After storm Norma, refugees in Bekaa camps are living a nightmare
In Bar Elias, Syrian refugee camps are now flooded with water, mud and excrement...
It’s an icy January morning and the informal refugee camp of Moussa el-Hindi, near Bar Elias, looks dismal. Despite the cold, blankets are hanging to dry on makeshift clotheslines strung between trees. Fields flooded by the Litani river and a snow-covered Mount Lebanon serve as an eerie backdrop to the misery. Soaking wet pillows are littered across the ground, and children wade through pools of water wearing rubber boots while the youngest run in the mud with nothing but summer sandals on their feet. Bored teenagers fashion an improvised boat from a floating, wooden board.
In tents battered by storm Norma, women try in vain to scoop water from the floor. Their shelters, made of concrete, are submerged under 50 centimeters of muddy, dirty water mixed with excrement from overflowing toilets. Most of the furniture people collected in the past eight years is now useless. Even the thick tarpaulins that cover the tents have been damaged and torn. Some of them fail to protect the tents from rain or wind. Men are awaiting the arrival of humanitarian aid workers, anxious to provide their families with some fuel for their heaters and mattresses or blankets to replace the ones they had to throw away.
A blank stare
The informal refugee camp of Moussa el-Hindi is named after the man who owns the land. Ninety-eight Syrian families – 467 people – have been living here in 63 tents and paying $100 a month for rent and electricity to the land owner since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, according to Hiba Fares, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Water is not included in the price.
Until the storm, things were going relatively well for these families. There were two distinct communities: one from Damascus and the other from Homs. They lived side by side, but did not really intermingle. Each community was more or less getting by – feeding their children, sending them to a nearby school and trying to make their homes a little bit more comfortable, despite the drastic drop in aid from international organizations, like UNHCR. Many of the families were also indebted to the local grocery store and their more affluent relatives, forced into debt by the high cost of living in Lebanon and scarcity of work.
Norma, a storm of unprecedented strength, shattered this relative stability. In four days, it flooded everything in its path – including the fields and streets of Bar elias. Along the way, it exacerbated the already deep misery of Syrians living in the Bekaa and ransacked the makeshift shelters near the Litani River that refugees have been trying to make livable for years.
In Moussa el-Hindi, a desperate mother sitting at the entrance of her tent stares blankly in front of her. "Come see our tent. It is completely flooded. We lost everything. We did not even have time to raise our mattresses or even our fridge, that is now unusable, and there is no one to help us,” she says.
A few meters away, Um Seif, a neighbor, says she fears for her family’s health. "We are going to catch scabies and dysentery,” she says. “The water we drink and wash with is now infected with river water and toilet sewage.”
In a short period, it rained so much that the ground cannot absorb any more water. All the toilets in the camp are overflowing. "Even worse, we don’t have water anymore. We have not been able to wash for three days,” Um Seif laments.
"You have failed in your obligations..."
While UNHCR, UNICEF, World Vision and other organizations have tried to improve conditions in Moussa el-Hindi camp, its residents still ended up as some of the more than 11,000 people across 361 different sites in Lebanon affected by the bad weather, according to statistics released by UNHCR on Jan. 9. Winter is just beginning, and "850 camps sheltering 70,000 refugees, 40,000 of them being children, are at risk of being damaged by bad weather," the UN agency warned.
For the time being, around 60 percent of the camp’s residents – mainly women, children and the elderly – were resettled to a nearby building run by the organization Sawa for Development and Aid. Others chose to remain in the camp, relying on help from their neighbors.
The Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, in collaboration with municipalities, UNHCR and various Syrian youth movements, provided ready-made meals, mattresses, blankets and clothing to similarly affected refugee settlements across the country.
In Moussa el-Hindi camp, some men shout in anger at humanitarian aid workers who walk around the camp empty-handed. "What are you doin, other than taking our picture? Leave if you have nothing to bring us,” says a man named Mohammad.
His despair is palpable. Mohammad is drowning in debt and can no longer afford to pay medical bills for his sick child. UNHCR used to give him 260,000 LL ($172) per month, but the assistance stopped because of budget cuts. "You have failed in your obligations,” he yells at Fares. “You treat us without humanity – as if we are less than nothing. You have abandoned us”.
“A legitimate frustration," a powerless Fares admits, adding: "Assistance is now reserved for families considered even more vulnerable.”
Despite the harsh weather conditions, declining funding and misery – all factors that could push them back to Syria – the refugees still say they aren’t able to go back. "We would be enlisted in the army,” one man says. "Our safety, and that of our families, would be compromised”.
Lack of fairnessAn aid truck parks at the entrance of the camp, offering a ray of hope. Dispatched by the NGO World Vision, it starts to drain the muddy water that floods the tents. At the same time, the informal leader of the camp, Khaled Chehab, receives blankets and cans of fuel. The distribution begins and the refugees gather. But many of them will be left empty handed. "Here it is always the same [people] who get the help,” a woman laments, hinting at a lack of fairness in how the two communities in the camp are treated.
"We do not need food. We just need you to see us,” the woman say. “Let our houses be cleared of this polluted water, which might make us all sick."
At least until the next storm comes…
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 12th of January)