'We left when they bombed our home and our workshop'


Syrian refugees tell their stories of violence and death, and of new lives lived peacefully

THE KAWWAF family lives in a room without a view on a hill above the Mediterranean port of Tripoli. The building, on a narrow alley, is in a colony of illegal structures of breeze block and raw cement.

Ammar Kawwaf is a slim man with a short beard, hollow cheeks and worried glance. His wife, Ammani, is a blue-eyed beauty dressed in a long brown coat and headscarf. Abdel Karim (10) is a silent boy and Abla (8) a shy girl, but Abdel Hadi (16 months) in red coat and knitted hat is a cheerful charmer unfazed by their flight from Hama and circumstances.

In Hama, they had a three-bedroom house, Ammar a workshop for repairing shoes. Today they have enough floor space for all five to lie down to sleep and a narrow kitchen and bathroom. Three cloth-covered foam mattresses serve all five. They do not know how they will cope when the new baby comes in four months. Gentle Ammani says quietly: “There was so much confusion when we fled.” Ammar says: “We left five months ago when they [the Syrian army] bombed our home and our workshop. There was no Free Syrian Army in our neighbourhood, only demonstrations. For six months, I went to every single one.”

He flipped open his metallic red cell phone to show us a photo of his cousin who was killed. “My main objections to the government are its sectarian preference for Alawites. And anyone who criticised the government disappeared.

“We went first to Rastan,” a town west of Hama. “We stayed there for 10 days before coming to Tripoli.” They entered Lebanon legally through official crossings no longer open to people fleeing.

“We get help from the UN and other agencies but our main problem is the rent . . . some Saudi money covers part . . .”

Ammar knows how to polish floors and could get “lots of work” if he had a machine. “We will not go back as long as Bashar [al-Assad] is there,” he vows.

Of the 8,148 Syrian UN-registered refugees in Lebanon, there are 3,000 in Tripoli. Many live with relatives or friends. There are deep ties between the people of Tripoli and Homs and Hama. The Kawwafs pay $100 a month to their landlord. Once his daughter finishes her homework, she lends Abla her schoolbooks. Lebanon’s crowded schools have no places for most Syrian refugee children.

On another hill stands a privately owned hospital where the High Commission for Syrian Relief rents two floors to treat patients operated on at the state hospital and recovering from wounds. “We make no distinction between civilians and fighters,” says Noor Edriss, who looks after visitors. “Since December, we have had 310 patients, we now have 53. We have six doctors and four nurses, all volunteers, who are on duty 24 hours a day every day . . . Sometimes the wounded come through checkpoints. We have a team at the border to make the transfer . . . it can take a week or more.”

The head of the commission is a Syrian exile from Aleppo called, appropriately, Ahmad al-Sabbouni (soap maker). Aleppo is famous for its soap. He raises funds in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

“We are lucky to be in Tripoli. The authorities would not allow us to operate in Beirut. But we have the support of the people of the city. They raise funds for us in mosques,” says Noor, adding, “I was on the team that smuggled [wounded French journalist] Edith Bouvier out of Syria.”

Abu Ahmad (38) is a burly, black-bearded man, struck by shrapnel in the leg, hand and head, during the Syrian army’s month-long assault on the once rebel-held quarter of Bab Amr in Homs. On the wall is the red, white and green flag of the rebellion. “I was at home playing with my children when I was wounded,” he says.

“The Free Syrian Army took me to al-Qusair,” near the Lebanese border, “the Red Cross carried me across and handed me over to the Red Crescent. During my military service I was in the presidential guard.”

The left arm of Zaher, who shares the room, is wrapped in bandages. The bones, smashed by a dum-dum bullet, are held together by a metal contraption. “I was going out for bread when I was shot by a sniper,” he says.

Both were fighters, perhaps in a militia. Abu Ahmad observes that most “Free Army were not from Bab Amr. They were defectors from other places.” Zaher says: “Once I am healed, I will go home and volunteer for the Free Army. Since they passed the new [conscription] law, anybody who does not serve in the [regular] army is shot as a deserter. I don’t know any other country that recruits soldiers to kill their own people.”