Meet the civilians who fled Syria's last rebel stronghold


A small child sits near his family's tent set up on private land in Arsal.


Tracey Shelton

ARSAL, Lebanon — Syrian government forces supported by Lebanese Hezbollah militants on Sunday took control of the Syrian town of Yabroud after a month-long battle.

The town was the last rebel stronghold along the Lebanese border and a key supply route for weapons and fighters between the two countries. Analysts speculate that this latest defeat may signal the conflict is swinging in favor of the Syrian government against a factionalized opposition.

The human cost of the last month's fighting has been devastating. Footage aired on Syrian state television showed government troops walking through heavily damaged streets with no sign of civilian life. Locals say bombing raids killed hundreds of civilians. The majority of Yabroud’s population of 40,000 has now fled to neighboring Lebanon.

"People don't return anymore"

For 19-year-old Yousef, this latest conflict has shattered the life he once knew. Ten days ago he lived and worked on a property owned by his family on the outskirts of Yabroud. Now he lives in a makeshift tent with 13 extended family members across the Lebanese border, in Arsal, where they rely on aid donations to survive.

“There was shooting everywhere. We couldn’t leave the house. Eventually we escaped by car. We couldn’t bring anything with us, just a little food,” said Yousef, as his grandmother brewed tea for the family inside their crowded tent. “I heard they are now bombing the road that we used to get here. We can see the planes from here. I think there is no hope for us to go back.”

A 16-year-old who arrived from Yabroud four days earlier described barrel bombs being dropped from aircraft onto his town on a daily basis.

“The bombs destroy whole streets. We would hear the planes but we wouldn’t know where they were going to strike next. It was impossible to stay,” he said.

Behind him a barefoot woman pleaded with volunteers for shoes and clothes for herself and her children. The family had fled the explosions in such a hurry they were unable to bring anything with them. She had been living barefoot in the same clothes for many days, unable to wash or change.

These families now live in a sprawling refugee camp that stands on a desolate hillside just over the Lebanese border, but before the first Lebanese checkpoint: Many are afraid to give their full names or register with the UN as refugees. 

Sprawling refugee camps dot the stark landscape on the outskirts of the small town of Arsal, Lebanon. Fighting in nearby Yabroud, across the Syrian border, has seen a dramatic increase in refugee numbers in the area that has now surpassed 50,000. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)

Carol Malouf and a team of volunteers for local NGO Lebanese for Syrian Refugees has been struggling to provide shelter and food for these families since December. Malouf explained that for many of Arsal’s 50,000-plus refugees, moving beyond this no-man’s land would result in their names being recorded by UN officials. Because the UN maintains a coordinating relationship with the Syrian government, the refugees fear that their families could be blacklisted in Syria as rebel supporters simply because they fled. But the alternatives to living here aren't any better.

“I have seen so many sad cases,” said Malouf, “But the saddest for me was a family I had known that tried to return to Syria. Their car hit a landmine and the whole family — from grandparents to grandchildren — were killed. People don’t return anymore.”

A young refugee is treated for respiratory problems in a clinic in Arsal. Flu and coughs were the most common issues months ago, local doctors said. But the recent influx from Yabroud has added to wastewater and unsanitary conditions and led to chronic cases of diarrhea and water-borne disease. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)

Lebanon's delicate role in the Syrian war

Elsewhere in Lebanon, Hezbollah supporters celebrated the victory Sunday, hoisting Hezbollah flags and firing rifles into the air. Victory in Yabroud was considered crucial to protect Shia areas in Lebanon that have been the targets of regular retaliatory missiles and suicide bomb attacks by Sunni extremist groups, allied with Syrian rebels since the first reports emerged of Hezbollah ground troops fighting in Syria in late 2012.

Rival Lebanese political groups have been critical of Hezbollah’s role in the Syria conflict, accusing the Shia group of bringing the fight to Lebanon. 

Speaking to GlobalPost while the battle for Yabroud was still underway, Hezbollah supporter Ali Abdel Halim Kanso, a doctor who was permanently injured in a bomb attack in Beirut last November, defended the group’s role in the conflict.

“Hezbollah in Syria? Of course they are in Syria because if they were not these people would be here in my home,” Kanso said. “When they finish Yabroud the situation will change. The link between Syria and Lebanon will be cut. It will make a big difference here. We will solve these attacks by 70 percent.”

The celebrations over victory in Yabroud proved short-lived when another suicide blast Sunday night in the Bekaa Valley killed four, including local Hezbollah leader Al-Nabi Othman. Al Nusra Front in Lebanon, an Al Qaeda offshoot linked to the Syrian opposition, claimed responsibility for the blast via Twitter, saying it was "a quick response to the bragging and boasting of the party of Iran [Hezbollah] over their raping of Yabroud."

When a town's population explodes, what about electricity?

Back in Arsal, local resident Mohammed Azadeem described the impact the arrival of 50,000 refugees has had on his town of 35,000.

Electricity in Lebanon is scarce and expensive. Even in Beirut, the most affluent areas experience a minimum of 3 hours without power per day. Elsewhere, daily blackouts can average 8-12 hours, depending on usage.

“In Syria, power was cheap and plentiful so they don’t understand how to economize or how much this affects the whole town. You see those 300 tents there? They have all hooked into the local power supply,” Azadeem said.

Desperate for work, Azadeem said refugees willing to toil for one-sixth of the wage of a local worker have also taken jobs from villagers, a common complaint in border towns.

Water supplies are also scarce, and this winter has been one of the driest on record.

As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year this week, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the death toll has now passed 146,000. Nine million more have been forced from their homes, creating the world's largest displaced population, according to UN figures.