Annual report 2019-20Read now
Eoghan Rice reports from Lebanon, as it struggles to cope with the scale of the Syrian crisis.
Life in the Lebanese capital has a sense of normality, but out on the border with Syria the situation is anything but.
It takes half an hour to make the journey but the two places are worlds apart. From traffic jams and busy markets, to families packed into tents and frightened mothers cradling hungry babies.
Welcome to Lebanon, where you can commute to a war. The fighting is over the border in Syria but the results of that fighting are very much in Lebanon. Between 600,000 and one million Syrians have fled to their tiny neighbour. To put that in context, remember that Lebanon is half the size of Munster.
Imagine the strain if one million refugees arrived into Munster with nothing but the clothes on their back. How would we feed them? How would we give them all shelter? These are the questions facing Lebanon today as it struggles to cope with the scale of this enormous crisis.
In the absence of answers to those questions, Syrians are living wherever they can. Drive through the Bekka Valley, which runs alongside the Syrian border, and you will see them everywhere: in fields, on the side of the street, in building sites, in ruins.
They seek shelter wherever it is available. They have no other option.
Caption: The abandoned cow shed in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley which is now home to over 20 Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria.
We turn the car off a quiet rural road and pull up alongside an old farm building. “It used to be for cows,” explains our guide from Caritas Lebanon. It’s a ramshack old building, held up by wooden poles and sheets of aluminium. There are no cows here anymore though; today this tiny shelter is home to 25 Syrians, 17 of them children.
They sit outside on old and torn sofas donated by Lebanese neighbours. Swarms of flies buzz from face to face, attracted by the broken sewage pipe which runs through the shed. They have done their best to cover the broken pipe – they’ve put a mattress over it; a bed for one of the children.
Inside, the shed is approximately 20 foot in length and 10 foot wide. It feels cramped when five of us step in out of the sun; it is difficult to fathom how 25 people sleep here.
Ratiba, a 26-year-old mother of three small children, tells us her story. She fled Syria after her village came under bombardment from the air. Her family were farmers back in Syria, now they find themselves living like their animals.
“We can’t stay here,” she says. “There are insects everywhere and the children are sick.”
Captions: Ratiba Awad with her three children, Ouday (5), Ahraa (4) and Batoula (7 months), in the abandoned cow shed where they live with over 20 other Syrian refugees since having to flee their homes due to the war in Syria.
That is what you hear throughout the Bekka Valley: ordinary Syrians who lived happy and quiet lives, suddenly living from one day to the next, unsure of when, or even if, they will ever be able to return home. Ratiba and her family are receiving food, blankets and medicine from Caritas Lebanon, which is supported by Trócaire’s emergency appeal.
But the scale here is simply astonishing. Every day, more and more Syrians cross the border.
Where will they go?
How will they be fed?
They cross the border out of desperation. Bloods runs through the streets they once called home. They have no option but to abandon everything and cross into an uncertain future in the hope that someone – anyone – will help them.
That is the reality of war.