Syria: Refugees dodge patrols on deadly mountain hike to safety

As winter approaches, citizens fleeing the conflict are faced with new challenges

Aisha in her and Ahmed’s tent in the basement of the Uthman ibn Affan mosque compound in the Lebanese village of Shebaa. Her two month old infant, Tamara, sleeps on the bed in front of her.
Ben Gilbert

All names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

SHEBAA, Lebanon — In late July, 24-year-old Ahmed had grown weary of the daily artillery barrage that Syrian government troops were unleashing on his town, called Beit Jin, in mountainous southwestern Syria near the Golan Heights. Since the Syrian opposition had seized the town from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in December 2012, Assad's troops had targeted the town with around five shells per day. By July, the intensity of the bombardment had increased, and dozens of shells landed on the village daily. Beit Jin became so dangerous that Ahmed, a high school math and physics teacher, sent his pregnant wife, Aisha, 28, to a supposedly safer village in the nearby mountains. But even it wasn't spared from the bombardment.

"It's time to leave," Ahmed told Aisha in a phone call on July 22. "Gather some clothes and your important papers."

They met that afternoon at the end of the road leading out of town, toward Lebanon, where the smooth, paved tarmac turns abruptly into a dirt horse trail.    

Before them lay a steep, rocky path weaving upward, onto the slopes of Mount Hermon, the highest point in Syria, with a peak reaching nearly 10,000 feet. The couple's destination lay more than 15 miles away, on the other side of the mountain, past Israeli and Syrian military bases: the Lebanese border and the Lebanese town of Shebaa. Ahmed hoped Shebaa would offer some sanctuary from Syria’s war, if he, his wife and unborn child could make it there. 

"I didn't think she'd make it," he said later. "Her health situation was dire. But it was more dangerous to stay in Syria."

In the past year, thousands of residents from Beit Jin and nearby villages have made this trek from Syria to Shebaa in an effort to flee punishing government assaults on their towns and regular clashes between the armed opposition and troops supporting Assad’s government.  

The mayor of Shebaa estimates that around 2,500 refugees now live in his town of only 5,000 people, overwhelming the local government.

The refugees risk sniper and rocket fire, dangerous cliffs and encounters with wolves and coyotes as they cross the treacherous terrain. 

Ahmed said two refugees crossing on separate occasions were wounded when the Syrian government troops attacked them with rockets. The wildly inaccurate rockets spooked the mules the refugees were riding and threw their riders, who were both elderly refugees. 

"A 70-year-old woman broke her arm when she fell off. Another mule fell on an old man," he said.

Normally, one or two families arrive every night at the Lebanese army's Rushaha checkpoint on the Lebanese side of the border. The mayor of Shebaa, Mohammad Saab, estimates that around 2,500 refugees now live in his town of only 5,000 people, increasing its population by half and overwhelming the local government. 

"A huge number of refugees have come here," Saab said in a phone interview. "And we alone are responsible for providing them with electricity and sanitation services."

Saab said providing those services has put the town $500,000 in debt, and he and his fellow town council members have not received any help from Lebanon's national government.

"The government doesn't even ask us what we need," he said. "If we get money in the future, we will continue to supply services we are currently providing, and if we don't get the money, then we won't."

Although the number of refugees in Shebaa is small compared with the 700,000 U.N.-registered refugees in Lebanon, the town and the surrounding region are on the front line of the refugee problem in Lebanon, and represent a microcosm of the challenges the country faces as it copes with a nearly 25 percent increase in a population of just 4 million. 

The number of refugees arriving in Shebaa depends on the volume of shelling and the intensity of clashes in Beit Jin and the surrounding area. In mid-September, one or two families arrived every night, or five to 10 people.  

The Lebanese village of Shebaa, with a population of about 5000 year-round residents
Ben Gilbert

By early October, Saab said, 20 to 25 people arrived every night at the small Lebanese army checkpoint at the bottom of the rocky trail leading from the border. 

