BEIRUT/SHEBAA, Lebanon: Buses carrying hundreds of Syrian refugees from southeastern Lebanon’s Shebaa reportedly arrived in Syria’s Beit Jin Wednesday evening, in one of the first organized and reportedly voluntary transfers of Syrian civilian families from the area. The Daily Star could not independently confirm their arrival, which was reported by local media.
Men, women and children loaded their possessions onto the first batch of buses to arrive at a gathering point at around 9 a.m. Wednesday.
“Today, we return with buses that are not green [like ones used for transporting Daesh (ISIS) militants from Lebanon to Syria]. We are not terrorists, we are people who work in agriculture and graze cattle,” a man who identified himself as Tamam told The Daily Star.
The returning refugees fled their country to escape death in Syria, crossing over the nearby rugged mountain range. Most of them hail from Beit Jin, an area 10 kilometers east of the Lebanese-Syrian border.
As they prepared to leave, the joy of many was mixed with apprehension. “Over there in Beit Jin there is no medicine, no food and no security,” Tamam said.
Departing early afternoon, the buses made their way to Syria via the Masnaa border crossing, escorted to the border by vehicles from General Security, the Lebanese Army and the Lebanese Red Cross.
The convoy of 15 buses comes after months of repeated calls by Lebanese leaders for refugees to return to Syrian areas they deem safe – a move they argue is feasible as pro-Assad forces continue to win decisive victories across the country.
A United Nations spokesperson confirmed that the refugees who had elected to return with the convoy had made the decision voluntarily.
General Security said some 462 refugees were “departing from Shebaa,” while other sources said the number reached 498 after refugees from the Barr Elias camp joined.
“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,” UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, said in a statement.
Syrian government forces last week announced they had taken control of opposition-held Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
The announcement followed months of devastating bombardment, including a suspected government chemical attack earlier this month that killed dozens of people.
Nearly 1 million U.N.-registered Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, most in dire economic situations.
Director of Shebaa High School Waddah Ghanem told The Daily Star that 48 of the 500 students had departed Wednesday. Zainab Hajj, a 6-year-old Syrian child, said she was happy to return, but “I will miss the Lebanese children who were with me at school.” Hajj 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.
The fact that people were returning to Syria was an “achievement” and 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.
Shebaa Deputy Mayor Bassem Hashem said local residents had “suffered a lot due to Syrian displacement. We have done what we can to provide services to them.”
He added that roughly 3,500 refugees remained in the town and on its outskirts. “What’s important is that this return was done without any pressure,” he said, adding he hoped that other refugees would be encouraged to follow suit.
It remained unclear Wednesday afternoon whether returnees would receive humanitarian assistance once in Beit Jin. UNHCR personnel in Syria were “seeking to access the conditions in the return areas,” UNHCR Lebanon spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told The Daily Star.
Some of the refugees waiting to cross told The Daily Star they had made the decision to return home willingly, having endured suffering and poor conditions in Lebanon.
Ibrahim al-Beqaai, an 85-year-old from Beit Jin’s outskirts, told The Daily Star he would have no family to greet him upon his return to Syria.
“My family died here,” Beqaai said of Lebanon. Both his wife and his grandson passed away after the family fled to Lebanon 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.”