The Lebanese farming town of Arsal, already inundated with Syrian refugees, is bracing for another influx as the brutal civil war creeps over the horizon just across the border.
The town has long been linked to Syria by well-worn smuggling paths over the mountains, now used by thousands of refugees fleeing the latest offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
The latest wave have fled from Qara, a village in Syria’s mountainous Qalamoun, a strategic region straddling supply routes between Damascus and the central city of Homs.
Arsal, home to around 35,000 people, is a Sunni Muslim community sympathetic to the 32-month-old Syrian uprising, in which an estimated 120,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
But it is situated in a region dominated by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which is fighting alongside Assad’s forces in a conflict that threatens to spill into overwhelmed Lebanon.
“We are in solidarity with our neighbours from across the border because we are linked by family and social ties,” says municipal councillor Wafiq Khalaf.
As elsewhere in Lebanon, the new arrivals have mainly relied on local families, some of which have squeezed up to four refugee families into their modest homes.
But Khalaf says space is running out, and new arrivals are being squeezed into tents, reception halls and even mosques.
There are no official refugee camps in Lebanon, and scores of families live in tents that will provide little shelter from the winter cold.
Underscoring the strains on the town’s resources, a sign posted outside the town hall reads: “Notice to our refugee brothers — please don’t use electricity for heating” and advises them to use just one lightbulb per room.
Khalaf fears that as Syrian troops press into Qalamoun — which had been largely spared the fighting that has devastated the rest of Syria — even more Syrians will arrive.
The war has generated the largest refugee crisis in two decades, with millions displaced inside the country and in increasingly unstable neighbours like Iraq and Lebanon, which have both seen sectarian attacks mirroring Syria’s violence.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees puts the newest arrivals in Arsal at around 6,000, while the municipality estimates the total probably now exceeds the town’s population.
Lebanon as a whole, with a population of just over four million, is hosting more than 800,000 Syrian refugees.
“These people had to leave suddenly; they didn’t expect it, so they’ve come without anything,” the UNHCR’s local representative, Ninette Kelly, said about the new arrivals in Arsal.
“They need immediate support, they need food, they need blankets.”
‘We wash only once a week’
Badawia Abdo, a mother of seven, fled to Arsal after her husband was killed in a rocket attack and her brother died fighting with the rebels.
“My children need clothes,” the 37-year-old said, fearful of the oncoming winter.
The tent where they live has only the basics: a carpet, mattresses, blankets and a few cooking implements.
“There is only one shower for every 20 tents,” Abdo said. “We wash only once a week.”
A woman who identifies herself only as Amal said she, her husband, children and grandchildren, 10 in all, are living under a staircase.
“All I want to do is go home,” she said.
For many of the refugees, Arsal is just the latest stop in an odyssey of suffering that shows no sign of ending.
Mohammed al-Jassem and his wife, who have been sleeping in their car for the past five days, fled to Qara when the town of Qusayr fell to Assad’s troops in June. Now they are on the move again.
“We left because in all of Qara’s families there are people who are wanted. The regime considers us all to be terrorists,” he said.
In Lebanon, the refugees live in poverty and foreboding, but they say a worse fate would await them should they go back, a return that appears increasingly distant as the war careens towards its fourth year.
“We are humiliated; we are begging,” Abdo says. “But we will not return to Syria until Bashar al-Assad is gone.”