Syria Crisis: The Escape from Damascus

Carrying their luggage people walk close to the area of the Masnaa crossing between the eastern Lebanon and neighboring Syria on 19 July 2012. (Photo: AFP - STR)

By: Usama al-Qadiri

Published Friday, July 20, 2012

Lebanese-Syrian border crossings are witnessing a scene reminiscent of the displacement of Lebanese families six years ago during the July 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, almost to the day, but the other way around.

The displacement then was eastbound. Today, it is to the west. In the last two days, Masnaa crossing in Lebanon and Jdeidet Yabous on the Syrian side were flooded with displaced Syrians fleeing into Lebanon.

This came following the attack on the National Security headquarters in Damascus the day before yesterday, and the ensuing armed clashes between Syrian troops and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in various locations in the city.

The clashes, and the sounds of bullets and shells falling on their homes, forced hundreds of families to make their way to the Lebanese border.

Queues of private and public Syrian cars, in addition to pedestrians, on all four lanes of the highway, stretched for almost 700 meters up from the Lebanese General Security post.

The displacement of families began on Wednesday night. The traffic back-up was repeated in the early hours of the morning and the border crossing was filled with cars and refugees, mostly from Damascus and the surrounding Rif Dimashq area.

Sumaya sat outside the Lebanese General Security building, along with her young daughters and sons. What did she tell customs she was here for?

“I am here for tourism, but I do not know how long I will stay in Lebanon.” Her eyes were filled with tears. “God protect you from seeing what we saw and the sound of artillery guns,” she said, describing the situation she just escaped.

She said she heard the loudspeakers, in the neighborhood of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, asking the inhabitants to leave their homes. She grabbed her children and whatever they could carry and ran out looking for a taxi to Lebanon.

“The cost for one [taxi] passenger was 500 Syrian pounds ($7), and we were six.” But she explained that Lebanese General Security were lenient. Four of her children did not have IDs or official papers. “I only had my family card, but the officer helped,” she said.

Mohammed al-Abdullah, who lived in al-Salhiya neighborhood, did not fare any better than the hundreds arriving in Lebanon. He dragged his two children to Masnaa and waited for his wife and her parents.

“My children got tired of the sounds of guns and military aircrafts. They were terrified and we could no longer stay,” he lamented, and hoped he could stay with a relative in Baalbeck.

“A split moment separated me and death.” Umm Abdo explained how she had left al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood with her children. The eldest, a 10 year-old boy, carried over his head a duffel bag full of clothes, which seemed hastily prepared by his mother.

She described how she passed through the security checkpoints “blocking all the entrances to the neighborhood.” Bombs from military aircrafts and artillery guns “did not spare anyone. You could not know who was with whom and who was against whom. The city became like a ghost town.”

Displacement was not limited to the poor who did not know where they were heading. Wealthy Damascene families were unmistakable in their luxury cars.

A refugee from Kfar Sousa sitting in his car said that “the situation is not easy. Killings have become a normal occurrence.”

He had expected a major battle in Damascus, “so, four months ago, I rented a house in Beirut. I am paying $1,200 so I would not have to go anywhere else and be humiliated.”

According to Hazem, another refugee, “Syrians now have two choices and they are both bitter. Either you are with the regime or with chaos. We came here because we did not want to choose between them.”

But where will he go in Lebanon, especially since there are no displacement centers? He said that he has to stay with a relative in West Bekaa now. If the situation takes long, he will need to look for a job and a home until “calm returns to Damascus.”

This scene began Thursday morning and continued late into the night. A delegation from the United Nations had visited and took note of the displacement.

Committees working on the relief of Syrian refugees in Lebanon prepared the Makassed Islamic Philanthropic School in Majdal Anjar to house the displaced.

Apartments were impossible to find in most areas of Bekaa as rents reached $300 to $400 a month.

A staff member of the Lebanese General Security office at the border crossing said that there was an obvious increase in the flow of travellers in the last two days. On the arrivals side, it reached 20,000 a day, mostly displaced families.

“We know this from some of the problems we are facing. We had to take some procedures from outside the appropriate framework. We were not strict about the vouchers that are supposed to be issued at the Syrian General Security, allowing people to leave Syria to Lebanon,” he said.

He explained that “there are families entering without vouchers, IDs, and other records. But it is natural in such a situation to allow them to pass through, after checking their family cards. It was a decision from the General Director [of General Security].”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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