Martin Chulov Bekaa Valley- The Guardian
In knee-deep snow and biting cold, 10-year-old Saleh Qarqour had almost finished shovelling a path to the tent that had been his family’s home for the past six years. Elders and children huddled around a heater inside. Chimney smoke wafted from the town of Arsal in the valley below.
Over the ridge behind them was the Syrian frontier, from which the Qarqour family and nearly everyone else in this Lebanese border town had fled. Their homes ever since had been makeshift tents, their frugal lives sustained by aid and goodwill, which, on this frozen ledge above Lebanon, was fast running out.
As two savage snow storms pounded Arsal and other informal camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley this past fortnight, huddling refugees have faced a reckoning; whether to remain in life-threatening squalor, or return home to Syria, as politicians on both sides of the border have implored them to do. Nearly all have chosen to stay behind. The risks, they say, remain too high.
About a million refugees registered by the UN remain in Lebanon and only an estimated 16,000 have made the journey home in the past year, aid officials say. Those who have left were cleared to do so by Syrian officials – their departure championed by officials in Beirut, who insist that Syria is now safe and that Lebanon has been for too long overburdened by their presence.
As the Syrian war has wound down, with Russia and Iran stabilising the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Damascus has been determined to project an image of stability and reconciliation. Political blocs in Lebanon aligned to Assad have echoed the same message despite the repeated statements from UN officials that the conditions for return have not been met.
“No one in Damascus, Beirut, or anywhere in the world can guarantee safety from Assad,” said Aref al-Homsi, a resident of one of the Arsal camps. “The Lebanese who want to say it’s a paradise there have a reason to do so – to please their masters. This is a regional agenda, not a Lebanese one. Those who return face jail or conscription. [The regime] will not act with humility. They will act with vengeance.”
Uncertainty over what might happen once back inside Syria and distrust surrounding the motives of those pushing a homecoming means refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa are not seriously contemplating returning to their homes.
Many fled from nearby border areas, such as the town of Qusair, which was seized by Hezbollah in early 2013 and remains a stronghold for the militant group. Others come from Flita – a short gasping hike across the Qalamoun mountains – and other border villages that used to be waypoints for cross-border smuggling.
“Hezbollah own Qusair,” said Fatima Safadi, standing in the snow outside her mountain tent. “This roof crashed under the snow last week,” she said. “Our house [in Qusair] crashed under a bomb.”
In Turkey, and Jordan, where another 4.1 million Syrian refugees remain, pressure is also mounting on them to return. Although they were once welcomed, many inside Turkey say they feel increasingly unwelcome.
Jordan, once at the centre of a push to oust Assad, is now making noises about reconciliation. Last month, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reopened embassies in the Syrian capital. Emirati officials have put pressure on other Arab League states to follow – and to readmit Syria. Such a push – and rancour over refugees – were a backdrop to a failed Arab League economic summit in Beirut over the weekend, in which only the leaders of Mauritania and Qatar turned up – the latter for barely two hours.
“The Lebanese government’s call on Syrians to return home occurs amidst a wider global movement where countries are increasingly ending their protections and programmes for refugees and putting immense pressure on them to return,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “It also comes amid a wider diplomatic attempt to rehabilitate the Assad regime as a government ready to welcome its people. But these policies and these movements could not be further removed from the legal, social, and political reality on the ground.
The Assad regime has demonstrated that it is neither ready, nor willing, to welcome Syrians back to their homes
“The Assad regime has demonstrated that it is neither ready, nor willing, to welcome Syrians back to their homes, as evidenced by the reconciliation agreements that continue to be violated, the counter-terrorism that authorities are still applying, the housing and property legal schemes being used to deprive refugees and IDPs [internally displaced people] of their homes, and the sense of impunity with which it speaks and acts.
“Reports continue to surface that Syrians who dissented against the regime and returned home face interrogations and threats, arbitrary arrests at military checkpoints, and in some cases even torture and death.”
In Arsal, Farid Qarquor ducks questions about what might await him at home, preferring to focus on what he and his family are dealing with now. “We’ve been here for over five years; we fled from Flita,” he said. “It’s been the hardest winter so far.
“It’s difficult to get by. We have no jobs and no residency permits. The UN also took away our welfare cards. We now have to somehow provide for our own food, gas and healthcare. The owner of the land here also charges us for rent for our tent. We are lacking basic needs.
“When we first got here it was the most challenging phase: we didn’t know anyone, it’s not our country, we weren’t familiar with the Syrian faces surrounding us. It’s gotten better though. Everybody learned to cooperate out of necessity. We would love to go back to our home but we don’t have one any more and we don’t have the means to rebuild.”
Paul Donohoe of the International Rescue Committee said: “Some refugees have been pushed to their limits and openly say they think life has become so hard that maybe it would be better for them to go back to Syria. However, most still say that they simply don’t think Syria is safe enough for them to return. They would rather continue to brave conditions most of us would find intolerable than risk putting their families in danger.”
Down the valley in Arsal, Abdel Hakim Shaqhabi, originally from Qusair, said: “I can’t find a job anywhere. I owe the grocery store nearby $100. He threatened to stop giving me bread if I don’t start to pay him back. How can I to go back to my town with no money? I don’t even think they will allow us back. A Sunni family tried to go back and they burned down their house and kicked them out.
“The Lebanese military loves to play games with us. A few weeks ago at dawn they stormed our tents, took all the men and handcuffed them for no reason. We feel unwanted here and unwanted in our town.”