades of it and that the town could endure a much longer siege if it had to.

He said he was not responsible for fighters from Syria who have fired rockets at nearby villages from outside Arsal.

But he added that those who suffered the most from the siege were the town’s refugees, whose population has swelled by 400-500 families over the last three days since the fall of Yabroud.

“Arsal can endure a year [under siege],” he said. In the winter, a lot of roads to the town are closed.

“But the refugee gets his food day by day,” he added.

Near the outskirts of the town, young men carrying nothing but their clothes arrive and embrace their friends and family from back home in Yabroud.

Abdo, a refugee who is in charge of a small group of tents in the area, said he contacted U.N. representatives to provide assistance to the newly arrived refugees but was told they could not deliver anything while the roads were closed.

Abdo, who is in his 20s and bears a scar on his face from shrapnel, said the families in Arsal were struggling to house the influx of refugees.

Fleeing from home, their tents here are battered each time rain pounds the area. The ground surrounding the tents is muddy from rainwater, which threatens to undermine the fragile covers.

Refugees who have arrived in the past few days – all of whom declined to give their names for fear of reprisals – told harrowing tales of fleeing on foot or by car, braving regime airstrikes on the way.

“Wherever you went, the planes were chasing you,” said one man who fled the Yabroud suburb of Ras al-Ain. “This is what God has decreed for us.”

Another man said he managed to escape Yabroud by car, and picked up 10 wounded individuals on the road to Arsal.

“Everybody is a terrorist,” he said, mocking Assad regime propaganda that brands all of the rebels as extremists.

Meanwhile, Arsal’s medical establishment is still fighting to handle the fallout from Yabroud. Ihsan al-Samar, a doctor at Dar al-Istishfa, a local hospital that treats refugees, said 500 wounded had arrived from Yabroud in the last three days. More than 150 were being treated at his hospital.

Doctors in the area routinely carry out surgery on the wounded, most of whom arrive with fractures and shrapnel wounds.

But they do not have the expertise to deal with head injuries.

The siege has prevented doctors from sending some of the wounded fleeing Yabroud to other hospitals in the Bekaa Valley for treatment.

Eight people have already died in the course of the siege because of lack of treatment.

Samar said the health crisis was only one small part of Arsal’s struggle: The thousands of new arrivals must also share water, electricity, food and living quarters with the town’s residents and existing refugee population.

“We have people living in the street,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 21, 2014, on page 3.
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Summary

The lifting of a siege by nearby Labweh is revealing a growing humanitarian crisis, with nearly 500 families arriving during the three-day blockade after fleeing the Syrian border town of Yabroud, where troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and backed by Hezbollah fighters claimed victory over rebels.

Ali Hujeiri, the head of Arsal's municipality, says the town is now home to 106,000 refugees.

It also has a significant presence in the nearby town of Labweh, which has been subjected to rocket attacks by radical Syrian militants.

Hujeiri appeared dismissive of the siege itself, saying neighboring villages are fabricating stories about Arsal to justify their blockades of it and that the town could endure a much longer siege if it had to.

He said he was not responsible for fighters from Syria who have fired rockets at nearby villages from outside Arsal.

But he added that those who suffered the most from the siege were the town's refugees, whose population has swelled by 400-500 families over the last three days since the fall of Yabroud.


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