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In one Lebanese town, a dilemma divides refugees: to stay or return to Syria

Syrian refugees drive toward a checkpoint in Arsal, Lebanon. On Thursday, 294 Syrians crossed the border back to their country in the first planned convoy from the town. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

ARSAL, Lebanon — The battered trucks sputtered and shook as they swung onto the open road and finally carried their Syrian passengers back home.

Hours earlier, their dusty makeshift parking lot had been transformed into a stage for the human dramas behind the rare return voyage, with scenes of joy and grief unfolding as some 300 refugees said goodbye to their families and squeezed into vehicles, leaving camps in the Lebanese town of Arsal for their home towns in Syria. 

The convoy, organized in part by Lebanese authorities and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security agencies, underscores how deteriorating conditions here have led to a crippling dilemma that is dividing families: Refugees must choose to either eke out an existence in an increasingly hostile host country or travel back to a war zone.

While fighting in Syria has slowed along the Lebanese border, more than a million registered refu­gees remain in Lebanon, with many too wary to return to a homeland much changed by seven years of war. For now, there are few indications that the refugees will cross the rocky frontier in any significant number, but the patience of Lebanon’s government and its citizens is waning.

“There are no good options,” said one woman watching the trucks pull away Thursday. “When this return is over, the pressure on us will increase. Every Syrian will have a choice to make.”

Families at the checkpoint Thursday described a decision-making process fraught with uncertainty and tension. Some wanted to return, or believed that life in Lebanon had become the lesser of two bad options, but others saw the trip back as an untenable acceptance of a Syrian government that continues to kill civilians at a pace unmatched by any other party in the war.

Standing amid the chaos at Arsal’s Wadi Hmayed checkpoint, about 10 miles from the Syrian border, Hamida Khannar lay her head on her mother Halima’s shoulder as the older woman wept. 

For the 66-year-old, returning to Syria was the right thing to do. Her family there needed a mother’s presence after four long years without, she said, and she barely recognized a grandson she last saw five years ago. 

“I’m leaving for my dignity,” Halima said. “Only God knows what the future will hold, but at least I’ll be home.” 

But for Khannar, 36, the mother of two sons whose safety she fears for in Syria, return at this stage is unthinkable.

“When she leaves, my heart will fall to pieces,” she said, wrapping her arms around her mother as she fought back tears. “I’ll lose her the minute she crosses that border, but I have to choose my sons.”

Hundreds of refugees returned to Syria from an eastern Lebanese border town on June 28 as part of a repatriation the Lebanese government said was voluntary. (Video: Associated Press)

With a population of just 4 million before Syria’s war began in 2011, Lebanon has struggled to accommodate the influx of more than a million registered refugees. Although many receive support from the United Nations, Syrians have only limited rights to work or access health care, and forced evictions from makeshift refu­gee camps are on the rise.

As Europe and the United States have closed their borders to Syria’s outpouring of refugees, Lebanon’s politicians have grown increasingly resentful at the burden of care that has been placed upon them. 

But the refugees have also fallen victim to a complex history. The Syrian military occupied Lebanon between 1976 and 2005, prompting suspicion among some Lebanese who associate them with a foreign government that once controlled the nation’s politics and that is widely believed to be behind the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

In Arsal, local authorities said around 3,000 Syrian refugees had submitted their names to be screened by the Syrian government in return for the chance to go home.

For those who are accepted, a grace period of six months is promised, within which time young men of fighting age should either join the army or pay an $8,000 penalty. The strength of that guarantee remains untested and with the Syrian army facing chronic manpower shortages, few in Arsal were sure it would hold.

More than 400 people were expected to travel home as part of Thursday’s convoy. But by the time the trucks drove away, only 294 had joined, Lebanon’s General Security Office said.

The Syrians clambering aboard the packed trucks and tractor trailers appeared largely to consist of the elderly and their young grandchildren. For those departing, their final hours in Lebanon meant a stream of goodbyes and well wishes. 

“I’m going home, can you believe it,” asked one man, who gave only his first name, Mohamed, out of concerns for his safety in Syria. “I’m an old man, and I never thought I’d see my land again. I have trees, big fruit trees. Tomorrow, I’ll be sitting among them, just looking at it all.”

His wife was less optimistic. “I wanted to stay here with my children, but what can I do? We do what he wants,” she said, without giving her name, citing the same reason as her husband.

In another corner of the makeshift parking lot, a young man planted kiss after kiss atop his infant daughter’s head before handing her back to the elderly driver. When their truck engine started, he covered his face and waved before sinking to his haunches in silent sobs. When asked whether his wife had been aboard the vehicle, he nodded. “She is gone,” he said. 

Research on the fate of hundreds of previous returnees from Lebanon to Syria remains inconclusive, and with Assad’s army facing an incessant shortage of soldiers, Khannar said betting on the strength of the government’s promises was not an option. 

“If it’s all a ruse, then no one will help our sons,” she said.

Her family remained in their home village of Fleeta through three years of war, finally fleeing one night in 2014 when airstrikes slammed into a nearby neighborhood and the children huddled together under their bed in fear. “Their dinner was still hot when we left,” Khannar said. 

But the intervening years have been tough and are growing tougher. Like many Syrian families in Lebanon, they have supplemented United Nations food rations with the meager earnings male relatives can bring home through construction work, with some weeks wasted after abusive bosses refuse to pay up. Health care proved prohibitively expensive, and the children struggled to adjust, dropping several grades in their education and, without access to psychological support, growing scared and unruly when a storm breaks. 

“Life here feels impossible, but at least there’s no killing, at least there’s no war,” Khannar said. “We know a brighter day will come for us. I just wish I knew when it would be.”

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