TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Around 200 Syrian refugees gathered in central Tripoli Sunday to demonstrate against their government’s violent crackdown on civilian protesters and rally support from the displaced community inside Lebanon.
Demonstrators locked arms, chanting against President Bashar Assad. “We are with you until death,” they pledged to neighborhoods under siege in Homs.
Most of the protesters hailed from the central Syrian city now under siege by the Syrian army.
In front of the International Red Cross Committee headquarters building at around 3 p.m., demonstrators gathered, waving the pre-Baath party flag of Syria and carrying signs reading, “Homs screams. Where is the world?”
The rally was held in a sparsely populated business district just outside the city’s downtown area.
Amin Mando, an activist who helped plan the demonstration said he intentionally selected the out-of-sight location for two reasons.
He wanted first to draw attention to the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does not have an office in the city, which currently hosts the largest population of Syrian refugees.
Mando said there are hundreds more refugees in Tripoli than accounted for by the U.N. and thousands more across the country. “Where is the U.N. office here?” he asked.
Mando also wanted to make sure people felt comfortable. Past rallies have been disturbed by Assad supporters while rallies near Tripoli’s Alawite areas sparked three days of gunbattles between neighborhoods.
“It’s about family. This is a good area for families,” Mando said.
And families did turnout, but there was still a lingering sense of fear over the event taking place in a country run by a government partially sympathetic to the Assad regime.
Many women kept scarves across their faces and some young men donned masks.
One woman, who asked that her name not be published to protect her family still living in Syria, said she was still passionately behind the cause despite the dangers of living as a refugee in Lebanon.
“I was in Homs protesting under the bombs so it’s not a problem for me to be protesting in Tripoli,” she said.
Another woman went by the name Um Mahmoud but didn’t want to give her surname because her son was imprisoned in Syria.
She said the protesters want freedom and democracy. She also said she’s afraid for her son.
The United Nations estimates that over 5,400 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in a crackdown by Damascus since the uprising began in mid-March last year. The Syrian government denies targeting civilians and blames the violence on “armed gangs.”
The UNHCR currently has nearly 7,000 Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon. But activists say there is nearly three times that number in the country and claim that refugees are unable or unwilling to register in Lebanon because of the government’s ties to the Assad regime.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati told his followers on Twitter Sunday night that his government was trying its utmost to extend humanitarian aid and support without any political exploitation.
“The Higher Relief Council – among others – is working on this matter but within limited capabilities and low budgets,” Mikati tweeted.
Ledgers kept by activists put the number of refugee families at 1,060 in Tripoli alone, around four to five thousand people.
At the demonstration, loudspeakers blared, and in a half-full side street surrounded by construction sites people clapped and waved flags of the Syrian opposition.
One man lingering on the edge of the rally wished there were more people attending. The long arm of the Assad regime was the reason there were not more demonstrators present, he explained, refusing to give his name because of security concerns.
“The people here are not afraid but there are many more people afraid to be here,” he said.