Syrian refugees wait for their turn to receive humanitarian aid at the entrance of an NGO in the area of Wadi Khaled on the Lebanese-Syrian border in northern Lebanon on Feb. 26, 2012.
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – They are just 55 miles away, but for Syrian refugees now in Tripoli, Lebanon, couldn't be more different.
We spent a cold and rainy day in Lebanon's north, crisscrossing from hospitals, to apartments to slums, meeting with Syrians fleeing their country and seeking refuge in Lebanon.
A 27-year-old patient, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was shot in the leg by a sniper’s bullet. The wound was so severe, he couldn't get the proper treatment inside Baba Amr. Afraid to go to any hospitals inside Syria for fear of being turned over to government forces, he and his brother decided to make the trek to Lebanon. For four days they moved by car from house to house under cover of darkness and the constant barrage of war all around them.
When they crossed the border they were taken by activists to a hospital in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, but it was too late. The leg was severely infected and doctors had to amputate it at the knee.
For a country that over the years has seen its own share of violence, forcing many of its own citizens to take refuge in Syria, it's new for Lebanese to see Syrian refugees in their country. So much so that international aid workers and activists say Lebanon has been slow to acknowledge and deal with the flow of Syrians across the border into their country.
Part of problem, Syrian activists say, is the attempt by the Lebanese government to remain on the sidelines of the conflict – without conceding that its side effects are beginning to seep in.
More than 7,000 Syrians refugees have fled into Lebanon and registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The majority of them have crossed into the north of Lebanon, activists tell us.
Over the past few days, dozens of injured residents of the besieged cities of Baba Amr and Homs have made the dangerous trek across the border. None of those we interviewed agreed to show their faces on camera. All were reluctant to give us their real names fearing their family members still living inside Syria would be hunted down.
Another refugee who called himself Abu Fares saw the war in Syria spreading five months ago and decided to flee the country with his family. Back then, Syrian officials didn't object to single families exiting all together. Now, activists say, Syrian border guards will turn back families that appear to be "fleeing" the country. More families have taken the route of entering the country illegally, making it difficult to keep an accurate number of who has entered Lebanon.
Stringer / Reuters
Syrian refugees take part in a protest to call for international protection for Syria's anti-government protesters and better living conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, in front of the Red Cross offices in Tripoli, northern Lebanon on Feb. 26, 2012.
So far, no large refugee camps have been set up inside Lebanon for displaced Syrians – unlike in neighboring Jordan, which has also taken in thousands of refugees.
Instead, what has emerged is an acute housing crisis for the families currently in Lebanon. The majority of families have taken refuge in apartments in rundown buildings, often at exuberant prices.
Abu Fares and his family of nine are living in a small shack in an illegal seaside slum in Tripoli. Without any heat or regular electricity, they have struggled to survive, relying instead on handouts for clothes, blankets and medicine. His heart and back conditions have made it impossible for him to work in the low-paying, labor intensive jobs most Syrians can vie for.
Puddles of water filled the narrow walkways in between the shacks, and makeshift wiring and electric cables crisscrossed the alleys to the small, cramped and humid huts. Despite the hardship, Abu Fares said he has no regrets that he fled Syria and said he has no plans to return until the Assad regime steps down from power.
Not really a welcome mat
For Syrian activists, Lebanon has proven to be a dangerous country to operate. Lebanon’s weak central government has failed to fully embrace other Arab countries and international calls for Assad to step down. Lebanon for now has opted to remain impartial in the conflict, tacitly allowing refugees to come into the country, but not allowing the opposition to openly equip the Free Syrian Army.
Instead, Syrian opposition activists say they are routinely harassed by Lebanese security forces and military intelligence.
More importantly, Syria's strongest Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, has acted as a counter-balance to any major and visible opposition taking root publicly in Lebanon. Hezbollah commands a strong street presence in Lebanon and can easily mobilize large crowds in support of the embattled Syrian president.
Instead, Syrian opposition activists feel more comfortable that their leadership remains in Turkey and abroad. They say Lebanon's past relations with Syria make it easy for Syrian intelligence and pro-Assad operatives to target them. Still, activists are discreetly using Lebanon as a base from which to supply and arm their comrades inside the country.
Even if the government in Lebanon has been reluctant to take sides in the conflict, it may not be long before the conflict forces Lebanon into a more direct course of action.