Shelling continues for some Syrian refugees

November 3, 2013
Originally published in: Al Jazeera
Written by Rebecca Murray

Cross-border rockets and mortar fire terrify Syrians who thought Lebanon would be safe.

Fraidis, Lebanon – Late at night last month, a barrage of mortars crashed into the quiet agricultural fields surrounding Fraidis, a village in Lebanon’s impoverished Akkar district, less than two kilometres away from the Syrian border.

“Everything happens at night. We shut the door,” said Sarah, a refugee from Syria’s civil war. “I hate the night because of the shelling.”

Jolted out of their makeshift living quarters, Sarah, her husband Mohammed – and their 10 children – fled to an old concrete building within the converted school compound, along with terrified neighbors, praying they wouldn’t burn.

“We all lined up and pressed our bodies against the wall,” said Mohammed, who counted six nearby mortar strikes before 2am. “The children screamed.”

Since that night, at least three further cross-border mortar attacks have been reported near their collective residence, which houses ten Syrian families, as well as other attacks upon nearby border towns.

Mohammed and his family fled the devastated city of Homs this year. He said they at first didn’t realise they had resettled on a hill facing the Syrian countryside and the town of Tal Kalakh, wrested back by Syrian government troops from the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Before leaving Homs, the family survived a siege and bombing – including that of their home and school – and lost family members to death and imprisonment. Sarah was heavily pregnant, and soon after crossing into Lebanon she gave birth outside the door of an Akkar hospital because she couldn’t afford the medical bill.

Now the family relies on UNHCR supplies; small acts of generosity, like a neighbour lending two blankets for the upcoming winter; and picking olives for Lebanese farmers in exchange for olive oil. There are no nearby clinics or schools for the restless children.

Instead they stick to themselves and watch television, although they think their neighbours here are friendly. A Lebanese farmer, whose home next door was hit by a mortar, was more concerned with security than blaming the refugees, some of whom work on his land. It’s a sharp contrast to the last village they lived in, where bullying schoolchildren threw bottles at them.

Lebanon feels the burden

UNHCR says Lebanon hosts the biggest share of the two million Syrian refugees in the region. “We register up to 3,000 a day,” said UNHCR communications officer Roberta Russo. “We have reached the sad milestone of 800,000 refugees who have either registered with us or called for an appointment.” She predicts that one million refugees will be in Lebanon by the end of this year.

Lebanon is straining under the burden of hosting the new arrivals. The price for scarce housing and commodities is skyrocketing, the health and education sectors are heavily strained, and jobs are scarce. The World Bank reports that by the end of 2014, the Syrian war and the influx of refugees will have cost Lebanon $7.5bn in total economic loss.

Finding shelter is a critical challenge for refugees scattered across the country after the Lebanese government refused to establish formal camps. The continuing presence of Palestinian refugee camps, established in Lebanon in 1948, deters the government from providing such “temporary” spaces for Syrian refugees.

“The logistics are a nightmare to monitor the protection of refugees,” said Russo. “So we’ve had to invest in a lot of outreach. We try as much as possible to have refugees settle away from the borders. We have a system to monitor cross-border shelling and if refugees are affected. We are trying to get them alternative shelter areas, but have limited capacity.”

A history of smuggling

One of Lebanon’s most neglected regions, Akkar had a strong tradition of illicit cross-border trade. Fuel, tobacco, food and household goods could once be bought cheaply in Syria, transported across the porous border and resold in Lebanon.

Just north of Tripoli, the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared was an epicentre for this commercial activity before it was razed after a battle between hard-line armed groups and the Lebanese army in 2007.

Since the Syrian conflict, border controls have tightened and Akkar – relatively untouched during Lebanon’s decades-long civil war – is grappling with higher prices, less work, and hosting one of the country’s largest concentrations of refugees.

“Akkar was traditionally a smuggling area. With the Syrian uprising, smuggling turned into the smuggling of weapons,” said Sahar Atrache, a researcher with the International Crisis Group. Atrache said the Syrian regime was trying to stop opposition militants in north Lebanon from funnelling weapons and fighters to Syria by shelling the border area.

“I also think the Syrian regime sometimes does this to terrorise communities and turn them against the refugees or the Syrian opposition,” explained Atrache. “It has definitely affected the refugees and Lebanese communities very much. By shelling these areas, the Syrian refugees have to flee again.”

Concern Worldwide is a humanitarian organisation that provides housing, water, electricity and sanitation in the area. It is also rehabilitates agricultural structures, like chicken farms, to provide safer, alternative homes for refugees.

Director John Kilkenny said the border area – which includes Mohammed and Sarah’s shelter – has suffered from rockets, mortars and sniper fire. “It escalated about two months ago. Before then we were seeing two or three incidents a month. Then from two months ago until about 10 days ago, we were seeing about three per week. In normal circumstances you would never place refugees in an area like that. They are there spontaneously.”

“It is a horrible livelihood choice,” Kilkenny added. “They’ve had to put basic economics ahead of their safety. A number of them said if they could find somewhere of the same basic standard, they would move. But there isn’t.”