Caught in the crossfire in a hillside region a few kilometres from Syria
A small town in Lebanon finds itself drawn into the neighbouring war
A Lebanese man inspects the damage after a rocket coming from Syria fell on his house in the town of Hermel, a few kilometres from Baalbek in the Bekaa valley, on April 26th, 2013. Photograph: AFP/Getty
Hermel is perched on a hillside above the Bekaa valley, bracketed by the western and eastern Lebanon mountain ranges. A pretty, tidy Shia town boasting busy, winding streets, well-stocked shops and a red, yellow and blue ferris wheel, Hermel, seven kilometres from the frontier, is in the line of fire from the war in Syria.
On Saturday, three missiles hit near the government hospital. Khaled, my driver, and Ahmed, my local guide, and I scramble down the rocky hillside covered with prickly bushes to view a shallow crater about 200m from the hospital.
“The army took away the casing,” says Ahmed, getting out his phone to show us photos taken after the strike.
Ukraine-trained Dr Hussein Sakr, head of the medical committee, says, “Shrapnel hit the emergency room”, in a matter of fact tone.
“We are facing huge problems because of the crisis. Syrian refugees are coming here for operations, births, dialysis, vaccinations of newborns. They are funded 75 per cent by UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees] and they are supposed to pay the remaining 25 per cent. But many cannot pay so we cover their expenses.
“Many of the refugees are living in very cramped conditions with local families and create social and economic pressures on the society.
“Lebanese who live in the 30 Lebanese villages in Syria also come here for treatment – for free.
“At the beginning of the crisis, wounded came through here but not now. We cannot give our patients proper care due to the conflict. One hundred years ago, we [the people of this area] were one community but the line was drawn by Sykes Picot, a 1916 secret deal reached by Britain and France that parcelled out the provinces of the Ottoman empire. France divided its share into Lebanon and Syria, drawing borders with no regard for communities.”
On the drive-up slope to the village of al-Qasr, the last before the border, Ahmed says,
“Before the war we were visiting and trading. Smuggling is our main business here. We married each other. There were no problems with Sunnis and Alawites in the area. We were like brothers, now we are enemies killing each other.”
Shopkeeper who fled
At al-Qasr, the last village before the frontier, we stop to collect our contact, Imad, who introduces us to Ali Saimi, a Lebanese farmer with white hair and a deeply creased face who lived in the village of Zeita in Syria but fled and opened a small shop.
“We stayed in Syria until the rebels brought Jabhat al-Nusra and the international jihadis. Now we live with my brother.
“At Zeita we grew wheat and potatoes, we did well. The government bought our wheat and gave us cheap [diesel] to run our tractor and water pump. Life was inexpensive.
“Now everyone wants a piece of Syria. The Arab Spring is an Arab Winter.”
“Ninety per cent of al-Qasr’s economy depended on Syria,” remarks Imad, as we pause at the site of the latest fatality.
Ali Hassan Fatayer was killed a month ago when he was struck in the head by falling masonry. “He was just visiting,” says Imad. He displays the deadly blood-stained block, as artillery and mortar fire reminds us that the battle for the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr is only 10km away. Clouds of dust thrown up by explosions mark the location.
On the edge of al-Qasr, a long, narrow, Syrian-made lake shimmers in the sun. The canal that carries water to the lake from the Orontes river (per- verse because it flows away from the sea) marks the border between Lebanon and Syria.
We drive to the Lebanese-Syrian border crossing, each post manned by a couple of soldiers. Local youths pass through on motor bikes without showing papers, in defiance of Sykes Picot.
We, too, drive into Syria for a few moments and, when we regain Lebanon, wave to smugglers sorting their wares in a shed beside the road. The sharp crack of a pair of mortars disturbs no one.