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SUNDAY, 20 APR 2014
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Palestinians face nightmare at border crossing
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MASNAA, Lebanon: Um Ahmad was trying to leave one refugee camp for another. It would normally take about three hours to get from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus to the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon, where she and her family hoped to travel.

But they were among the hundreds of Palestinians waiting for hours on end at the Masnaa border crossing to enter Lebanon.

“We are meant to be displaced, and the keys of our homes [in Palestine] will continue to remind us of harsh times,” she said, crying. “I hope everything gets better and all the people will be able to return to their homes.”

A wave of displaced Palestinians and Syrians crossing through Masnaa continued for a second day Tuesday, after Syrian opposition fighters took hold of Yarmouk.

Roughly 1,400 people crossed the Masnaa border Monday, according to General Security, and eight out of 10 of those are Palestinian refugees. The border between Lebanon and Syria remained crowded with the displaced, most of whom left their homes without taking anything with them.

Whole families fled Yarmouk and report being stopped many times along the Beirut-Damascus Highway at checkpoints manned by the Syrian army.

But the journey to the border was just the beginning. The wait to cross the border dragged on, forcing some to spend the night outside and others to turn back.

Ahmad and his wife and four children spent the night outside the Lebanese General Security cafeteria because his children’s documents were incomplete.

“I had the permission for me and my wife from the Syrian Department of Immigration and Passports. They allowed us to leave the country,” he said.

Although he feared that his family would not survive the harsh, night-time cold, Ahmad thought it better than to risk returning to the violence in Syria.

“We waited from 7 p.m. until 10 a.m. the next day and, thank God, we finally got permission to enter the Lebanese territories.”

Like many Palestinians fleeing the violence in Yarmouk, Ahmad’s family plans to travel to the Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. Others were headed for Jalil in Baalbek and Lebanon’s largest camp, Ain al-Hilweh.

Selma and her four children left their home on Safad Street in the Yarmouk camp to stay with her sister in Sidon.

She said the Free Syrian Army took control of the camp before the Abdel-Kader al-Housseini Mosque was bombed over the weekend.

There were several casualties and injuries in the bombing, she recounted, and the main street of the camp was flooded with people who escaped death from the Syrian regime fighters.

Samar, a 22-year-old resident of Yarmouk, also recounted the fear that gripped the camp during the bombing.

“The situation is much worse than what you see on TV. We didn’t sleep for three consecutive nights and fear haunts us everywhere,” she said, crying.

Sunday morning, she, along with many of the camp’s residents, received a stream of SMS messages on their mobile phones instructing them to leave the camp immediately.

“After that, the camp turned into a phantom city, rubble everywhere, and we only heard the noises of shelling and shooting,” she said.

Samar had to obtain permission to leave Syria before heading for the border. From there, she and her family are traveling to Ain al-Hilweh, where they have relatives.

A source from General Security said that despite the spike in refugees in recent days, the security body is processing immigration papers as normal and no exceptions are being made. This means Palestinians must have a permit from the Syrian Department of Immigration and Passports to leave Syria.

Those who carry a Palestinian Authority passport cannot enter Lebanon without prior permission from General Security in Lebanon, which requires time.

“That’s why some Palestinians are forced to go back after we tell them that they have to wait for four hours until they get the permission. After waiting these four hours, they may or may not be that lucky,” the source added.

Mohsan and his family were among those who were not so lucky.

“Lebanese General Security sent us back because we have PA passports, despite the fact that I have a permit to leave Syria from the relevant Syrian authorities. And I don’t know why.”

Ali Yusef was also forced to turn back. The father of four children, from 1 to 7 years old, sought permission to leave the country, but the immigration offices were packed and he decided to try to cross into Lebanon without it.

“But what I didn’t expect was that the Lebanese General Security would force us to go back to Syria in such an exceptional situation,” he explained.

Khaled and his wife and three children fled Yarmouk to stay with their relatives in the Jalil camp.

But the family had already exhausted their cash to pay for taxis to reach the bus station in the Damascus suburb of Sumariya, and didn’t have enough to pay LL50,000 for border visas.

They waited at the border crossing until relatives from Sidon arrived with the funds.

“Waiting for three hours at the border crossing was nothing compared to what we had lived through between 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. to get there,” Khaled said. “We haven’t slept in two days.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 19, 2012, on page 4.
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