SAIDA, LEBANON — The very first thing you notice as you head into the south of Lebanon is that you are entering Hizballahland. The “Party of God” has been in high spirits all week because fourteen-years-ago Sunday, Israel withdrew from its security zone (“occupation,” if you insist) of south Lebanon, and Hizballah claims to have driven them out. In this area the Hizballah flags are everywhere—on the main highway into Saida they alternate with the national flag on the lampposts at the side of the road, and every other overpass is bedecked with Hizballah flags (AMAL are the alternate)—and the mosques get larger and more frequent. Then there are the posters. It’s not just the “martyr” announcements that you might expect—those killed waging holy war in defence of the Syrian dictatorship—but the pictures of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’a, who in this time of crude sectarianism and clerical Iran’s bid for regional supremacy has fallen into the column with Tehran at its head in opposition to the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia.
The most shocking thing to discover was that this grisly pantomime of a Syrian “election” on June 3 has been carried over Syria’s frontiers. The Syrian refugees not just in Lebanon but throughout the region are being asked to take part in this charade whose outcome is only in doubt to the extent that Bashar al-Assad has not made up his mind what percentage he wants to win by. There were some women who had voted and had apparently voted against the dictator but those who were loudly celebrating this spectacle of “democracy” were Basharists, and quite a number of them there were too. I’m not sure how many of them were actually Syrians, and of them how many had been paid by Iran or Hizballah, but there were several trucks of young men with very large, very new-looking regime flags driving up and down the main road.
Saida is an attractive city, at least in parts. The waterfront is lovely and the food was really good. (I also learned of a local custom that dictates washing hands before and after meals: relatively commonsensical, if not universally-observed in the West, it is considered indecent to skip either stage here.) The sea-front reminded me of most was Acre, an Arab town on the Israeli coast, which is not that surprising: it is the same coastline, after all.
The estimates now from the NGOs here are that the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, officially documented at one million, are over two-million and on their way to two-and-a-half-million—in a country of four million! The conditions are devastating. The IOM provides “collective shelters” for some of the Syrian refugees; these are buildings with rooms along their corridors into which families can be put. Almost invariably a room houses more than one family—and the average family size is five. In the Manana building I visited there were seventy-four families documented, meaning something approaching five-hundred people. The floor was wet with sewage and a moat around the building was flowing with “clean” sewage—it had been through filtration of some kind. We drove past another collective shelter called Pepsi, which we could not enter because it was too dangerous. In a similar state of hygiene, I was told, it has also been taken over with drugs, prostitution, and other forms of criminality, especially in the basement rooms. There’s a case to be made that the only livelihood strategy available in these circumstances is outside the law. The statement of some of the Lebanese that the Syrians do not want to work because they are used to having everything free doesn’t stack up with this enterprising if lawless predicament. It is true that Syria used to provide free services and heavily-subsidised goods, which is why the smuggling racket in northern Lebanon was so lucrative (the origin of these Shabiha). That again though suggests rather more can-do than won’t-do. That said, there seems no satisfactory explanation for the lack of personal hygiene.
For true depression however one has to visit the “informal tent settlements” (ITS). The Lebanese government has not allowed refugee camps to be set up on its territory—though I was told this was about to change—so people have simply erected tin shacks and even material huts with wooden posts, and they have congregated together. Visiting one such place, Zahrani, was to see poor old humanity at its lowest: a river of excrement (quite literally) ran alongside the camp, the smell was atrocious, there was rubbish thrown in this river, there were sheep tethered to trees (presumably for milk), washing lines made of trees and bits of broken wood, and utterly destitute people living in conditions most people in Europe or America wouldn’t house animals in. There was no shelter against the weather, hot or cold, dry or wet, and no comfort or privacy to be had. There were not even any children playing around as there so often is even in the grimmest of circumstances; the life just seemed to have drained out of the place.
There were ninety families in this ITS. I met a little boy, Ahmad, who was four-years-old and had been born with a defect that meant he did not feel pain. You can see in the picture below the damage to one of his ears (and the absence of the other): He did that to himself. I enquired about mental disorders but apparently he has none: it is just that he couldn’t feel what he was doing and toddlers will be inquisitive. Believe it or not this is Ahmad looking well: until a few weeks ago he was also underweight. His condition is so severe that he’s been receiving some individualised treatment. This will not save him from needing his hand and forearm amputated though; whatever damage was done is permanent. I was told that there is quite a prevalence of congenital defects among Syrian children, and that this is caused by the population marrying too closely within the same family.
The obvious conclusion is that the Syrian war should be stopped as quickly as possible to allow the Syrians to return to their homes. While this war drags on these tent settlements begin to look more and more permanent, the supply of international aid continues to trickle away, and Lebanon is at bursting-point with troubles of its own. Quite so. Ending the war means destroying the dictatorship as quickly as possible: it is the fons et origo of the woes in Syria and its presence radicalises the rebellion. Only then can Syria begin again. This protracted conflict, where we help the rebels enough to keep them in the fight and not enough to win, is second only to a regime victory in the worst outcome for Syria, and for these desperate people forced from their own country.