Lebanon News

Buses of refugees leave Lebanon's Shebaa for Syria

BEIRUT/SHEBAA, Lebanon: Buses carrying hundreds of Syrian refugees departed southeastern Lebanon's Shebaa bound for Syria Wednesday afternoon, in a move that President Michel Aoun hailed as indicative of a return to stability.

The convoy was one of the first organized and reportedly voluntary transfers of Syrian civilian families from the area.

Men, women and children loaded their possessions onto the first batch of buses to arrive at the gathering point near the border. Others awaited departure inside the buses, before beginning the journey back to Syria via the Masnaa border crossing.

The “voluntary return” was originally scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Refugees gathered in the morning to board the more than a dozen buses that a General Security statement released Tuesday said would take them from Shebaa to the Syrian border.

The convoy to transport the refugees back to Syria comes amidst repeated calls by Lebanese leaders for the return of refugees to Syrian areas they deem safe.

A United Nations spokesperson confirmed that the refugees who had elected to return with the convoy had made the decision voluntarily.

Another U.N. spokesperson and a Lebanese security source told The Daily Star that there were unconfirmed reports that the convoy was set to head towards Beit Jinn, a government-held town southwest of Damascus, rather than Eastern Ghouta, as had previously been reported.

As many as 500 refugees were taking part in the convoy, which contained at least 15 buses, the security source said.

UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency, was "aware of the impending return" of the families awaiting buses in Shebaa, according to an official press statement.

"UNHCR is not involved in the organization of these returns or other returns at this point, considering the prevailing humanitarian and security situation in Syria," the statement read.

Syrian government forces last week announced their control over a holdout opposition-held district in Eastern Ghouta. The announcement followed months of devastating bombardment, including a suspected government chemical attack earlier this month that killed dozens of people.

Nearly one million U.N.-registered Syrian refugees currently live in Lebanon, most in dire economic straits that Lebanese leaders say they cannot afford to ease.

President Michel Aoun and other top officials have recently begun to call for the return of Syrian refugees to their home country – a move some argue is feasible as pro-Assad forces continue to win decisive victories across Syria.

In Shebaa, dozens of Syrian families gathered outdoors with their suitcases, backpacks and other belongings, as they waited for the buses that would take them across the border. A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sat on display in the window of one bus.

The fact that people were returning to Syria was a sign of “stability” in parts of the country following more than seven years of conflict, Marjayoun-Hasbaya MP Qassem Hashem, who was at the gathering point Wednesday morning, told The Daily Star.

“This constitutes an achievement – that Syrians are returning to their country and hometowns,” Hashem said.

President Michel Aoun said Wednesday morning during a meeting with U.S. Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan that the return of the refugees “to safe areas of Syria contributes to the return of social stability” in Lebanon.

It remained unclear Wednesday afternoon whether returnees would receive humanitarian assistance once in Beit Jinn. UNHCR personnel in Syria were “seeking to access the conditions in the return areas,” UNHCR Lebanon spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told The Daily Star.

Lebanese Army soldiers, security officers and Red Cross personnel were present at the scene Wednesday in Shabaa, where some of the refugees waiting to cross told The Daily Star they had made the decision to return home willingly, having endured poor conditions in Lebanon.

Among them were family members of 6-year-old Zainab al-Hajj, who said she had no memory of her hometown of Damascus. She and her family left Syria two years ago.

Like others waiting at the gathering point Wednesday morning, Hajj has family members spread across both Syria and Lebanon, as some relatives made the decision to leave the conflict-ridden country while others chose to stay.

But Ibrahim al-Beqaai, an 85-year-old from the Beit Jinn outskirts, told The Daily Star that he would have no family to greet him upon his return to Syria.

Beit Jinn is situated around 10km east of the Lebanese-Syrian border.

“My family died here,” Beqaai said, of Lebanon. Both his wife and his grandson had died since the family fled together to Lebanon from Syria six years ago. His grandson was killed in an electrical fire, he told The Daily Star. “Just me, my daughter and my daughter-in-law, we’re returning alone.”

 

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