Ali lives with his wife, brother-in-law and eight children in a graveyard. Their home is a single-roomed, 10’ x 10’ concrete hut beside a row of freshly dug graves in Jalil, an overcrowded Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Until they moved in, the hut was used to wash corpses before burial and two large stainless-steel washing tables still lean against the outside wall.
But living among the dead holds no fear for Ali or his family who fled from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria six months ago. ‘We are Palestinians. We don’t fear anything’ Ali says with bravado before pausing to add. ‘Of course as a father I feared for the safety of my children which is why we came to Lebanon.’ Yet in recent days and weeks, it seems as if the violence from which they fled might be following them over the border.
Jalil refugee camp is in Baalbek, a small town close to the Syrian border. On the first weekend of June 2013, over a dozen shells and rockets fired from Syria landed on the outskirts of the town. There were no injuries but the week before, in nearby Hermel, a young girl was killed and a woman injured by mortars. On Sunday 2 June, fighting between Hezbollah and members of the Free Syria Army spilled over the Syrian border into the mountains close to Baalbek. Reports suggest these clashes left at least 14 dead and the significance of this fighting taking place on Lebanese soil has not been lost on anyone least of all the Israelis whose jets flew low over Baalbek on Sunday morning.
6,000 Palestinians living in Syria have fled to Lebanon over the past two years joining a well-established Palestinian refugee community
Baalbek is a Hezbollah stronghold and whilst it has long been an open secret that Hezbollah fighters have been crossing into Syria to fight alongside Assad’s forces this was only explicitly acknowledged by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in a speech on 25 May. Since 19 May a battle for the strategically important Syrian rebel-held town of Qusair just 10 kilometres from the Lebanese border has seen a sharp escalation in and expansion of the conflict both in Baalbek province and in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli in the north of the country.
Whilst clashes between Sunni and Alawite fighters in Tripoli’s neighbouring districts of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen up the hill have been going on for decades the ‘siege of Qusair’ has coincided with increasingly bloody fighting in the city. Eight days of intense fighting at the end of May left nearly 30 dead and over 200 injured. After a brief respite, fighting re-ignited on Sunday 2 June, so far claiming six lives and leaving 38 injured.
There is little doubt that the on-going battle of attrition between these warring neighbours is intricately connected to the war in Syria persuading Sunni fighters to stay at home to defend Bal al-Tabbaneh rather than joining the anti-Assad forces in Syria. Indeed if the fighting in Tripoli continues it is possible that more Lebanese fighters in Syria could return to do battle much closer to home.
When I was in Baalbek soon after the start of the start of the fighting in Qusair, five funerals were taking place for Hezbollah fighters. Posters of the ‘martyrs’ lined the streets and cavalcades of heavily-armed men dressed in black drove from mosque to cemetery, the bodies of the fighters travelling in ambulances in simple wooden coffins. But apart from the crackle of guns being fired into the air, the funerals did not impinge on life of the refugees in Jalil who were focused on more immediate concerns.
‘I have suffered so much. Sometimes I think I would rather have died than to live in this situation’
‘We are struggling to cope with the numbers of refugees arriving from Syria’ explains Hamed Khalaf, who helps administer humanitarian relief in the camp, also known as Wavel opened over sixty years ago to house refugees from Palestine. ‘The main problems here are lack of accommodation, food and medicines.’
The United Nations estimates that more than 56,000 Palestinians living in Syria have fled to Lebanon over the past two years joining a well-established Palestinian refugee community over 400,000 strong. Unlike other Syrian refugees, Palestinians fleeing from Syria are not eligible for assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees having to rely instead on the less well-funded United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA).
‘UNRWA is meant to give us assistance but it is not nearly enough’ says 40-year-old Imad Erjaya who fled from Khan Eshieh Palestinian refugee camp in Syria with his five brothers and their families in February following shelling. They all live together in impossibly cramped conditions in two small concrete rooms. ‘How many of us sleep in here at night? 28? 29? If you want to know, count the shoes outside and divide by two,’ he jokes darkly. His mother 75-year-old Fatima, displaced for the second time in her life buries her head in her hands. ‘I have suffered so much. Sometimes I think I would rather have died than to live in this situation’ she sobs.
Until now life in Jalil has been safe but as Syria’s civil war starts to seep over its borders fears are growing that parts of Lebanon will be destabilized and that life for the both refugees and locals will become less secure. Whatever happens the effects of war are already being felt. ‘My 10-year-old son spoke to me yesterday,’ says Imad Erjaya. ‘He said “If I die tomorrow, take my body back to Syria and bury me there.”’