As Lebanese politicians increasingly call for refugees to return to Syria, hundreds have begun to return to their war-torn country
ARSAL, Lebanon - Hundreds of Syrian refugees left northeast Lebanon this week in pick-up trucks jam-packed with their belongings: mattresses, gas stoves, crockery, children's toys as well as the occasional bird cage.
They were headed for the Qalamoun region of Syria, just a few hours drive from the camps they had lived in for the past few years in Arsal, a Lebanese border town, having fled the intense fighting back in 2013.
According to one of the organisers, Khaled Abdelaziz, there are roughly 20,000 people from Qalamoun in Arsal, out of the 50,000 to 60,000 refugees in the area.
Relatives and friends waved tearful goodbyes. "I hope you arrive safely and that we'll see each other soon in Syria," sobbed an elderly lady as she embraced Hajer Darwish, a young mother of two sitting in the front of a pick-up truck driven by her husband. "She's crying because we're leaving and she's staying," said Darwish.
"We're so happy to go back to our country. I haven't slept all night."
Darwish's sons, who were born in Lebanon, will be seeing their parents' country for the first time. They have high hopes.
"In Syria, there are sheep, cows, chickens, swimming pools and water," lists one of them. Water and electricity cuts are common in the camps surrounding Arsal, where living conditions are rudimentary.
Look at those leaving: they're mostly women, children, or men who are too old for the army
- Oum Hussein, refugee
Standing on her balcony to watch the trucks waiting to leave, one Lebanese woman seemed relieved.
"A few hundred people is not many, but it still means fewer refugees in Arsal."
The town has suffered from severe spillover from the Syrian war. The departure has been months in the making.
"Following a reconciliation deal, two traders from the town of Fleeta living in Arsal started circulating lists of names of refugees who were interested in returning to the Qalamoun area," said Mireille Girard, the UNHCR representative in Lebanon, in an interview in mid-June.
The names were handed over to the Lebanese General Security, a branch of the intelligence services, who sent them to Damascus for approval. Over 3,000 people registered, but only 360 left yesterday, according to a Lebanese army colonel who was coordinating their departure on the ground. Later in the day, General Security announced that actually only 294 people made the trip back to Syria.
The Lebanese army check the names of Syrians who were approved by Damascus to return to Syria (MEE/Sunniva Rose)
In many cases, the only person to be approved in the family was female. As a result, the entire family stayed in Lebanon. Hayla Jassatir, a 29-year-old mother of six, had packed her truck together with her husband, Muhammad Kanaan, hoping that he would be able to leave with her. But it was not to be.
"Who will drive us to Fleeta if he can't come?" she said. Like a dozen other people in the same situation, Jassatir kept asking a harassed-looking young man carrying a long list of names to double check whether her husband's name might be on it.
A widow from Yabroud, who wished to remain anonymous, was caught in a similar bind. "I have been approved, but not my daughter and her husband," she said. "I thank Lebanon for hosting us, but I cannot be happy until I go home. The first thing I want to do is paint and fix the house."
Those watching their relatives leaving were uncertain whether they would be following them soon. Samira Boutara's father and his pregnant second wife left yesterday for Jrajeer to scout the town.
"We haven't registered yet. We don't know if it's safe enough back home," said Boutara.
"We'll just go back to our nylon bag now," she laughed, referring to her tent in one of Arsal's camps.
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"We hate the camp here," one of her sisters said, more seriously.
"We might be too poor to rebuild our houses in Syria, but we're happy to just cover the holes and windows and live like that."
Overall, the Syrians who left yesterday represented only a small portion of the refugees in Arsal, and their number is insignificant when compared with the number of Syrians in Lebanon - over one million. The UNHCR identified 11,000 spontaneous departures last year.
Returnees must meet several conditions. First, cooperate fully with the Syrian authorities, which means openly stating their support for Bashar al-Assad. Second, they must be willing to send the young men of the family to the army, as military service is obligatory for men aged between 18 and 42.
"Look at those leaving: they're mostly women, children or men who are too old for the army," observed Oum Hussein, who stood by the side of the road waving goodbye to a friend leaving for Fleeta.
She is too afraid to return to Syria. Her family is strongly associated with the opposition: her husband died in anti-government demonstrations back in 2011, and her son deserted the Syrian army before being killed.
She now lives in Arsal with three of her children. Only one member of her extended family has dared register his name to return to Syria.
"It's only because he thinks that he might lose his house in Damascus. He has another house in Yabroud, but he's less worried about it. The regime is mostly interested in demographic change around the capital," said Oum Hussein.
A law issued in April allows the Syrian government to seize land for developments. Syrians have a year to present their deeds to local council offices in the country. By "demographic change," Oum Hussein was referring to a common fear: that Assad is trying to destroy former opposition bastions and replace them with pro-government populations.
However, many Syrian men who volunteered to return home from Arsal argued that they were not worried at the prospect of having to join the army. "I'll go back to my country and fight armed groups," said 28-year old Mohammad Ramadan, sitting in his tent in Arsal last week.
"But first, I'll be allowed a break of six months to a year."
His family has heard that Syrian men who returned last summer to the small town of Assal al-Ward, near the Lebanese border, still haven't been summoned by the army.
Ramadan has registered to leave but has not been approved yet.
People ready to leave Arsal on their tractor (MEE/Sunniva Rose)
Lebanon has every interest in making sure that voluntary departures such as the one that took place in Arsal run smoothly. The foreign minister's chief of cabinet, Hadi Hachem, told Reuters this week that "for us, this group of people will be like a pilot project" to encourage other Syrians to go home.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun frequently repeats that Syrians should return to their country irrespective of progress on a political solution there.
His son-in-law, caretaker foreign minister Gebran Bassil, is at war with the UNHCR since he froze the renewal of visas for foreign UNHCR staff in Lebanon earlier this month. The minister accuses the UN – and the rest of the international community – of discouraging Syrian refugees from returning to their country.
The possibility of a permanent settlement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a highly sensitive topic in Lebanon and brings back memories from the civil war, which was in part triggered by the presence of Palestinian refugees.
Mireille Girard, UNHCR representative in Lebanon, flatly denies this claim. "We are not opposed to the return of those who want to," she said.
The organisation did not take part in the coordination of the refugees' return, as it does not deem Syria safe enough. But it accompanies refugees through the final administrative steps that are necessary before leaving Lebanon.
"They give us their address in Syria and then, if we get permission to visit the area, we try to find them again," said Girard. In the case of the town of Assal al-Ward, the UNHCR was allowed to visit the returnees, but it is still waiting for permission to visit Fleeta and its surrounding villages.