The war in Syria and its wave of refugees is destabilizing and overwhelming Lebanon. Now there are fears the hundreds of thousands of newcomers will never want to leave, and the sectarian conflict will worsen.
General Ibrahim Bachir saw it coming. He has been warning the government for over two years now: Stop wasting time and start building refugee camps to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees, he told them.
But the deeply divided and ineffective government authorities in Lebanon did nothing, he says — and now it’s too late: “We have all these problems,” the general says, “criminals, prostitutes and beggars everywhere — across the entire country!”
Bachir, 60, heads the High Relief Commission, the state agency charged with helping the masses of refugees fleeing the conflict in neighboring Syria. “But how is such a small country supposed to accommodate so many refugees?” he asks. “One in four people here is now a Syrian refugee.”
To make matters worse, 3,000 newcomers report every day at one of the four centers run by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). A total of over 750,000 have been registered so far — 625,000 this year alone. Furthermore, there are all the refugees who slip across the border unnoticed and go into hiding. Aid workers estimate that there are well over 1 million refugees in Lebanon alone.
Lebanon on the Brink
The flood of refugees is destabilizing this already weak and war-torn country, which borders Syria to the north and the east, and Israel to the south. The front between Sunnis and Shiites runs right through the heart of this tiny state, making Lebanon the focal point of a conflict that threatens to engulf the entire region. The Shiite Hezbollah militia uses Lebanon as a base for its struggle against the “Zionist enemy” — and since this spring, the group has been launching military operations here against the predominately Sunni rebels in Syria.
The refugees now find themselves caught between the fronts in Lebanon. Aid organizations are hopelessly overwhelmed and don’t even have enough money for essentials. According to a report compiled by the World Bank for the UN General Assembly over the past few days, the refugees will cost Lebanon some €6 billion ($8.1 billion) by the end of next year. The UN will have to help the country, but it’s still unclear exactly how. At the General Assembly meeting in New York last week, donor countries pledged to chip in 74 million dollars.
When the number of refugees swells to 2 million, Bachir glumly predicts the Lebanese will start to flee Lebanon: “There are only 3 million of us, no more!” He also points out that the Lebanese have been living for decades with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians who took refuge in Lebanon after 1948 and 1967, and their generations of successors, still live jammed together in the largely lawless slums that are the country’s Palestinian refugee camps. They can neither return to the Palestinian territories nor become Lebanese citizens.
This partly explains why politicians are extremely reluctant to build new camps for the Syrians. They are afraid that the new refugees will remain indefinitely, just like the Palestinians.
Beirut Empties Out
There aren’t many signs of the refugee crisis in Beirut’s business district, where the general sits in his enormous, well-guarded office and tries to think up a solution to his country’s predicament. High-rise office buildings made of glass and marble glitter in the sunlight. The most exclusive designer labels can be found here: Hermès, Armani and Sonia Rykiel. Lebanon is also a shopping paradise.
Yet the shops and streets are empty. The wealthy tourists from the Gulf states who normally flock here have been shying away from the country ever since the civil war erupted in nearby Syria. Among the swanky new buildings, shell-pocked ruins stand as silent reminders of past domestic wars.
General Bachir is clad in a dark suit, and his hair is stiffly combed across his balding head. He’s an orderly man; the papers on his desk are arranged in stacks and rows as if they were laid out with a ruler. He wants to make one more attempt to organize the stream of refugees — in six large camps. He envisions them as “humane and modern,” he says, “not like the Palestinian camps.” Then, he adds, one could say to the Syrians: “Anyone who wants to live here can go to a camp. And anyone who doesn’t want that can go straight back to Syria.”
A Divided Country
The question is: When can Bachir present his plan — and to whom? Ever since Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned last March, the country has been run by a caretaker government. The Sunni parties refuse to work together with Hezbollah, which is the strongest political force in the country. However, this Shiite militia, which the European Union recently classified as a terrorist organization, insists on being part of any new government. Meanwhile, the Christian parties sometimes support Hezbollah and sometimes back the Sunni alliance.
With so many political divisions, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam has not yet managed to form a cabinet. The parliamentary elections, which should have taken place in June, have been postponed by nearly one and a half years.
And now that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime, the war has arrived in Lebanon as well. This conflict divides the population into supporters and opponents of the Shiite militia, which is also trying to be a mainstream political party. Between June and August, over 100 people in Lebanon died from terrorist attacks and retaliatory actions. Most of the victims were civilians.
