WADI KHALED, Lebanon: Hundreds of Syrian refugees continued to flood into northern Lebanon Monday, as at least 15 Syrian tanks pushed overnight into a rural area near the Lebanese border and the military crackdown on anti-regime protests intensified.
According to witnesses, heavy tank shelling in the Syrian border town of Tal Kalakh, 5 kilometers away from the border with Lebanon, was heard between midnight and 4 a.m. Monday. Sporadic gunfire again rang out throughout the day and increased in the afternoon, causing a steady influx of refugees who crossed the border on foot and horseback, carrying dippers and gas canisters.
Human rights activists, who were in contact with residents, told Reuters the tanks deployed around Arida, near the Jisr al-Qomar border crossing point with northern Lebanon.
By midday, on site Red Cross ambulance crews estimated that at least 300 people had navigated the shallow Nahr al-Kabir River, serving as the illegal crossing point, but local residents put the number significantly higher, at over 1,000, including those who fled overnight.
“Today it is worse and there have been at least 1,000 people crossing the river,” said a Wadi Khaled resident, who would only identify himself as Abu Daher.
“It’s no longer just women and children, the men have now started coming and people are bringing cattle and horses. They are desperately trying to save whatever they have left,” added Abu Daher, who is part of the makeshift crew of local volunteers who have started manning the border around the clock to assist new arrivals.
The Lebanese Army had issued a statement Sunday saying that it had stepped up border patrols to prevent illegal entry, warning against any attempt to destabilize the area and endanger lives.
While official border crossings remained virtually empty, in Wadi Khaled the stream of refugees continued unopposed and in full view of the stationed Lebanese troops, as refugees sought alternative ways to bypass security measures.
No new casualties have been reported on the Lebanese border, but gunmen were clearly visible in the distance and several incoming refugees told The Daily Star they had come under fire from Syrian security services as they tried to flee.
A Syrian soldier and elderly Syrian woman died Sunday in Lebanese hospitals from bullet wounds sustained while attempting to escape the fighting. Five other people, including a Lebanese soldier and two children, were also wounded, sources said.
According to Syrian human rights activists, at least 16 people were killed and many more wounded Sunday in Tal Kalakh, home to some 60,000 people, as reports emerge that 13 bodies were found in a mass grave in the southern city of Daraa.
More than 850 people, including women and children, have been killed and at least 8,000 arrested in a nationwide security crackdown, launched following the outbreak of protests on March 15, according to rights groups.
“My cousin was killed [last week] and his corpse was just left in the street,” said Mohammad, who like most refugees would not give his last name out of fear of retribution.
“And this morning I heard from people that my eldest brother had been slaughtered, killed by the militias,” said Mohammad, who fled Tal Kalakh Saturday with his wife and four young children, after receiving phone calls warning them government forces were preparing to attack the town.
“It is turning sectarian, villager against villager. I’m terrified for the family that has stayed behind,” he said.
Refugees have streamed into the Wadi Khaled area since late April but until now, men have largely escorted their families to safety before returning to continue protesting, or to protect their homes.
“We are seeing more men because there is nothing left to protect, their homes, their businesses, the bakeries are all being shelled and demolished so they are starting to flee,” said Mashhour Salem, mukhtar of the small border village of Bani Sakhr.
The tiny village, normally home to no more than 50 Lebanese families, is currently accommodating over 300, with Salem alone providing food and housing for 120 families. Bani Sakhr, has been the worst affected by the influx, but the situation is replicated across Wadi Khaled’s 22 villages.
“We are coping but the biggest single issue is the single men who are coming over,” said Salem. “They are too embarrassed to seek refuge with us, do not want to share close quarters with women. They give up their spaces for families and end up sleeping in the street.”
Most of the 5,000 estimated refugees who are thought to have arrived in northern Lebanon in the last few weeks have found housing with family or friends, with villagers largely happy to accommodate them. However, with numbers rapidly spiraling out of control, space, even in garages serving as temporary accommodation, is becoming scarce.
“We have some 120 displaced families that have no clear idea of where they are staying yet,” said Ahmad Khalif, head of the Wadi Khaled Social Affairs center, which has been turned into a base for the relief operation by various NGOs and United Nations’ organizations. “We have heard that in some cases there are up to 50 people sharing one house,” he added.
After a slow start, supplies are finally beginning to reach the needy and the first round of government-funded packs, containing goods such as baby milk and washing powder, were distributed Sunday.
Additional United Nations aid also began to trickle in Monday, but families have expressed frustration at the sluggish pace of delivery.
“We are providing everything from food and shelter and we are sharing what we have and doing everything to ensure everyone is catered for,” said Salem.
However, only some 40 packs have so far reached the 120 families, he added.
Authorities, local residents and refugees interviewed by The Daily Star all also categorically denied earlier media reports that hundreds of refugees had been forcibly sent back across the border.
“There is no truth in this whatsoever,” said Mohammad.
Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri Saturday ordered various Lebanese authorities to “coordinate efforts relating to the assistance of refugees from Syria.”