A voice of horror from Lebanon’s Arsal

Civilians caught up in fighting that left scores killed and thousands displaced in town bordering Syria.

Media reports said the Red Cross managed to evacuate about 30 Syrians with very serious injuries [AFP]

If one thing could capture some of the horror people in the Lebanese town of Arsal were facing, it would be this voice of a woman over the phone just after she had witnessed live bullets piercing the bodies of five of her young nephews.

“They targeted the children and shot at them. The five children are injured, some of them seriously. There is a two-month-old child among them,” said Umm Ahmad, a Syrian teacher who had initially fled her country with her sister and their children to escape the war, in the hopes that Arsal would provide a safe haven for the family.

Instead, they have been caught up in a five-day gun battle raging between the Lebanese army and members of different armed groups crossing the border from Syria, in the most serious spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanese territory since its start more than three years ago.

Umm Ahmad, 36, said it must have been obvious to whoever opened fire that children and their mother were being targeted. “They still shot at them,” she said, adding that the fire source was a checkpoint manned by the Lebanese army.

The incident came as the family was still recovering from the trauma of having their home, a five-by-five metre shack in a makeshift camp, burned to the ground by a barrage of artillery shells.

Five Syrian refugee camps in the town have been flattened in the fierce battles. Fire that engulfed a cluster of tents burned to death 19 children, according to medics.

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The fighting erupted on Saturday after the Lebanese army in Arsal arrested Imad Ahmad Jomaa, the commander of a Syrian rebel group allied to a self-declared jihadist group, the Islamic State. His comrades, along with fighters from other brigades, including al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked army positions in the town and reportedly kidnapped more than 30 Lebanese soldiers and policemen.

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Medics at the two main medical centres in Arsal, situated in the Bekaa Valley, have recorded the death of at least 60 people and the injury of 456 others in the latest fighting. The majority of the casualties are civilians, mainly Syrian refugees, according to medics who spoke to Al Jazeera. The fighting also displaced thousands of refugees.

Before Wednesday’s shooting incident, Umm Ahmad and her family were heading back to their camp under the bombardment, hoping to salvage some of their belongings and assess if their burnt-down home was fit for living after the ground had cooled. They had no other place to go.

Some families who lost their homes were left sheltering under trees in the sweltering heat, with machine gunfire smattering above them. Others crammed into the town’s small concrete houses. Four camps, including one operated by the United Nations, had been evacuated.

Three families found respite in a modest house rented by Adnan Raad, a Syrian school administrator. For the 55-year-old, frustration over the lack of space and shortages of electricity and water was overshadowed by anguish after two of his students lost a leg each in the shelling.

“I still don’t know what happened to the rest of the students. The situation is just indescribable,” Raad said.

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Arsal, a Sunni town sympathetic to the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has over the past three years become the temporary home for almost 100,000 Syrians – more than double the number of the Lebanese residents. Civilians caught up in the latest fighting say the town is more and more resembling a big prison.

Lebanese army checkpoints at the entrance of Arsal prevent Syrians from leaving the lone Sunni enclave, surrounded by Shia villages, to relocate further into the country. The main hospital was initially notified by the Lebanese Red Cross that only injured Lebanese nationals could be evacuated from the town, leaving the head of Rahma Hospital, Basem al-Fares, in a moral dilemma.

“Most of the injured are Syrians. They were the ones who endured the most serious wounds. It wouldn’t be right to evacuate people based on anything other than the severity of their injuries,” Fares said.

Fares said the hospital was running out of some medical supplies. Shops have been forced to close since the violence broke out as very little foodstuff could be brought into the town.

On Wednesday, an aid convoy carrying bread, water, and medical supplies tried to enter Arsal, but was stopped by armed residents of the neighbouring village of Labweh, a stronghold of the Shia armed group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian regime.

By Thursday, clashes were toning down amid reports that fighters had pulled out from Arsal.

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Media reports said the Red Cross managed to evacuate about 30 Syrians with very serious injuries. Umm Ahmad’s nephews were among them. 

However, no durable deal has been struck between the warring sides, keeping residents on edge.

Syrian activists and a Lebanese Sunni cleric who were part of a delegation to broker a ceasefire have blamed Hezbollah for hindering efforts to find a solution by firing rockets from their strongholds into Arsal.

Arsal has been used as a conduit for weapons and rebels to enter Syria and activists say that recent losses by Hezbollah-backed Syrian troops across the border have put the Shia group under duress.

But Hezbollah denies firing rockets and say they merely back the Lebanese army in its fight against “terrorists”.

Kassem Kassir, a journalist with close ties to Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera that the reason why a truce was never reached was because the fighters who launched attacks on Arsal were divided.

“Jabhat al-Nusra wanted to withdraw, while the Islamic State wanted to open new fronts in Lebanon against Hezbollah, as part of its expansion ambitions in the region,” he said.

A source with al-Nusra, however, denied those divisions existed. He said the reason for the failure to reach an agreement was the refusal of the army to give assurances that the Syrians in Arsal would not be targeted after their full withdrawal.

“We want assurances that Hezbollah will not enter Arsal and start massacring Sunnis and arresting young men. We want humanitarian organisations and independent media networks to be present before we fully leave,” the source told Al Jazeera. He said the Lebanese army had little leverage over the Shia group.

He acknowledged that “entering Lebanon was a mistake”, especially amid anger directed at the rebels from the refugee community who were dragged into the violence and who suffered the most.

Umm Ahmad wants nothing but an end to the fighting. The doctors have just told her that her nephew had lost an arm. 

Source: Al Jazeera