"Sometimes they bring injured people," said a local resident who didn't want to be identified.  

Ahmed and Aisha would cross the border at night, like everyone else making the journey across Mount Hermon to Lebanon. They met their guide at 7:30 p.m. at the trailhead as the sun settled behind the mountain. The guide, a member of the Free Syrian Army, knew the trail well. The FSA controls Beit Jin and the slopes of Mount Hermon rising up to the border, on top of the mountain’s north-south-running ridge.

But the FSA does not control the border itself, and the Syrian army maintains a substantial military post there.

The couple started up the trail as the full moon rose. In the first hour, they heard the sound of artillery fire above them. They continued, and the shooting stopped. 

An hour and a half into their journey, Aisha cramped up and couldn't continue. The tiny group had to stop in a dangerous spot — within sight of a Syrian army outpost. Mount Hermon's slopes are devoid of trees and consist of loose rocks and stones, so there was nowhere to hide if the Syrians started shooting at them. 

"This situation made me very nervous," Ahmed said. "I told her she had to walk. So the guide got under one of her shoulders, I got under the other shoulder, and we walked. She was crying, but we forced her to continue, because I was afraid for our lives."

The weather grew colder as the couple ascended. They both wore leather jackets. The climb helped them keep warm, too. The sound of the wind was interrupted occasionally by muffled explosions as the Syrian army shelled their hometown, far below.

The Assads say the Israelis are the enemy. We found that the Israelis were much more humane than our army.

They passed a section of the trail that had been shelled earlier in the night. Chicken cages lay on the ground, damaged, some with live chickens still inside some of them. 

"The Syrians had shelled a group that was crossing before us, and they had panicked and left their chickens," Ahmed said. 

After five hours Ahmed and Aisha reached the mountain ridge, and crossed into the U.N. demilitarized zone between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syrian military positions. Ahmed said they were only 600 feet away from the Israeli position.

"They could see us, and we could see them," he said. "Their outpost is lit up."

Ahmed said all the refugees who use this trail intentionally pass close to the Israeli outpost because they're confident that the Israelis won't shoot at them.


"There hasn't been one case where the Israelis have attacked a group of refugees," he said. "If we pass by the Syrian one we'll be killed and shot at, so we go to the Israeli one. The Assads say the Israelis are the enemy. We found that the Israelis were much more humane than our army."

Ahmed said that although his wife worried about being captured by a Syrian government patrol, this was the least of his worries. He said the last Syrian military patrol to venture away from their post was wiped out by smugglers on the mountain. 

"Since that day they don't dare to come," he said. 

Ahmed and Aisha rested near the Israeli tower for an hour. A shepherd they met gave them blankets. Although they were less than halfway to their destination, the rest of the trip was downhill. They had also crested the most dangerous part of the mountain and were now out of sight of the Syrian military outpost. 

Eight hours later, Ahmed and Aisha finally arrived safely at the border, where Lebanese army troops gave them water and food, checked their IDs and let them pass. Ahmed knew a local resident, so he called him and the man picked them up in a car and took them to a shelter run by a Lebanese Islamist organization.

The end of the 15 mile trail from Syria, on the Lebanese side of the border, next to the Lebanese Army's Rushaha checkpoint just outside the village of Shebaa.
Ben Gilbert

The couple have lived as refugees in Shebaa ever since. Their daughter, Tamara, was born on August 19 in a nearby hospital. Aisha, who has a university degree in English literature, misses her family and their support.

"I'm not happy that I left the country and delivered here," she said. "In Syria, I would be with the family. My mom would help me. I would be given help by family members."  

For now, Aisha, Ahmed and their baby daughter live in the basement of the Uthman ibn Affan mosque compound, which is run by the Jemaah Islamiyah, a political group with a charity arm that's allied with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Ahmed said the bulk of the assistance they receive comes from the group and the United Nations.

Seven other families, more than 30 people, live in the basement, with only plastic tent material separating their living areas. They share a kitchen and two bathrooms.

