Displaced Lebanese in Syria began packing their belongings as soon as the United Nations-sponsored cessation of hostilities went into effect at 08:00 local time on Monday 14 August 2006. If the trend continues at its current pace, most of the 160,000 Lebanese evacuees will be back home within a few days.
The cease-fire was only hours old when hundreds of cars began leaving Syria to return to Lebanon via four border crossing points. Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARCS) volunteers were present at all crossing points. The same volunteers who had been giving water, snacks and providing psychological support and first aid services to Lebanese civilians fleeing the bombing of their country a few days ago, were now doing the same thing. But they had to change sides as people were heading in the other direction.
The busiest border crossing was Jdaideh, which is closest to Beirut. At around midday on 14 August, nearly 200 cars were passing through the Jdaideh crossing every hour and heading into Beirut, a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the west.
Tuesday, 15 August, was an even busier day. By 11:00 hours, nearly 7,000 people had returned to Lebanon through Jdaideh, according to UN estimates. Hours later, thousands more poured through the border. According to a United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees survey, nearly 1,500 people were crossing the border every hour by Tuesday afternoon.
“Although I know Beirut’s southern suburb has been totally destroyed, I want to see my house and neighbours,” said Faisal, 25, who had been taken in, with 14 members of his family, by a Syrian host family for a month. “The people of Syria have been very generous. But it is time to go home.”
Nadia, a 26-year-old SARCS volunteer who normally works as an employee in the “free zone” between the two countries, asked to take some days off to assist refugees. In a gesture of solidarity by the private sector, she and other staff were allowed to take some days off. “I have been spending at least 14 hours a day here since 15 July,” said Nadia as she was taking a quick break from organizing the operation. “People going back today have become my family. My feelings are mixed. I am happy for them because they are going back to their homes. But I am also sad because I might never see them again.”
Cooperation among the various components of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, as well as with the private sector and UN agencies, has been smooth despite the very short notice. The Kuwaiti Red Crescent invited returnees to board buses going to Beirut at no cost. “Yesterday we sent 10 buses,” said Msa’ed Al-Anezi, director of volunteers at the Kuwaiti Red Crescent who also heads his National Society’s delegation in Syria. “In addition to giving blankets and food parcels, today we are sending 20 more buses.”
The goods distributed to returnees by SARCS volunteers come from different sources. The World Food Programme provided high protein biscuits, UNHCR provided water and bread, and UNICEF provided oral rehydration salts. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent provided first aid and medical care in addition to dozens of volunteers handing out food and drinks to returnees.
Owned by a private businessman, the “free zone” had been providing meals to some 500 Palestinians who could not cross into Syria because they had no travel documents. Palestinians carrying passports were allowed into Syria with no problems.
Now all were returning to Lebanon including 14 year-old Asma’a and her family, who had left the Al-Burj Ashamali refugee camp near Tyre, because of heavy air bombardments. “I don’t think our house was hit,” Asma’a said, “but we were really scared.”
The last group of 60 Palestinians heading to their homes in Lebanon were being helped onto a bus, with their belongings, by Palestinian Red Crescent Society personnel. “They have been sleeping in the mosque and the movie theatre of the Free Zone for nearly a month,” explained Burhan Al-Hammoud, director of the Free Zone. “We also provided three meals a day.”
Other companies such as SyriaTel (one of the largest cell phone companies) provided food, shelter and buses to displaced Lebanese when they arrived in Syria. They are now providing the same services to the same people going back home.