Exodus: Terrified Syrians dash to flee air strikes

Thousands of refugees cross into Lebanon each day – but their host country can barely cope

Masnaa border post

As the sun sinks behind the Anti-Lebanon mountain range which forms much of the border between Syria and Lebanon, the cars keep coming. Some are shiny SUVs, carrying a family just going shopping. Others are minivans, the rooftops packed with suitcases, blankets, mattresses and cardboard boxes full of belongings. Yet the occupants have one thing in common; they want to get out of Syria, at least for now.

Maryam, 27, with her three daughters and her husband, has left central Damascus. "I'm afraid of the strikes," she says. She doesn't know how long she'll stay in Lebanon, nor does she know where she'll go.

"We don't know what will happen," she says of both her country's, and her own, future. But she disagrees with the impending strikes that have forced her to leave her home. "We live there," she says simply.

"Damascus", "Dara'a", "Suweida" read the number plates; it's not just the capital where Syrians are jittery. In Arsal, a town just across the border in Lebanon that has more than doubled in size due to the refugee influx, 65 new families have arrived in the past few days.

Lebanon has taken in more than a million Syrians already, more than 700,000 of which are registered with the UN refugee agency UNHCR. By the end of the year, UNHCR says it expects that number to hit two million. Over the past few days there have been roughly 12,000 refugees arriving daily, double the usual number.

Yet although a lot of people are fleeing, the numbers are not as high as they could be, says Khaled Saleh, secretary of the Future movement in the Bekaa, a political party which supplies aid. Mr Saleh is worried that number might jump if strikes begin. "I believe that once the attack starts there will be huge numbers. A lot of those that are still in Syria think there will be no attack."

One of them is Ahmed, a taxi driver heading back home to Damascus. "I'll believe it when I see it," he said of the strikes. If the US did carry out bombing raids, they would be precise and hit military targets, which have already been evacuated, he added. Yet he had a full car this morning, all eight seats filled. Now he is the car's sole occupant and he admits there are many more customers waiting to head to Lebanon than vice versa.

The Lebanese government and UNHCR are arranging emergency centres at the border for the expected influx, which UN contingency planning says could see up to 50,000 people a day crossing the border. The transfer centres, which will primarily distribute water and information, are set to open "soon", says UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman.

In Beirut, there is no assistance for new arrivals. Near a bus station in the Dahiyeh, a woman accompanied by her husband, mother-in-law and eight-year-old son looked around bewildered. A black plastic bag contained some clothes, all they had with them. She said, before hurrying away, that they intended to stay just 10 days, "till the bombing is over." Looking after them, a Lebanese man said that all he could see were Syrians: "they are everywhere."

"It's causing a lot of problems," says Mohammed, a 30-year-old Syrian who fled one-and-a-half years ago to avoid military service. He works in one of the thriving shops multiplying along the border crossing. Second-hand and new shirts wave in the wind on hangers, and fleece blankets decorated with flowers are stacked up. He also sells suitcases; many refugees didn't have time to pack, and most of his customers arrive empty-handed. "Lebanon is a small country, it just can't take it any more," he says.

Lebanon's infrastructure is creaking. Future's Mr Saleh, in charge of giving aid to new arrivals, says there is no more room: "There are no more houses... [most] of those with relatives are already in Lebanon. There are no places for tents either."

All along the road from the border refugees live their new lives; just feet from the border, a few figures huddle by a rickety structure with a Unicef tarp for a roof. Informal camps, called "tented settlements", line the road. It is thought more than 20 per cent of refugees in the Bekaa live in such structures, a number that will only grow. A little further on, a mother fans the flames of a small camp fire to cook on, as three children dressed in rags look on.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Accountant

£12000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A national firm of chartered ce...

Recruitment Genius: Full Time and Part Time Digital Designer - North Kent

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful web design/deve...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders