AL-MARJ, Lebanon: Messages broadcast from mosque loudspeakers warned residents of Damascus neighbourhoods to leave their homes and helicopter gunships spitting bullets made sure they heeded the call.
Now home for 18 families from the Syrian capital is a school building in Lebanon’s Bekaa Vally.
I carried dozens of corpses back to the mosque. Some families buried them in secret. The next day I left with the clothes on my back
But they claim they have been left to their fate by Lebanese authorities and international aid agencies. And when school restarts after the summer vacation, they have no idea where they will go.
The families are part of an exodus to neighbouring Lebanon of Syrians seeking refuge from what is now a civil war. The conflict is in its 17th month and edging ever closer to President Bashar Al Assad’s seat of power in Damascus.
Syrians living in Damascus watched with horror for months as the violence inched closer, and then rebel and government forces clashed in the streets of residential suburbs such as Sayyida Zeinab.
“Suddenly, in the dead of night, the mosque imams called out to us through loudspeakers ‘We urge the people of Sayyida Zeinab to flee their homes,’” said Abu Abdulrahman at the school in the Lebanese village of AlMarj.
His wife and three-year-old daughter fled to a neighbouring area hoping to soon return. But two days later a helicopter fired at a funeral in Sayyida Zeinab.
“I carried dozens of corpses back to the mosque. Some families buried them in secret. The next day I left with the clothes on my back,” Abu Abdulrahman said.
His 19-year-old Iraqi wife, who fled to Syria after the US-led invasion in 2003, found herself on the move again.
“I feel safer, at least my daughter sleeps through the night now,” she told Reuters, sitting on a student’s chair and hiding her face with a purple patterned scarf.
But she is still mourning the death of her three-day-old baby, who died from smoke inhalation after a huge explosion in May soon after she had given birth in the local hospital.
The story of Abu Abdulrahman and his family is similar to the 17 other families who have made the school in AlMarj, a village of 12,000, their temporary home.
Most fled Damascus in mid-July when rebels took over parts of the capital and the army counter-attacked.
Some say masked men came to their door, others say notes were slipped under front doors. All left their homes behind, taking only identification papers and a few changes of clothes, perhaps in the hope they may return soon.
“Everything in my house is new, I’ve been building it for four years and I haven’t had time to enjoy it,” a woman in a yellow robe and black scarf said as she watched her 40-day-old baby sleep in a pink-and-white crib.
The Marj Secondary School has quickly taken on the aura of a refugee camp.
Desks and chairs are stacked in corridors to make room for families in classrooms. Children mop the floors to keep up a semblance of an orderly home.
Clothes lines hang from window latches. Foam mattresses, with bags of bread lying on top, are stacked near walls.
Students’ cubicles have been converted into mini-pharmacies stocked with medicine.
Some restaurants provide meals for Muslims to break their fast during Ramadan and other residents gave some money. But it is not clear what will happen to the refugees once the school year starts in September.
“You can’t tell whether it’s night or day in the school. There’s so much noise, it’s just not a life,” said a man sitting in the corridoor with his 7-month-old baby on his lap. “All I can think about is when school starts, where are we going to go?”
Jordan recently set up a camp to accommodate refugees pouring into its borders but the idea is particularly sensitive in Lebanon, where the government is dominated by Shi’ite Hezbollah and its allies and does not want to be seen as taking sides in the conflict.
Many of those fleeing are from Syria’s Sunni majority while Al Assad and his confidantes are mostly Alawite, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
The UNHCR has registered about 35,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon but several thousand others are also thought to be there - a reversal of the situation in 2006 when Syrians offered shelter to Lebanese fleeing an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah militants.
“If the situation lasts in Syria through next winter and beyond, then we, the international community and the Lebanese government have to think of a more sustainable solution for the refugees in Lebanon,” said Jurg Montani, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon.
Jarrah lamented what he described as the government’s slow response to dealing with the crisis.
“They have to deal with the situation in a humanitarian manner and not a political one. The Syrians hosted us in their homes and schools during the 2006 war, why are we treating them differently?”