SAADNAYEL, Lebanon: Eking out a living in a ramshackle camp in east Lebanon has been hell for Syrian refugee Mohammad, but the alternative is far worse – going home means taking up arms. “Who would voluntarily choose to go on a death march?” says the slim 18-year-old, sheltering from the searing sun under the white tarp of a refugee tent.
Now that he is of age, stepping back into Syria would mean compulsory military service.
Mohammad fled his native Aleppo in northern Syria seven years ago, seeking sanctuary in Lebanon with his parents and four siblings when the civil war in his homeland was in its infancy.
But Lebanese citizens are increasingly demanding the approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees hosted by their tiny country go home, as fighting has abated in areas Syria’s military has retaken from rebel groups.
Yet with few jobs, no basic services and clashes continuing on multiple fronts, returning to Syria is not attractive for many refugees.
And for men above 18 years of age, one deterrent dwarfs all others – the fear of conscription.
“No one forgets their country. But if we go back now, I’ll have to join the army. Who will feed my family?” Mohammad says.
He and his father work six days a week in the potato orchards of Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley. Between them, they earn about $400 per month.
Returning to battered Aleppo would mean swapping potato sacks and a steady salary for rifles and bloody front lines.
Before Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, men aged 18 and older had to serve up to two years in the army, after which they became reserves available for call-up in times of crisis.
But in the past seven years fatalities, injuries and defections have sapped President Bashar Assad’s once 300,000-strong army.
To compensate, the government has relied on the reservists and militias, while indefinitely extending service for young conscripts.
Now, as it retakes rebel territory, the military is replenishing its ranks with newly accessed reservists and locals who did not complete their mandatory service.
Thousands have been enlisted this way, most recently in the former rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus.
Syrian refugee Hassan Khleif, 23, dreams of escaping the rows of makeshift homes – haphazardly assembled from plastic sheeting, corrugated iron and wooden planks – and going home to Idlib province.
“I’d return today if I could,” sighs the father of two.
But the fear of conscription keeps him in Lebanon, he says. “Of course they’ll take me,” he says of Syria’s military. “And when they do, who’s going to feed my children?”
“Will my relatives? They’ve each got four or five kids to take care of already,” adds Khleif, his voice full of anguish.
A 2018 poll by the United Nations’ refugee agency found that nearly 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon hope to return home.
But many identified security and financial worries as obstacles.
“For refugee families to feel confident to return, breadwinners ... need ... assurances that they will be able to provide for their family upon return and not be sent to front lines, leaving families” on their own in a destroyed environment, the U.N. survey says.
In an effort to facilitate refugee returns, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil sent a formal letter to his Syrian counterpart demanding a “fair solution” to the conscription issue. There has been no response, a Lebanese official told AFP.
In the interim, Lebanon has indicated it will organize piecemeal returns, like an operation in April coordinated with Syrian authorities that saw 500 refugees leave southern Lebanon for home.
Lebanese security officials have said they hope “thousands” more will follow.
Abu Hassan, won’t be among them. With a third child on the way, the former chef is taking on as many different jobs as he can in Lebanon to feed his family.
“You can’t go home if the war isn’t over. There’s no security, you can’t work, you can’t move around,” he says.
Abu Hassan completed his military service, but as a reservist he’d be called up to fight.
“Go to Syria and see for yourself. There are no more young men,” the 30-year-old says.
“If you go inside the homes, you’ll see women, children, elderly. Where are the young men? They all fled to Europe and Lebanon – or they’re in the army.”