Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra Front Eye Ersal
By: Usama al-Qadiri
Published Thursday, December 12, 2013
The Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra Front are quietly battling it out for leadership over the “the refugee republic” in Ersal, now home to an estimated 80,000 displaced Syrians.
Unlike other remote mountain towns, the cold weather and the snow beleaguering the town of Ersal in the northern Bekaa have not been translated into calm on its streets. The town’s alleys are teeming with Syrian refugees, whose numbers are growing by the day. Women carrying nothing but “bindles” and children with visibly fatigued faces try to find a tent to shelter them from the cold.
The roads are dominated by motorcycles and cars bearing Syrian license plates. Ersal mayor Ali al-Houjeiri claims that more than 80,000 Syrian refugees now populate the town alongside its original population of 40,000. This has caused a major humanitarian crisis that relief efforts are failing to tackle. The crisis has been exacerbated by recent battles in Qalamoun on the other side of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range that runs along Ersal and surrounding areas.
Ersal these days looks like an ant colony. On the northeastern side of town, a group of young men are busy putting the final touches on al-Rahma field hospital – the only one of its kind in the area – and it has already started receiving the wounded and sick on its eight beds.
In the southeast, around 20 workers are building a camp of concrete rooms and their fixtures to house twenty families during the harsh winter. This project is undertaken by al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah. Its social affairs official on the scene Yahya al-Baridi told Al-Akhbar, “What concerns us is to find a shelter for our displaced women and children who escaped death, siege, and hunger...and to find ways to help them.”
In the main overcrowded camp and the mosques that have been turned into refugee shelters, the relief work is undertaken primarily by Lebanese and international NGOs.
As the fighting in Qalamoun has intensified, there has been an influx of refugees coming through the barren hills separating Ersal from the border.
Adnan, a fighter from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was brought in to Ersal after he was wounded in the battle of Qara. He predicted more people fleeing to Ersal. “Don’t be surprised by the number of refugees coming to Ersal. There are entire villages [in Syria] where people are still trying to find a way to get out,” he said.
This was echoed by Umm Hassan, who was recently displaced from Nabak with her five children along with dozens of women and their children. “We only have Ersal. Where shall we go when all roads ahead of us are closed?” she said. For her part, Hasnaa, the wife of an FSA fighter, claimed the reason she came from Nabak to Ersal was that her husband had told her, “Do not go anywhere but Ersal. It is safer for us and our children.”
Meanwhile, there is a struggle playing out over leadership of the town between the mayor and Salafi cleric Mustafa al-Houjeiri. Some residents of Ersal believe that the dispute is the local manifestation of a bigger, regional one. One resident said, “The mayor protects and shelters FSA members at the behest of Saad Hariri, while Sheikh Mustafa Houjeiri shelters supporters of al-Nusra Front with backing from Salafi groups.”
The rift between the supporters of the two men has reached the point of enmity. The supporters of the cleric accuse the mayor of misappropriating Saudi and Qatari funds. They also claim he collaborates with Lebanese army intelligence citing his ability to move freely between Ersal and Beirut and meet with security and military leaders without being arrested, despite the fact that he is wanted by the military tribunal for his alleged involvement in an attack against the army that took place in Ersal in February 2013.
But mayor Houjeiri denied to Al-Akhbar that relations had soured between him and the Salafi cleric. He said, “The sheikh is a dear friend and brother. I do not interfere in his work, nor he interferes in mine.”
Houjeiri also refuted the accusation leveled against him concerning collaboration with the army saying, “We cannot fight our national army, its sons are our sons. We were the first to request the army to deploy along all informal crossings with Syria to impose order and prevent violations from the Syrian side, which bombards us every day.”
The mayor said that Ersal shares around 100 km of border with Syria, and thus, “We cannot possibly replace the government and cover all this distance. All we do is nothing more than some precautionary and relief-related measures.”
Houjeiri claimed the infiltration of FSA and al-Nusra fighters was due to the sheer length of the border, and said, “Dozens of people come to the town every day. How can we check the identity of everyone who comes in?”
When asked why he has banned assembly in squares and Syrians from driving in their cars at night, he replied, “This is to avoid a massacre in case rockets or shells fall...Not all the refugees we have are pro-opposition. Dozens of them are agents of the regime.”
The mayor has been keeping his distance from projects sponsored by al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah, and was absent from the inauguration ceremony for the field hospital the Islamist group has built. Some have explained this as a message through which he wanted to say that he was still strong, and that no one in town can impose anything on him.
When we queried him about this Houjeiri said that he has nothing but utmost respect for the residents of his town, but added, “I do not deal with them from a partisan standpoint. I do not attend any partisan event even if it was sponsored by the Future Movement in order not to take sides.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.