‘They Rape Our Women’
“You Europeans want to kill us Syrian Christians!”, yells an agitated young man at a gas station in a Christian district of Beirut. “You support criminals who destroy our homes. The rebels murder Christians who refuse to convert to Islam, and they rape our women,” says the man, a Syrian who calls himself Sami. He speaks quickly and breathlessly. At the same time, he pulls a mobile phone out of his pants pocket and shows a photo of a pile of rubble. He says this was his home near Hama, and claims the rebels destroyed it.
Sami has been in Lebanon for over a year, but he hasn’t registered with the UNHCR. He was fortunate enough to find a job at the gas station. Behind the filling station, the owner has cobbled together a hovel for a group of Syrian Christians. Inside the structure are three bunk beds, two mattresses, a table and a fan to provide some relief from the oppressive heat. The refugees are allowed to sleep there, and in return they wash and repair the cars for 12 hours a day. They eke out a living on $400 a month, roughly half as much as a Lebanese would earn.
Sami is afraid that if the Assad regime falls, radical Islamists from Syria will advance into Lebanon and attack the Hezbollah. “Then they’ll kill all the Christians,” he contends.
Meeting ‘Father of the Holy War’
A few blocks away Dahiya, the Hezbollah-controlled area of the city, begins. Vehicles have to inch their way through endless traffic jams to reach the checkpoints that the Shiite militia established at all access roads in the wake of the most recent bomb attack in August.
Young men dressed in black uniforms, with walkie-talkies and yellow armbands, wave the vehicles into the Hezbollah stronghold. Solemn martyrs gaze down from posters in Dahiya, and buildings are decorated with larger-than-life images of the local stars: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
A motorbike-riding commander of a Hezbollah unit — wearing combat fatigues and heavy boots, despite the heat — leads the way to an unofficial meeting with a Hezbollah fighter in a spartanly furnished apartment above a weapons depot. The fighter, a brawny man in his mid-40s with a beard and a shaved head, calls himself Abu Jihad, or “father of the holy war.”
Abu Jihad talks about the battle to take Qusayr, a Syrian town that Hezbollah fighters recently recaptured for the Assad regime. He says that he and the commanders of the other fighting units, each consisting of between 30 and 40 men, were given a date and a time. Afterwards, they drove off in a number of vans.
After about two hours, as the Hezbollah fighters approached Qusayr, they removed their civilian clothing, slipped into camouflage suits and bulletproof vests, and swung Kalashnikovs over their shoulders. “I was happy,” says Abu Jihad, and smiles. “I was on the way to becoming a martyr in the fight against criminals.” While he speaks, he alternately plays with his phone and his pistol. An assault rifle is lying on the table, between cans of Pepsi and chocolate biscuits.
A church in Qusayr became their command center, says Abu Jihad, adding that the Christians there had given them a very warm greeting. He notes that the Hezbollah respect churches as houses of worship, and would not simply occupy them without an invitation.
Doubt? Fear? ‘Never’
With a glint in his eye, he describes how he killed a rebel fighter. The enemy had taken cover behind a wall and was firing shots, but he, Abu Jihad, had spotted him through a hole in the wall, he says. As he tells the story, he reaches into a box of ammunition next to him and proudly shows the type of pointed bullet he used to kill the rebel.
Doubt? Fear? “Never,” says Abu Jihad, and places his hand over his heart, “I’m a man.” When he dies, he says, it will be Allah’s will.
Then the Hezbollah man makes two astonishing statements: Fighting the rebels in Syria is now even more important than the fight against Israel, he says. Furthermore: “Let the Palestinians liberate their country themselves.”
This would be a radical departure from the group’s traditional position. The fight against the “Zionist enemy” — Israel being the former occupying power in southern Lebanon — has always been the Hezbollah’s raison d’être. The “Party of God” uses this objective to legitimize the fact that it operates as an independent military power within the state. Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon have always been able to unite in their fight against Israel as a common enemy, and this bolsters the Hezbollah. But with Shiite militias now slaughtering Syrian Sunni Muslims, support for the Hezbollah is waning in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s New Desperation
Hezbollah is also fighting in Syria for its own survival. Indeed, it has to keep the routes open for its arm deliveries from Iran. Ultimately this conflict has to do with the question of who dominates the Middle East: Iran and its Shiite partners in Syria and Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.
The Palestinians, whose cause both sides claim to defend, only play a minor role.
Yet it is the Palestinians who often tragically get caught between fronts, like the married couple Mizbah, 44, and Sayida, 33. Last year, they fled from a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus in Syria. With their three children, the couple is now living in a tiny prefab dwelling with 12 square meters (130 square feet) of space on the outskirts of Sidon, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Beirut. The air is stuffy and there are other prefab dwellings all around the structure. Roughly 200 refugees have taken shelter in them.
