As UN inspectors crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon Saturday, they were followed out of the war-torn country by a continuous flow of families desperate to flee the threat of US strikes.
Cars filled with weary-looking passengers, their open boots packed to the brim with bags and suitcases crossed the Masnaa border post in a constant — though not massive — exodus as a US intervention over a suspected gas attack appeared increasingly imminent.
“I’m going to rent a house near Anjar (in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley) and we will wait for things to calm down,” said Abu Malek, a 31-year-old Syrian who works in an aluminium factory near the capital Damascus.
Carrying a carton of supplies handed over by a Qatari NGO that welcomes Syrian refugees some 300 metres (yards) from the border post, he said people in his home country were “terrified”.
“Those who can, leave. But many people can’t.”
The threat of strikes on Syrian army targets in Damascus and surrounding areas has become an increasingly imminent reality as UN inspectors probing the alleged gas attack last week left the country at dawn on Saturday.
US President Barack Obama said Friday that his administration was looking at the possibility of a “limited, narrow act” over the suspected attack that reportedly killed hundreds, which Washington blames on the regime.
This threat comes on top of months and months of violence in a conflict that has seen more than 100,000 people die.
Most of those crossing the border had the means and money to do so. Not so for Aicha, a 60-year-old woman wearing a black veil, her lower jaw almost toothless.
Sitting in the shade with her daughter-in-law, she said she arrived on Friday to accompany her son who travelled on to Turkey to find work, and intended to return to Damascus if she could find transport.
“I’m scared, we’re all scared of US strikes, but what can we do? We are dependent on God,” she sighed.
“We are neutral in this war, we don’t understand anything about what is going on. We have lost our house and we are living with friends in another area.”
Majida, her 33-year-old daughter-in-law, added that they would like to stay in Lebanon.
“But we don’t have any money, we have nowhere to go. So we have to go back,” she said.
For almost a year, the Qatari NGO Al Asmah, funded by rich families from the Arab state, has set up a centre in Masnaa to welcome Syrian refugees.
Flashing their Syrian identity cards, refugees are able to get cartons of food and other useful items.
“Over the past few days, since the US threats, the number of families that we see has doubled,” said director Omar Mohammed Koeis.
“We now provide for 60 to 70 families a day.”
In a nearby parking lot, Amer Abed, a 27-year-old unemployed man who came from a Damascus suburb, was emptying the contents of the overflowing boot of an old Mercedes car into a van.
Weary women got out of the car, holding young, surprised-looking children in their arms.
“I want these US strikes to happen,” he said to several foreign journalists.
“You journalists, and the entire world, are watching our country go up in flames without doing anything. Hate has taken over our hearts.
“I want these strikes because if Americans attack us and kill us once and for all, then maybe the Arabs will unite to defend us.”