Two hundred and fifty refugees live on the other two floors of the mosque complex. All of them came to Lebanon from Beit Jin by way of the mountain pass. Most of them cannot afford to live anywhere else.

"This is my bedroom, my living room, my kitchen — all in this one tent," Ahmed joked as he pulled back the green tarpaulin fabric that serves as a door so a visitor could look inside.

Children play in the long hallways and the basement amid women cooking, babies crying (two other mothers gave birth in the past two months) and men drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  

Most refugees here have stories just as harrowing as Ahmed and Aisha's.

Ahmed and Aisha's daughter, Tamara, in front of their tent in the basement of the Uthman ibn Affan mosque compound.
Ben Gilbert

"I carried my 3-year-old brother over the mountain on my shoulders," said a 20-year-old man whose studies in engineering at Damascus University were interrupted by the conflict. "It took us one-and-a-half days to pass, because the women and the children have to sit and rest," he said. 

Another man, a 30-year-old with a big, bushy black beard, said he brought his wounded brother over the mountain by horse from Beit Jin in August. The man said his brother is "not a refugee," implying that he is an opposition fighter.

"He was injured on the edge of Beit Jin, by shrapnel," said the man, who said he was a baker before his bakery was destroyed last year. "When my brother heals, we will return to Syria."   

Mohammad Saab, the mayor of Shebaa, said that while some wounded opposition fighters may come here for medical treatment, there are no FSA or other armed factions in the town. He said the Lebanese security forces keep a tight watch on who, and what, is coming in and out of Syria and Lebanon.

While there's no evidence that weapons travel over the border, Saab said food and medical supplies are regularly smuggled into Syria by "private citizens," as Beit Jin is largely cut off from resupply on the Syrian side.

"Some people around us say that Al-Qaeda and Nusra Front are in Shebaa," Saab said of this largely Sunni Muslim town. "It's not true. This propaganda is coming from Hezbollah and other pro-Assad political parties. They don't want stability in Lebanon."

But rumormongering by neighbors is the least of the town's worries. Wassim Swed, the representative for the Jemaah Islamiyah in Shebaa, said the town and the surrounding Hasbaya district already faced an economic "disaster" before the arrival of an estimated 5,000 refugees.

"Now, it's more disastrous than before," he said in his group's local headquarters, where photos of Hamas' late spiritual leader, Ahmed Yassin, and the group's political leader, Khaled Mashal, adorn the walls.

While the municipality, the United Nations and Jemaah Islamiyah's aid organization have helped provide shelter, food and services, there's still much to be desired. 

"We need help from other institutions, other governmental and nongovernmental organizations," Swed said. 

The refugees occupy almost all of Shebaa's rental property, thus raising prices, and are competing with the Lebanese for jobs.

"When the number of Syrian refugees increased, many of the refugees took the work of Lebanese employees, and this made some problems between them," Swed said. "The people here are kind and good-hearted, and accepted Syrian refugees here with ease, and they didn’t have anything against them. But the Lebanese wish that the Syrian situation would end soon, in order for everything to go back to normal." 

Education is also an issue. The public schools are overwhelmed, and as many as 60 percent of the refugee children in the area will not be able to attend school this year, according to Swed.   

Swed said 300 to 400 Syrian students would attend afternoon classes, from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., at Jemaah Islamiyah's Iman School, where Swed is the principal.

"But that's only 15 percent of the total number of children," he said. 

Although jobs are few, and will likely become fewer as the snow arrives with the mountainous area's usually harsh winter, Ahmed, the teacher, hopes to be able to use his skills. He said he's waiting to hear back about working as a math teacher at Jemaah Islamiyah's school. 

"I may be able to teach fifth and sixth grade," he said, optimistic about the chance to work again. "And if I teach, I'll be teaching Syrian kids."

Meanwhile, the window is quickly closing on any refugees who want to escape Beit Jin to Lebanon. Soon, snow and fog will make the journey far more difficult, and dangerous, than it already is in the summer. 

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