Winter’s Edge for Syrian Refugees in Ersal

A general view of a center, funded by the International Islamic Relief Organization of Saudi Arabia, which provides shelter for Syrian refugees in al-Marj, in the Bekaa valley 21 December 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Afif Diab)

By: Afif Diab

Published Monday, December 24, 2012

In the past few months, the Lebanese town of Ersal in the Bekaa Valley has received many guests from the Syrian killing fields. More than 10,000 Syrians live on the barren outskirts of this far northeastern town and another 6,000 are in the nearby agricultural settlements, or camps, within the Lebanese village al-Qaa.

Pitching their tents in the vineyards and orchards, they form an uninterrupted human chain of hunger and oppression stretching from Homs to Damascus.

At this time of year, the harsh winter chill creeps towards Ersal from its eastern plains. Residents look for firewood in a desolate land that was once a forest full of lions, but the axes only manage to decimate its trees.

Umm Ayham could not find a “straw” to burn in her hometown of Homs, which she fled when it was besieged by tanks and gunfire. The winter chill, dropping suddenly from the sky, did not wait for the grieving mother to kindle her fire and protect her remaining four children from the cold.

She speaks about the agony of the city she left behind and the pain of losing a breadwinner who went missing a year ago. She is waiting for the mazot, or gas, “voucher” from the UN to buy some food. A few liras could save her some dignity and appease the stomach with some bread, milk, lentils, or kishk (wheat fermented with yogurt, powdered for preservation, and usually cooked like porridge in winter).

Umm Ayham’s tale is not unique to the Syrian refugees in Ersal, but also to its Lebanese residents. They are two sides of the same cold, the same land, and the same timeless poverty.

Long-time residents of Ersal speak achingly of the goods they used to receive on the cheap from Syria. The time of smuggling and dirt-cheap prices has gone, along with the mazot.

“The tables have turned,” says Abdo-Flaiti, who installed a wood stove in his unfinished home. “We used to depend on cheap Syrian mazot to set aside what we needed for the whole winter season. But today, the smugglers are taking the mazot from Lebanon into Syria, if they find it.”

He explained that Lebanese fuel trucks are no longer able to cross the Ersal plain into Syria due to the accumulating snow.

Ersal’s frosty winter has embroiled Syrian refugees in the “racket” run by international donors charged with managing their humanitarian situation. The mazot vouchers given to refugee families cannot provide heat for even a full month, as each family (regardless of size) is provided with $100 worth of mazot.

According to Abu Khaled Z., who fled from al-Qusair near Homs to Ersal, he needs to heat more than one room in his house, explaining that nine family members cannot be possibly packed into one room.

The cold temperatures “demand that we keep the heat going around the clock,” he adds. But he is only able to use it for two hours at night.

An activist in relief and refugee services tells Al-Akhbar that his organization provided mazot, blankets, mattresses, and woolen clothes. They took Ersal’s weather into consideration and “raised the mazot provision to be equivalent to $100 a month.”

This did not apply to refugees in other areas of the Bekaa. Coupons from “Arab donors” in western Bekaa are exchanged for a mere two liters of mazot per day, worth around $3.33.

Furthermore, refugees in al-Qaa settlements are not able to exchange their paper coupons for mazot since they are unable to go to the designated gas stations. The stations are located outside the border crossing and, lacking identity papers, the refugees cannot cross legally out of Syria.

A Syrian refugee from a village adjacent to the Lebanese border says he is unable to leave al-Qaa and go to Jdeidet al-Fakiha to get the mazot because he lacks an official crossing permit. His monthly ration is no more than 100 liters and he has to travel 20 kilometers to get it.

A dissident Syrian regular army captain, Abu al-Walid, who lives in the makeshift camp along with his wife and three children reveals that his “brothers in arms” posted nearby provide him with a canister of diesel from their tanks every day.

He explains that his non-deserting comrades would call him and point him to the location of the canister. He would pick it up at night and share it with his neighbors in the camp.

The Syrian refugee camp in al-Qaa is set up in an apricot orchard. The tents were funded by an international relief organization, which they rarely see. More than seven families, about 47 people, from Homs live under the “parapet.”

Haj Abu Jamal, 74, illustrates their ingenious solution against the freeze. They erected a large tent with a big stove, which is lit all day from the remains of chopped fruit trees.

“At night, we each go back to our sleeping tents covered in blankets. This is instead of using a mazot stove,” he says.

Other refugees are staying further afield, in the high plains around Ersal that reach between 1,400 and 1,700 meters above sea level. Abu Mahran, 46, from al-Nabak in the Damascus countryside, was staying in a small room in the plain. “But when the snow fell, the kids went down to Ersal,” he says.

He maintains that most refugees in the high plains were displaced into the Ersal district or al-Qaa settlements at the onset of snowfall.

Abu Mahran shares his mazot ration with his neighbor from Ersal to return the favor of providing him with a room inside the city. “It’s not just the mazot. We eat our kishk together.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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