In Ersal, anger among Syrian refugees whose camps have been demolished
For the vast majority of the refugees, who have been forced to destroy their permanent homes, a return to Syria is still not an option.
In a field of ruins in the north east of Lebanon, men and children are working hard to clear away the remains of their modest shelters. Hundreds of tons of rubble, the remains of demolished houses, pile up in the narrow streets. In an incessant back and forth, bulldozers and municipality trucks pick up the debris to dump it elsewhere. All of this takes place against a background of infernal noise and suffocating white dust. Since the dark day of July 1st 2019, this has been the day-to-day life of the Syrian refugees in Ersal. On that day at dawn, the Lebanese Army entered the town’s informal settlements, and bulldozed some twenty-nine concrete houses, or four or five per camp. On July 1st, the second ultimatum of the High Council of Defense -ordering Syrian refugees to destroy any concrete walls and roofs they have illegally erected since their arrival in Lebanon in 2011 after fleeing the war in their country- had just expired.
The decision of the High Council , which was taken last April, had initially given the Syrian refugees until June 9th 2019. By then, they were to demolish any constructions made of materials other than wood or plastic sheets. This deadline was extended to July 1st. But by that time, and for a number of reasons, mainly a lack of means, equipment and options, only half of the one hundred and forty makeshift camps in this mountainous village on the Lebanese-Syrian border had complied with the officials’ directives, by personally destroying their own homes. According to the president of the municipality of Ersal, Bassel Houjeiry, the operation led by the Lebanese Army was a “warning” and the refugees found themselves forced to comply. However, a military source had told L'Orient-Le Jour the day before that the soldiers merely "observed and documented", and that "in no case proceeded to the destruction of the dwellings".
After the hell of war ...
One week after the Army’s forceful intervention, the inhabitants of the camp "Qariat el Hayat (Village of Life)" are still in shock. Standing on sloping grounds, the community, which includes 119 homes, is still buried under rubble. The men are working tirelessly. But beyond the resignation and the disarming hospitality they display, swells a clear anger. "We fled the hell of war and look what's happening to us, yells a 65-year-old man, his voice choked with sobs. “Destroying dwellings over our heads... how is this possible?”
Just like his compatriots, he does not understand "the sudden fury of the authorities who leave (us) homeless under severe heat", while during their eight years in Lebanon, no one has ever prevented them from building or even developing the permanent dwellings which they rent from Lebanese owners for the sum of 20, 000 LL per month. "We were never told that it was forbidden" says the man. "We were still sleeping when the soldiers came at 5:30 to order us to go out with our children. They did not even give us time to take our things, even our clothes, the refrigerator or the washing machine. They destroyed everything, except the room that serves as a toilet.”
Sitting by his side, one of his relatives takes over, saying: "They claim that it is to prevent implantation. But we do not expect to settle in Lebanon. We only want to protect ourselves from the extreme climate of Ersal", which sits at 1550 meters above sea level, and where it snows in winter. “We are Syrians and we will remain so. Our only dream is to go home." But for now, the small Sunni community that fled Qalamun, which is under the control of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, cannot realize this dream. Especially since "every family has lost a relative in this region" that borders Lebanon. "The Lebanese authorities are doing everything so we go back to Bashar el Assad,” said a neighbor. But we risk being forced back into the army, or being punished for fleeing the war. So as long as this killer is still there, we will not go back."
Why are they hurting us so much?
Until the reconstruction works in the camps are complete, the women and children have been temporarily settled in a nearby school attended by the Syrian refugees’ children, and which is empty during the summer. But after a week, the camp is still hardly livable, despite the help of the municipality and the local associations. "We are losing our nerves", admits a young mother crying. "I still cannot believe that I have no roof to shelter my family. They hurt us so much" she said, spilling out her resentment and anger toward both the Lebanese Army and the authorities. The refugees were instructed to destroy their homes, leaving only up to one meter of the outer walls intact, walls that are supposed to protect them from floods and snow. Only once the rubble is cleared will they receive the materials, planks of wood and sheeting necessary for the construction of a frame and a roof. The operation is led by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), with the participation of the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Lebanese Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations, such as the Syrian NGO Sawahed el Kheir. But faced with the magnitude of the task, families are gathering their meager possessions and leaving the scene to go settle in another camp or with relatives in Ersal. "The return to Syria is still not an option”, says a man. “It's too risky!"
An 88-year-old woman wanders around helplessly in the ruins of the room she used to occupy, she has diabetes and there is no one to help her clear the rubble. "My grandchildren are busy rebuilding their homes. And I'm still waiting for someone to help me. I have neither the strength to work, nor the means to pay workers."
The humanitarian aspect…
"Some 65,000 Syrian refugees are now settled in Ersal alongside the 30,000 local inhabitants", Bassel Houjeiry, the president of Ersal’s municipality council, told L’Orient-Le Jour. He admits that there are "crucial issues in regards to the sewers, the water, the electricity, the jobs ...", that beset the village, which already had problems in terms of its infrastructure, problems that have only worsened as a result of the presence of so many who have fled the Syrian war. But he deplores the fact that "the housing issue was not addressed in a humanitarian way". "The international community is focused on Lebanon and its treatment of the refugees," he says. One can only wonder, as Houjeiry asks: "How can Lebanon claim to have preserved the dignity of the refugees, while nearly 4,000 families were ordered to demolish their modest housing, and as a warning 29 homes were destroyed by the Lebanese army?” This is how he expresses his disapproval of the forced destructions, which were used as a measure to coerce the refugees into going back to their country. "I am sure that as soon as they are able to go back home, they will not hesitate to do so", he says. But he cannot go against the state’s decision. "We have no other choice."
After its rejection of a plan aimed at developing a large camp that would gather all the refugees together, taking the pressure off Ersal, the municipality is now working on clearing the rubble that fills some neighborhoods, without really knowing how to dispose of it. "Not only [do] the financial compensations provided by UNHCR hardly cover the cost of fuel, but our bulldozers and municipality trucks have deteriorated a great deal, and are close to becoming unusable,” says Houjeiry.
“Furthermore, the rubble is not even recyclable", says Houjeiry. He clarifies that, "temporary living facilities are made available to the victims, only until they can relocate". But the local representative does not hide his fear that the state will further tighten its grip on Syrian refugees across the country. "New measures could be taken against them soon, such as the confiscation of undocumented vehicles, and the closing of illegal businesses”, he says.
A few hundred meters away, in a camp from where the air smells strongly of sewage, people are slowly getting on with it. Men, women and children are putting the final touches on their new temporary shelters, improvised with whatever they have at hand. A little way away, in the part of the camp where the permanent housings are found, and where young widows and their children have found refuge, there is an uproar: the Army has just issued a final warning. "If the houses are not destroyed within the day, the troops will do it”.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 11th of July 2019)