Lebanon security sweep puts Syrians in crossfire

Thousands of Syrians have been left homeless as Lebanon clears border areas in response to security threats.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon
'We have nowhere to go any more; we have no idea where we'll be sleeping tonight' [Nour Samaha/Al Jazeera]

Wadi Anjar, Bekaa – Thousands of Syrians have been left homeless after a decision by the Lebanese army to clear the area along the Syrian-Lebanese border.

The decision last week, said to affect about 32 informal settlements housing around 7,000 Syrian refugees and labourers, comes as clashes between the Syrian army and fighters intensify around the outskirts of the Syrian town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border.

“We have nowhere to go any more; we have no idea where we’ll be sleeping tonight. What are we supposed to do?” Abu Ahmad, a Syrian refugee from Deir Ezzor, told Al Jazeera, standing among the remnants of what used to be his tented home in Wadi Anjar on the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Tonight we don't know where we're going to be sleeping. If we go to Syria we'll get killed, and if we stay here we will die. Who is trying to help us? Absolutely no one.

by Abu Ali, resident

“The Lebanese army came in last night and broke everything; our water tanks, our shelters. Where are we supposed to let our children sleep? Shelter is the most important thing.”

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The area of Wadi Anjar, which earned the nickname of the “Valley of Problems” due to its hub as a smugglers’ haven before the start of the Syrian crisis, sits at the foothills of the Lebanese mountains bordering Syria. Every so often, explosions can be heard from the clashes taking place just kilometres away over the mountainside. It is just one of the areas currently being cleared out: Those living here were told last week they had to pack up their belongings and leave. The army returned again on Tuesday afternoon, issuing a 24-hour deadline.

Ahmad’s camp houses about 200 families, most from Deir Ezzor and Hama, along with labourers who have been living in the country for decades. They are unsure of where they can go next, saying no one is willing to help them any more.

On Wednesday morning, dozens of families began dismantling the wooden beams holding up their tents, rolling up blankets, and packing the few utensils and clothes they had, in bags. Plastic water tanks, broken by the army the night before, lay strewn across the ground. Small groups of Syrians gathered around fires in an attempt to keep warm in the harsh cold.

“We slept out here last night,” Abu Ali told Al Jazeera, pointing to the ground next to the fire. “We slept outside with our children. Tonight we don’t know where we’re going to be sleeping. If we go to Syria we’ll get killed, and if we stay here we will die. Who is trying to help us? Absolutely no one.”

Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told Al Jazeera that “generally speaking, when this arises, we verify the number of families who will be affected and assess their needs. We prioritise those most vulnerable and relocate them to collective shelters that would be ready to receive them on an emergency basis. This is part of our contingency planning.”

Sleiman said the UN was in “constant contact” with the relevant authorities to ensure refugees were given enough time to find alternative shelters – but refugees say the issue is not the amount of notice, but rather the question of where they can relocate to.

As refugees pooled their meagre resources to hire pick-up trucks to carry their belongings, many said they expected to drive around until they found somewhere that would let them stay. But their chances appeared slim, as towns and villages have been reluctant to open their doors to more Syrians.

Syrian refugees ejected from Lebanon camp

“No one is letting us stay in other places; municipalities are shutting their doors in our faces, and we’re being turned away from everywhere,” Mohammad Saleh, another refugee from Palmyra, told Al Jazeera. “It is shameful what is happening to us.”

Following the deadly clashes between the Lebanese army and fighters in the border town of Arsal last August, many have expressed concern that armed groups could infiltrate their towns from the mountainous region.

“They want us to move because they’re afraid it’ll turn into another Arsal, but it’s impossible for fighters to come to this area because the Syrian army has placed mines along the border,” Ahmad said.

The head of the municipality of Majdal Anjar, who has jurisdiction over Wadi Anjar, decided in conjunction with the army to withdraw permission for Syrian citizens stay in the area. “The security situation is very serious,” Sami Ajami told Al Jazeera. “Today we’re in a situation where we don’t know who some of the people staying in the camps are. Some are refugees, some are labourers, and others we don’t know.

“People have offered to host them on their land, but I’ve said no,” Ajami added. “This area is now a danger zone; people are just coming in and out of the settlements and we don’t know who they are.”

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According to an army source, the decision was taken to clear the areas along the eastern Bekaa border, from Majdal Anjar next to the Masnaa border crossing, all the way up to al-Qusayr. “We are doing this because of the ongoing clashes along the border, and to allow the Lebanese army to conduct military operations” against fighters attempting to infiltrate the country, the source said. “We’re doing this to protect all the people, including the refugees, in the area.”

In recent weeks, clashes have intensified between the Syrian army and fighters from al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham around Zabadani. According to local media reports, the fighters have threatened the main Beirut-Damascus highway in an effort to establish a connection with villages further in the Bekaa Valley, east of Zahle, where many of the refugees from Zabadani reside.

Sources on the ground say al-Nusra Front is attempting to work inside the Bekaa Valley because they feel they have a fertile environment within some of the villages and refugee settlements.

In response to the security threat, the Lebanese army has been conducting new security sweeps and beefing up its presence inside the valley and along the border, as well as raiding informal Syrian settlements.

The Lebanese army has been involved in several deadly clashes in recent months along the Lebanese border, as fighters in the Qalamoun mountain range have launched attacks on border positions.

Hezbollah, fighting alongside the Syrian army, has also clashed with the fighters along the border.

Lebanon is currently hosting more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, plus hundreds of thousands of Syrian labourers who have been working in the country for years. The influx of refugees has crippled the country’s infrastructure, and tensions have been steadily rising between local communities and the refugees.

“What options are available to us?” asked Khodr,  another refugee in Wadi Anjar who did not give his last name, as he packed up the last of his bags. “Look at the way they are treating us; do we become terrorists?”

Source: Al Jazeera