TRIPOLI — With rain clouds thickening overhead, a few dozen Syrian refugees gathered Friday in the empty lot facing the entrance to the UN refugee agency’s office in Tripoli, where some of them had been sleeping since they were driven out of their houses in Bsharri four days earlier.
Clusters of women sat disconsolately on the curb as children milled around them, while the men, some still bearing bandages from the attacks that had forced them out of their homes, stood waiting — for what, they were not sure.
Some 270 Syrian families fled the idyllic mountain village Monday night after the killing of a local Lebanese man, Joseph Tawk, by a Syrian living in the area. The suspect, who authorities have identified only by his initials, M.H., was arrested soon after.
A statement by the Internal Security Forces said the Syrian man had admitted to shooting Tawk after the two got into a dispute, but did not say what the dispute was about. The two men had been in an ongoing dispute for about a year, the ISF said.
Whatever the reason for the killing, it unleashed a torrent of anger in the village. According to the account of the refugees who fled, dozens of Lebanese men had descended on all the houses where they knew there to be Syrians living, bearing sticks, knives and, in some cases, guns.
“They broke the door and came in, they were hitting us. … They were pushing the children, they broke the doors, they broke the glass,” a Syrian woman who asked not to be identified by name told L’Orient Today. “Even in Syria, we didn’t live through horror like this.”
“Everything was fine before, but this problem that happened destroyed everything in a period of half an hour,” she said.
Said al-Helayal said the men who stormed his house hit his wife and his two-and-a-half-year-old son with sticks. After the family fled the house, he said, the attackers set it on fire.
“My children — how am I supposed to get this image out of their heads now?” he said. “I left Syria just so that my children wouldn’t see terrorism and horror and warplanes and war, so that they wouldn’t see any of these things.”
An uneasy coexistence falls apart
Most of the approximately 1,000 Syrians living in Bsharri had fled from Idlib province during the early phase of the Syrian civil war eight or nine years ago, refugee Salah Sudan al-Ghajar told L’Orient Today.
They came because they knew there was agricultural work in Bsharri, a historically Christian town perched in the mountains above the Qadisha Valley. Unlike in other farming areas, where informal refugee camps have proliferated, Ghajar said most of the Syrians living in Bsharri were renting houses and most had legal residency via Lebanese sponsors.
“We worked and we were living well — there was security,” he said. “Over a period of eight years, the situation was fine.”
But there were periodic tensions. Three years ago, the municipality issued a decree imposing a 6 p.m. curfew for Syrians and issuing a ban on renting houses to them. The decree complained of rising crime and said that “no one is to impose on us settlement solutions or places for newcomers at the expense of our people.” Local residents held protests calling for the eviction to be enforced and blocked Syrians from registering their children in schools.
Nevertheless, until this week, the Syrians said, the situation had seemed stable.
“There were problems more than once, but in general things were OK,” refugee Faisal Ahmed Hamdoun told L’Orient Today, his head and hand still bandaged from blows he received Monday night. The local hospital in Bsharri would not allow him in, he said — he was only able to get his wounds treated after his family made their way to Tripoli.
What made the attack even more shocking was the familiarity of the attackers.
“I knew them from the village, we all knew each other,” he said.
However, if the attackers were familiar, the Syrians who fled claimed that they knew little about the suspect in Tawk’s killing, who was not from Idlib as most of the other Syrians in the town were.
“We don’t know him,” Ghajar said. “That guy was by himself — he doesn’t even have relatives in the area.”
Bsharri’s mayor, Freddy Keyrouz, told journalists that he was concerned about how and why the Syrian man had gotten a hold of a gun and how many other refugees might be armed.
“Whatever the motives of the crime, the pertinent question is: why a Syrian national, whether a refugee or day laborer, is in possession of a weapon?” he said. The municipality issued a statement calling on security agencies to search the houses of the Syrians and check their papers — although by that time, nearly all of them had fled.
Some Bsharri residents echoed the mayor’s sentiments. Zmerrod Lozom, a local grocery store owner, told L’Orient Today’s sister publication L’Orient-Le Jour that she was worried by the refugees’ presence.
“There are more and more Syrian refugees in Bsharri. Some of them may have intentions and plans that they are hiding from us,” she said. “I prefer Bsharri without the refugees in it.”
Others, however, took a more sympathetic view.
“Not all Syrian refugees should pay the price for the crime of one person,” resident Tony Nehme told L’Orient-Le Jour. Tony Rahme agreed: “Some of Bsharri residents were outraged by the atrocity of the crime, but we must always put things into perspective, especially since the refugees are already in a miserable situation.”
A second displacement
Leaving behind clothes, furniture and other belongings, many of the Syrians left Bsharri with only what they could carry.
Some spent the night hiding in the valley below the town and then made their way out on buses in the morning. Others escaped the town during the night with the help of sympathetic Lebanese residents.
Afraid that if they stopped in any of the other nearby villages, they would face a second attack, Ghajar said most of the refugees made their way to Tripoli, where some found temporary shelter in mosques or with relatives or friends.
Others set up camp next to the UNHCR office where, they said, some local residents had come to bring them food and water. But they said there had been little help so far from the UN.
UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said the agency is “closely following” the case and is “advocating with the concerned authorities to promote calm and urge against retaliations and evictions.”
“We have been discussing with the Ministry of Interior, the Municipality of Bsharri and other relevant authorities, the need for the competent authorities to resolve such issues, and not individuals.”
Abou Khaled said the agency had sent additional staff to Tripoli to assess the situation of the displaced families. For now, she said, they had been advising the refugees to “look for an alternative place to stay temporarily” and that those who did not have one “were relocated to shelters supported by UNHCR and partners.”
Ghajar said to date the UN had only found houses for 10 families out of the more than 250 who were evicted.
“People from Tripoli helped us to find some places, some in mosques, some in houses, but as an individual initiative,” he said. “We want a solution for all the people.”
Even if the municipality and people of Bsharri would agree to let them come back, the refugees who spoke to L’Orient Today said they wouldn’t return.
“We can’t go back anymore,” Hamdoun said. “Do you want us to go back under danger and the threat of death?”
TRIPOLI — With rain clouds thickening overhead, a few dozen Syrian refugees gathered Friday in the empty lot facing the entrance to the UN refugee agency’s office in Tripoli, where some of them had been sleeping since they were driven out of their houses in Bsharri four days earlier.Clusters of women sat disconsolately on the curb as children milled around them, while the men, some still...