Just Another Day in Ersal

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(Photo: Preethi Nallu)

By: Preethi Nallu

Published Monday, October 15, 2012

About an hour northeast of Beirut, the scenery transforms substantively, from the smog-engulfed coastal terrain of the metropolis to a winding precarious ascent where the air turns crisp.

As I sat in a minivan filled to capacity, the lush greenery encroached on the senses, providing much needed relief from the chaotic traffic jams of Beirut. We were on our way to Ersal in the Bekaa Valley, which shares a border with Syria and is thus susceptible to incursions, infiltrations, migration and other cross-border fallout that is often summed up as the “spill-over” effect.

It was starting to seem like a jaunt rather than a workday, but that feeling quickly subsided as we approached a majestic mosque that has been housing refugees mostly from al-Qusair in Syria. The imposing edifice stood in stark contrast to the tents, whose striped fabric flapped in the wind causing a whirlwind of dust. The crisp air from the journey suddenly thickened and felt heavy as we climbed the steps to the main entrance.

A Lebanese imam, who has become the spiritual leader of the community, led us into the desolate structure that was built in honor of a Lebanese fighter named Ismail al-Hujeiri, who died whilst fighting in Iraq. Families of women, children and men approached us, all eager to let us know that they are running out of supplies.

"Journalists come, photograph us and leave, but we still have no aid. Its just another day here in Ersal," shouted one woman from atop the stairs.

We reacted with silence and a tinge of embarrassment.
(Photo: Preethi Nallu)(Photo: Preethi Nallu)

An older gentlemen in his 60s suited up and wearing a kuffiyeh, caught my attention. He is a farmer and herder who left al-Qusair because survival became nearly impossible, even before the violence erupted.

"[In Syria,] we have to register and pay and then pay some more, for everything, whether I want to build a bathroom for myself or own a cow, or if the cow has a baby and even if that baby dies. But we received nothing in return. And now it has become a matter of him [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] or us – and no other way in between."

With the last sentence, his eyes grew misty; he walked away and looked into the barren distance.

We entered the mosque and started conversing with the other men who had set up their living quarters in the upper level of the mosque. A single man in his 20s, who has never been on the battlefield because of a complication from a surgery, explains that his family is still in Syria, while he managed to escape. He has no knowledge of their whereabouts and awaits word, day after day.

For these men counting their prayers beads, their days have turned into months since leaving their homes. The indefinite wait has become a daily routine and it was just another day in Ersal.

That was until my colleague received a phone call from the imam. He hung up quickly and informed me that a “body” had arrived from the other side of the border and that the burial would take place quickly, and we needed to get there as soon as we could. We hopped in a van and headed towards the graveyard, following a motorcade of vehicles one of which was a pickup truck flanked by young men standing in the back, surrounding a shrouded body that was wrapped in plastic.
(Photo: Preethi Nallu)(Photo: Preethi Nallu)

It suddenly occurred to me that I had never been to a funeral before – of any kind. It was nerve-wracking enough to intrude on the mourning of a stranger's death, but to document it whilst standing in the midst of a group of 40 men, some of whom obviously did not approve of my presence - I felt like an impostor. Yet, I proceeded to photograph.

We quickly walked away, trying to avoid stepping on unmarked graves. I was not very successful.

Aside from the death of a man whose story most attendees would never fully know, it was just another day in Ersal.

As we headed away from the funeral, I saw a group of parents with their children crowded around a small cement building. They were all refugees waiting for the food ration, which had apparently not arrived. The women gesticulated with apparent exasperation towards a man who stood in the doorway and was in charge of distributing the food, with interludes of cheerful conversation amongst themselves – their only solace.The men grimaced as they stood away from the crowd of women – smoking, inhaling, exhaling, flicking the butts and repeating the process. The range of emotions amongst the gathered crowd conveyed their helplessness and the toll it has borne on families with no possibility of returning home, nor any guarantee of basic necessities for the coming winter months.
(Photo: Preethi Nallu)(Photo: Preethi Nallu)

Back at the mosque, I walked to the makeshift tents that were serving as temporary shelters for dozens of families. About 30 children swarmed around me, excited by the notion of a strange visitor, speaking the little English that they knew, making little victory signs for the camera.

According to UN estimates, 70,000 Syrian refugees are presently in Lebanon. This number does not include those who have not been registered. This informal camp is one of many in the Bekaa Valley given the continuing stream of people fleeing across the border, seeking refuge in schools, hospitals, unfinished buildings and tents in the backyards of sympathetic Lebanese.

In one of the tents where my colleague was visiting a family of four, they invited us for a cup of coffee and grapes. The man who fled his village with his wife and two children had defected from the police force and explained that going back was not an option.
(Photo: Preethi Nallu)(Photo: Preethi Nallu)

"I have no issues with discussing my leaving the police force. There are many others who have done so because we do not want to be part of this – to kill or be killed."

The agony on the face of my fixer, also from Syria, away from his family and also unable to return to his home, dominated the ensuing silence. He continued to translate for me, with a quickened pace of breath and a redness in his eyes.

Other than the fact that this former policeman did not have warm clothes for the coming winter or basic supplies such as pen and paper for his children to study, it was just another day in Ersal.

In the midst of the conversation, we heard the perturbing sounds of distant shelling. It was time to leave, I was told. We quickly wrapped up and boarded the minivan back to Beirut.

As I looked back at the mosque, the majestic structure was drenched in the late afternoon's soft light. Back along the winding roads, I was once again surrounded by chatter from teenaged girls, older women dozing off and Arabic music playing on the radio at a volume that was a few notches too high.

The sun had set on just another day in Ersal.

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