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Northern border residents say arriving refugees need help

The Daily Star, May 19 2011

WADI KHALED, Lebanon: Residents of a Lebanese area near the border with Syria are appealing to authorities to provide more aid for Syrian refugees who have fled recent unrest in their country.

The Daily Star toured the Akkar area of Wadi Khaled Wednesday, where thousands of Syrian refugees crossed into Lebanon in previous days. Few were reportedly still coming over the border, but residents of Wadi Khaled said that the refugees need more help than is arriving.

Wadi Khaled is an underdeveloped area with high levels of unemployment and poor services.

Mohammad Ahmad, the mukhtar of the village of Heisheh in Wadi Khaled, said that the aid provided by the Higher Relief Council Sunday was insufficient. “Only two pickups loaded with aid have been sent for the entire Wadi Khaled area,” he said, as he sat cross-legged with his mother and four children at his house.

“It is very shameful that this is all that the Higher Relief Committee, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the United Nations can do … We are incurring considerable costs [to help the refugees], but it’s not a problem because we share the same destiny,” he added.

Ahmad said he thought it was disrespectful to ask women, who comprise the bulk of the refugees, to visit the headquarters of the social affairs ministry and submit applications before receiving aid.

“We reject this completely … we do not accept that women must go to the headquarters and wait in line … these are respectful people, and some women are veiled and will not agree to speak with strangers or be photographed,” Ahmad said.

He said that an agreement was reached, whereby mukhtars would receive the aid and distribute it, but stressed that much more aid was needed. By noon Wednesday, some 600 refugees had made their way to Heisheh since the weekend.

Ahmad dismissed claims that armed men have crossed into Syria to fight against the Syrian army, but said that he confiscated four rifles last month that were being smuggled by a Syrian national, who then managed to evade the mukhtar.

Several thousand Syrian refugees have crossed into Lebanon since April when Syrian authorities began a violent crackdown on protesters it described as being part of a conspiracy against the regime. More than 850 Syrians have been killed since then, according to human rights groups.

Saad Sleiman, who sells electric appliances in a shop in Heisheh, said that he was not afraid that Syria’s unrest might spread to Lebanon. “What is happening in Syria will be limited to Syria,” he said.

Syrian refugees were seen on the Lebanese side of the al-Kabir River in Bani Sakhr, anxiously watching for any movement of pro-government gunmen, known as shabbiha, in Arida, a village which many of them fled in recent days.

Residents said that only a few gunshots were heard on the Syrian side Wednesday, while armed clashes had broken out in previous days in the town of Talkalakh and surrounding areas.

Some Syrians briefly went back to Arida to get some supplies before returning to the Lebanese side.

Mashhour Salem, mukhtar of Bani Sakhr, also complained about scarce and late provision of relief supplies.

“We are not receiving the amount of aid that people need. … the Higher Relief Committee is responsible for this delay; aid supplies have been in warehouses in Wadi Khaled for two days,” he said.

Salem complained about the HRC requirement for detailed applications from the refugees, which he said would take too much time.

Salem said snipers opened fire on Bani Sakhr, rejecting claims injuries resulted from stray bullets. “Two young girls were wounded and a woman was killed Sunday by snipers’ bullets.”

Salem said that his village was hosting the largest number of refugees since it is adjacent to the river.

“We have 700 refugees in the village right now, most of whom are women,” he said.

Residents and mukhtars said the unrest had made it difficult to smuggle foodstuffs and other materials from Syria into Lebanon, which is a common practice in the area.

But Fayez Abdullah, the mukhtar of Awwadeh, another village in the area, said that relief supplies were enough to meet the needs of refugees arriving to the village, whom he estimated to number between 450 and 500.

While echoing what Salem and Ahmad said about insufficient aid from the HRC, Abdallah said that the UN Relief and Works Agency had provided enough aid Tuesday.

“They provided food and other supplies to last each family for two months,” he said.

Abdullah expressed fears that troubles in Syria would spread to Lebanon if they took on a sectarian nature. While speaking, the mukhtar was interrupted by several refugees who arrived and asked for assistance. After Abdullah wrote down their names, the Syrians were given mattresses and other supplies.

Lack of medical supplies is also a major issue in Wadi Khaled, according to residents. The director of Heisheh’s dispensary said that he couldn’t meet refugees’ demands for medicine and asked that action be taken.

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