Hassan Jarrah, AFP
Last updated: 21 July, 2012

In Lebanon, an exodus from Damascus fighting

Abdel Jaber, 45, is exhausted after fleeing his home in the Midan district of the Syrian capital of Damascus as fierce fighting engulfed the neighbourhood.

“We’ve spent the last three days in a shelter,” he says. Traveling with his wife and their six daughters, he passed through the Masnaa border post into eastern Lebanon, part of a massive new wave of refugees from Syria.

Jaber is traumatised by the unprecedented ferocity of the fighting in Midan, in southern Damascus, which Syrian troops on Friday said had been “cleaned” of “terrorists,” the regime’s term for rebel fighters.

“We couldn’t sleep at all, every time we heard firing or the sound of helicopters, we were terrified,” he says.

Jaber and his family are part of an exodus of Syrians from Damascus and elsewhere. Many have fled across the border into Lebanon in recent days, leaving behind some of the worst violence in the 16-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 302 people were killed across Syrian on Thursday, the deadliest day since the uprising erupted in mid-March last year.

The British-based group said another 177 people died on Friday.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said that up to 30,000 Syrians have fled their homes in recent days, many of them leaving Damascus.

UNHCR said at least 1,500 Syrian refugees were staying in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa region, with others spread throughout the country.

Lebanon has already received thousands of Syrians fleeing violence associated with the uprising against Assad, many of whom have found refuge with relatives.

The flow is the reverse of the situation in 2006, when Lebanese citizens took refuge in Syria during a devastating war between Israel and the Hezbollah movement.

Those fleeing Syria now are not only impoverished families caught in the crossfire, but also well-to-do businessmen.

“It’s a real war. We left everything behind, our homes, our businesses, I haven’t had any news since,” says Khaled, a 52-year-old merchant who drove his family across the border at Masnaa in their luxury car on Friday.

“We left under bombardment,” he says, sitting in a centre attached to the Dar al-Fatwa, a Sunni religious institution in Lebanon.

At least 30 families, around 150 people, arrived at the centre on Friday alone, authorities said.

Even on the other side of the border, an aura of fear hangs over those who have escaped. None of them are willing to reveal their family name for fear of reprisals against them or their relatives.

Abu Mohammed, another businessman from Midan, says he never wants to return.

“There were helicopters, mortars, machine guns… we had to flee during the bombing or face dying under the roofs of our homes,” the father-of-three told AFP.

Nahla, a 20-year-old student from the Zahira al-Jadida district said virtually everyone in her neighbourhood had fled the fighting.

“Luckily, I have relatives in Lebanon,” she said.

Damascus had been largely spared the violence that has engulfed many of Syria’s towns in recent months, as rebel forces take on government troops.

But in the last week, clashes between rebels and regime troops have resulted in increasingly deadly battles.

“The Syrian army is experiencing some discomfort,” says another trader from Midan, who declined to give his name. “There were no terrorists” in Midan, he adds.

“I came to Lebanon with only the clothes on my back,” he said. “God help us.”