Sidon is now home to the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and most of the residents are Sunnis. Over 100,000 long-standing refugees live there, and there’s hardly any space in the camp for newcomers like Mizbah and Sayida. Those who can afford it rent an apartment in town — until they have used up all of their savings. The rest hole up in tents, hovels and abandoned construction sites. Refugees like Mizbah and Sayida depend on the help of others to survive.
Their new home is on the property of a used car dealership, which also assembled the prefab units. A number of local aid organizations, including the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, purchased the dwellings from the car dealer. In return, he has allowed the refugees to live on his property.
Long Road to Lebanon
Sayida, a delicate woman with dark eyes, tells the story of how her mother fled from Palestine to Syria when she was a little girl in 1948. Sayida is pregnant. “I couldn’t convince her to come with us,” she says sadly. Her mother said she would rather die in the Syrian camp than flee a second time.
Mizbah and Sayida also long to return to Syria. “We had a good life,” says Mizbah, “before the camp was surrounded by the government and shelled.” He says he used to trade steel in Syria, but he’s not sure how he can make a living here: “I’ve lost everything that I built up.”
Both sides — the government and the rebels — destroyed Syria, says Mizbah. “At first, we didn’t take sides, but now we support the people’s rebellion against the regime.”
Flies buzz, sweat drops and the minutes drag on; the life of a refugee can be excruciatingly boring. The couple’s two eldest children — Udai, 12, and Ayat, 8 — can’t go to school. They and their little brother Mohammed, 3, are suffering from the heat, but it’s still better than the biting cold that awaits them in winter.
For the past four months, the refugees here have received no more money or food ration cards from UN aid workers; no one has told them why.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feed my baby,” says Sayida, and points toward her tummy: “Maybe I’ll have to get rid of it.”
A Small Bubble of Normalcy
Just a few kilometers away, in a private Islamic school in the center of town, life has brightened up briefly for some 200 refugee children. They are allowed to go to school here for eight days — eight days in which they are allowed to experience something akin to normalcy. Afterwards, the school will again be used by the Lebanese children whose parents pay tuition.
The youngest children are five years old, the oldest 16. A number of them have lost their parents or siblings in the war. Some of them had to hold out for hours in bombed-out buildings. Many of them have seen neighbors hit by bullets or executed.
Now they are sitting in mint-green classrooms, whose floors and walls are painted with colorful flowers and butterflies. Standing before a group of girls is Sheikh Mohammed Abu Zaid, the town’s Islamic judge. With his beard and round belly, he sometimes resembles a Middle-Eastern Santa Claus. Normally the sheikh deals with matters that are handled according to Islamic law, like marriages and divorces, and he preaches at a mosque.
On this particular morning, Sheikh Mohammed is working as a volunteer at the Al-Iman School. He developed the week’s lesson plan in collaboration with staff members from the Christian-Muslim Adyan Foundation, which works to promote interreligious dialogue. “We cannot allow an entire generation of children to be destroyed,” says the sheikh.
‘I Think He Lost His Mind’
Sheikh Mohammed’s predecessor at the mosque, the radical cleric Ahmed al-Assir, was preaching hate as recently as last June. He called for resistance against the Syrian regime and the Hezbollah, rallied militant Sunnis around him and built up a weapons depot, allegedly with financial aid from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In mid-June, Assir and his supporters began their own war in Sidon. They fought street battles with the army, leading to the deaths of 17 soldiers and dozens of militia members. Members of Hezbollah were reportedly among the dead, but the Shiite paramilitary and political organization denies having taken part in the fighting. Assir has since disappeared.
Sheikh Mohammed looks sad when asked about his old college friend Assir. “I think he lost his mind,” he says. For many years, Assir also preached against violence, but then, roughly two years ago, when the large-scale killing began in Syria, he suddenly did a complete about-face.
The group of girls at the school calls itself “Jasmine from Damascus.” Jasmine is white — a symbol of freedom. The children sing a song. It’s the Arabic version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” They clap and stamp their feet, and when the sheikh applauds at the end, they beam with satisfaction.
They proudly show him the pictures that they made over the last hour — images that are not supposed to have anything to do with war. A 12-year-old girl named Wafa has drawn a school with a child playing nearby among trees and flowers. But above the building flies the rebel flag of the Free Syrian Army. “That’s our independence flag,” explains the girl, and smiles shyly.