MASNAA, Lebanon: The influx of Syrians crossing into Lebanon subsided Friday as the situation at the country’s eastern border crossing regained a sense of normalcy one day after a record number of Syrians entered Lebanon in the wake of heavy fighting in and around Damascus.
Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, who launched a scathing attack against the Cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati for failing to provide help for Syrian refugees, called for “open borders” with Syria “from the north, the east, the Bekaa Valley and the southeast to receive our Syrian brethren.”
Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said Friday that he had informed the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Danish Refugee Council that Lebanon could not cater to the needs of the increasing numbers of Syrian refugees on its own.
“First and foremost we need to provide the refugees with basic needs and this Lebanon cannot do on its own,” Abu Faour said.
“I received several phone calls from international organizations and embassies offering to pitch in, in the event that Lebanon asks for help.”
The minister added that Mikati will head a meeting at the Grand Serail Monday afternoon to discuss the issue of refugees and their pressing needs.
According to Lebanese security forces, 5,000 Syrians crossed into Lebanon Friday alone. A source in Lebanon’s General Security said Thursday that over 30,000 Syrians had streamed across the Masnaa border over the previous 48 hours, and UNHCR carried similar numbers saying that by Friday “up to 30,000 Syrian refugees” had entered Lebanon.
Fatima al-Khatib, who was displaced to Damascus after she was forced to flee her home in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, arrived in Beirut Friday.
“I wouldn’t dare open the windows in Damascus; I thought I could die any minute,” Khatib said of the violence that escalated in Damascus in the last few days. “I am heading to Beirut to stay at a friend’s house.”
For its part, Lebanon’s Higher Relief Committee struggled to provide for the needs of the newcomers, in light of its financial woes. Earlier this month, the HRC stopped providing Syrian refugees with medical services after funds dried up.
“Our top priority has been to provide shelter for the newcomers,” HRC head Ibrahim Bashir told The Daily Star. “We are providing all the displaced Syrians in the Bekaa with shelter and now we are putting them inside tents, empty schools and buildings.”
According to Bashir, the HRC has also sought the help of Saudi Arabia in a bid to provide food for the displaced from Syria.
In Majdal Anjar, the Al-Makassed and Al-Minhal schools have opened their doors to Syrian refugees seeking food and shelter, said Mohammad Jalloul, a member of the municipal council of the Bekaa Valley town.
In contrast to Thursday’s congestion, traffic at the Masnaa border crossing was back to normal Friday, with General Security offices and customs checkpoints reverting to habitual activity.
Non-governmental organizations such as the Lebanese Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders were stationed on the border in anticipation of a large influx of refugees, ready to transport any wounded that might arrive at the crossing.
Syrians who entered Lebanon in the past few days mainly hail from Damascus and the surrounding areas, according to security sources. The majority, however, refused to discuss the political situation in their country or be photographed by journalists.
While the first wave of refugees who came to Lebanon since the unrest in Syria erupted in March 2011 were in dire economic conditions, the latest batch seemed to be made up of middle-class and affluent Syrians, judging by their expensive cars and taxis.
This wave is also unlikely to register as refugees and seek aid from the Lebanese government and other organizations, but rather rely on their own funds while in Lebanon.
Khaled said he left his city Damascus along with his family because he feared a future deterioration in the security situation “rather than because of clashes inside the capital, since in Damascus, security and military forces still hold a tight grip on the security situation there.”
“My family and I are heading to Broummana to spend a few days at a hotel there,” Khaled said.
Most of the Syrians interviewed by The Daily Star said they will sleep in hotels and furnished apartments, and only a minority said they will stay with relatives and friends in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and north Lebanon.
Security sources added that the latest arrivals from Damascus were mainly supporters of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, fearing retaliatory attacks in some neighborhoods in the Syrian capital that were taken over by opposition groups.
A Syrian Kurdish taxi driver, Youssef, accused “armed gangs that roam some of the Damascus neighborhoods on motorcycles” of scaring people off and forcing them to leave their homes so that they can rob them.
“But this won’t last forever because the military will take control again and put an end to thuggish behavior,” Youssef said. “You will see the same people who went into Lebanon these few days return home from this same border crossing very soon.”
Meanwhile, in his first blatant attack on the Syrian regime, Lebanon’s top Muslim Sunni authority said “massacres” were being carried out against the Syrian people, adding he was “fed up” with the Syrian regime’s “insolent” approach.
Mufti Qabbani accused Lebanese gunmen in the Bekaa town of Arsal of preventing Syrians “who are fleeing oppression and murder” from entering Lebanese territory.
He also accused Lebanese guards at the Masnaa border crossing of preventing “tens of thousands of Syrian men, women and children from entering Lebanon.”
He added that a Lebanese official he contacted told him that guards were “only allowing people in cars to enter. As for the [poor] we don’t let them in.”
Qabbani called for opening Lebanon’s borders with Syria “from the north, the east, the Bekaa Valley and the southeast to receive our Syrian brethren.”
The mufti said several calls he made to the prime minister Thursday and Friday went unanswered.
“We call on Lebanese officials without exception to open the borders. Didn’t the Syrians [host] you during the [summer 2006] Israeli war on Lebanon which destroyed roads, highways and homes? Why are Lebanese officials in denial? If Lebanese officials do not open the borders, then God Almighty will displace them first if the [Lebanese people] are displaced,” Qabbani said.
He said Lebanon could no longer be kept at bay from events in Syria, warning that strife might hit Lebanon “harder this time.” He also warned of looming “destruction” in Lebanon and called on the Lebanese to preserve their unity.
The mufti also questioned why MPs who “support the Syrian people” failed to head to the Masnaa border crossing Thursday night and force General Security personnel to facilitate the entry of Syrians. – With additional reporting by Olivia Alabaster and Emma Gatten