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Seeking refuge

Andreane Williams, Chtaura/Tripoli, Lebanon
September 12, 2013

Although plans for a US intervention in Syria appear to be on hold, thousands of Syrians are seeking refuge in neighboring Lebanon. Many of them are afraid of the possible repercussions following a US strike.

busstop Copyright: Omar al Kalouti, DW Mitarbeiter, Lebanon, September 2013
Image: DW/Omar al Kalouti

In the parking lots bordering the main street of the Bekaa town of Chtaura, a line of Syrian cars, taxis and minivans are parked, waiting for their customers. "Sham (Damascus in Arabic) Sham," drivers shout to people walking by, as exhausted Syrian families with crying babies get out of vans and unload their belongings piled on top of the vehicles.

Chtaura is a mixed Sunni and Shia town located 44 kilometers from Beirut and 30 minutes from the Syrian border, in the Bekaa Valley. It is a major transit point for taxis and buses coming from Damascus. The people of Chtaura have become accustomed to the regular flow of taxis and buses going in and out of Syria. But since the United States threatened to launch a punitive strike against the Assad regime, in reaction to an alleged chemical attack, a massive influx of traffic from the Syrian capital has flooded the city. In the parking lot facing the "Chtaura Coop," 10 Syrian taxis and one coach are waiting for their passengers.

A spiral of silence

"I don't want to talk about politics. I came to Lebanon from Damascus with my children for a vacation before school starts next week," says Rafika Omar Rejab, looking at her daughter standing next to her on the dusty side of the road. Like most Syrian people interviewed that day, Rafika won't say she is seeking refuge in Lebanon. "Most people are here for work. Look at this bus," says a taxi driver, pointing at the enormous coach carrying families parked on the side of the street. "Of course people are scared that the United States will attack, but nobody will tell you this," he says, before quickly jumping in his car.

In the town of Majdel Anjar, Mohammed, another Syrian taxi driver, is waiting next to his car by the street. The Masnaa border crossing is only a couple of kilometers from there. Tensions have risen in the area, which has witnessed increased violence since the war in Syria began. In July, four people were wounded when a bomb hit a Hezbollah convoy traveling toward the Syrian border.

Mohammed says he travels to Syria every day to bring families into Lebanon. "I drive families, mainly women and children, seeking refuge to Lebanon. The men stay in Syria to protect their home from thugs and thieves. Most of them live near Syrian government buildings or checkpoints. They are afraid of a US strike on Syria. Nobody will tell you this on camera or will agree to be photographed. Everybody is scared. If people know I talked to you, they won't let me out of Syria next time I go in," he says.

Resistance from the other side of the border

Dr. Mohanned el Shami is one of two doctors, who, together with a nurse, runs the Al Abrar rehabilitation clinic for Syrian refugees in the Abou Samra neighborhood of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. For the past year and a half, the 29-year-old neurologist from Damascus and his colleagues have been smuggling medication through the Lebanese Syrian border to several field hospitals in Syria.

Dr.-Shami-and-a-patient-in-the-hall-of-the-clinic.jpg Copyright: Andreane Williams, DW/TRANSTERRA Media, Mitarbeiter, Lebanon, September 2013
Dr Shami thinks the number of patients will increaseImage: DW/A. Williams/TRANSTERRA Media

In the clinic, the doctors are now stocking piles of medication for their colleagues in Syria to treat victims of chemical weapons attacks. "I don't see why there wouldn't be more chemical attacks in the future. Bashar can do whatever he wants. Nobody cares about our people. We don't think that any foreign country will help us," he says.

Dr. Mohanned el Shami escaped Syria in March 2012 after the director of the field hospital he was working in was arrested. "We opened a field hospital when the revolution started because injured protesters would get arrested if they went to a government hospital. I witnessed a lot of patients being killed or beaten by hospital staff when I was working at the Damascus Hospital," he recalls.

Medication-for-chemical-weapons-are-stocked-in-Dr.-Shami's-clinic.jpg Copyright: Andreane Williams, DW Mitarbeiter/ TRANSTERRA Media, Lebanon, September 2013
Medication for chemical weapons are stocked in Shami's clinicImage: DW/A. Williams/TRANSTERRA Media

The young doctor now treats patients who need extended treatment and physical therapy in his clinic, funded by a Qatari organization. Sitting at his desk at the clinic, Dr. Shami says not only citizens in Damascus but also the regime forces are getting ready to face a possible US strike.

"My brother is still in Damascus. He told me that some soldiers from the Syrian army are now living on our roof. He said the army is relocating its personnel to mosques and schools, where the United States are not allowed to strike. We also have informers in the Syrian Army who told us they are moving prisoners to regime facilities that they think will be bombed if the United States attacks. They will use them as human shields," he explains. "People are not scared of the US strike. What they fear the most is what the regime will do during and after the attack. They will retaliate against the population to punish them for starting a revolution."