By Acil Tabbara
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Ahmed* put his 70-year-old mother on his back and started out across the snow-covered slopes. But the smuggler who was leading them over the mountains from Syria into Lebanon was going too fast, and despite Ahmed’s desperate pleas, they became separated in a heavy storm.
The smugglers had told Ahmed that it would take half an hour to cross into Lebanon via the mountain paths. After spending seven hours wandering lost at night in the storm, six of his family members froze to death, including his wife, daughter and mother.
Lying on a foam mattress in a bare room on the third floor of an unfinished building in north Lebanon, the 43-year-old from a town near Syria’s eastern border with Iraq is still in a state of shock. “Life has no meaning for me anymore,” he said. “I wish I could be with them.”
A total of 16 people lost their lives attempting the crossing that January 18 night, according to the Lebanese Civil Defense directorate.
“This tragedy reveals the desperate lengths that Syrians must now go to escape the conflict and reach safety, given the closed borders all around Syria,” said UNHCR Representative in Lebanon Mireille Girard.
“This tragedy reveals the desperate lengths that Syrians must now go to escape the conflict and reach safety.”
Among the dead that night were also some who had been living as refugees in Lebanon for several years, but who risked crossing back into Syria to access free medical treatment not accessible to them in exile. While attempting to return to Lebanon, they paid the ultimate price.
Ahmed and his extended family left their homes in mid-December, as the battle between armed groups and government-backed forces intensified in his village, located in a remote area of eastern Syria. A TV repairman, he had been jobless for three years because the fighters controlling his village prohibited TV watching.
“Our house was bombed twice,” explained Ahmed. “We tried to get a legal permit to enter Lebanon, but there was no way we could afford it. We were told we would have to pay US$2,000 per person for a hotel reservation, or get a sponsor which would cost even more.”
Encouraged by relatives who a month earlier had entered Lebanon via the mountain paths, Ahmed and 13 family members, mainly women and children, decided to follow. They went first to Damascus – their savings dwindling as they paid for safe passage at multiple checkpoints along the road – where they stayed for a month to get ID cards.
In the capital, he met the smuggler who offered to take them into Lebanon for US$100 per person, assuring him that the way was easy. They set off for the border in two vans packed with other travelers on the morning of January 18, arriving in the middle of a heavy winter storm.
“The smuggler said it would be easier to cross in the middle of the storm, because there would be no Lebanese patrols,” said Ahmed. In the no man’s land between Syria and the Lebanese border post, they saw flashlights flickering on the slope ahead, where the smuggler’s partners awaited them. “This is the signal, climb and follow the people who will lead you to Lebanon,” the smuggler told them.
Initially carrying his mother on his back, Ahmed soon became exhausted, and was grateful when a man travelling with the group offered to carry her.
“The snow was slippery, it was hard to walk, and we lost our way,” said Ahmed’s daughter Amira, 19, holding her daughter, Fatima, whose face is still burnt by frostbite. “I think we lost consciousness; when I woke up, it was dawn, I tried to wake up my mother and sister, but they wouldn’t move.”
Out of the group of 14, six died: Ahmed’s wife, mother, 14-year-old daughter, a grandson, and his brother’s wife and four-year-old daughter.
“The smuggler said it would be easier to cross in the middle of the storm, because there would be no Lebanese patrols.”
The mountain smuggling routes are used by those on both sides of the border – Syrians attempting to flee the nearly seven-year-old conflict, as well as refugees already living in Lebanon who find themselves forced to return to the war-torn country out of desperation.
Around 1 million refugees are registered in Lebanon. Of these, around three quarters live in poverty on less than US$3.84 per day, many are unable to afford the cost of public healthcare. Those with valid IDs sometimes opt to go back to Syria to access free public healthcare before returning to Lebanon, irregularly via the smuggling routes.
That was the choice facing Noor, a refugee from Raqqa in northern Syria, when her newborn daughter fell sick in the tented settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where they lived.
“The hospital asked for 600,000 Lebanese pounds (US$400) just for the tests,’’ she said. “My daughter was getting worse every day, so we decided to take her to Damascus for treatment.’’
Leaving her five older children with their father, she carried the sick baby and walked through the mountains to Syria with other family members including her father-in-law and sister-in-law. Soon after they reached the hospital in Damascus, her daughter died, apparently the result of sickle cell anemia.
“When she died, we immediately left the hospital and came back to the border. We were grieving and cared little about the storm,” Noor explained. “When we realized that we wouldn’t be able to make it across the snow, we told the smuggler, but he refused to go back. My father-in-law and my sister-in-law, a widow, died on the mountain. I would have died too if her daughter hadn’t helped me.”
The cost of accessing healthcare is a common complaint among impoverished Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many of whom live in makeshift structures in sprawling informal settlements. Mohammed has lived in the ramshackle settlement in northern Lebanon for the past five years.
“’My mother is handicapped, and nobody helps us,” he said. “We haven’t slept since the storm started a week ago, our tent gets flooded every night.”
* Names and locations have been changed for protection purposes