LONDON (AlertNet) - Desperate Syrians fleeing the besieged city of Homs are being shot at as they try to escape over the border into Lebanon, Refugees International (RI) says.
Some of those who make it across arrive with serious gunshot wounds or landmine injuries and are very traumatised, RI advocate Sarnata Reynolds told AlertNet this week following a trip to the region.
“They are maiming and killing people and preventing them from leaving. They are shooting at children – 10 and 12 years old,” she said. “They do not want people to tell their stories.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has drawn international condemnation for his ferocious crackdown on the western city of Homs, the heart of an 11-month uprising against his rule.
“We cannot count how many people have been killed, arrested or disappeared (in Homs),” Reynolds quoted one refugee mother as telling her. “We don’t ask anymore because we don’t want to know”
An estimated 11,000 to 15,000 Syrians have crossed into Lebanon but only around 7,000 have so far registered with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
Some 40 percent of the refugees are under 10 and many of the women are pregnant or with young babies, said Reynolds who met refugees in Akkar in the far north of Lebanon a fortnight ago.
Many are living in villages in the Wadi Khaled area of Akkar, trapped in a region between the Syrian military and Lebanese checkpoints.
Reynolds said the refugees were very afraid because there have been reports of Syrians crossing over to carry out assassinations and kidnappings.
Reynolds visited a secret clinic where a Syrian doctor who had fled across the border is treating people who were shot while leaving Homs or crossing into Lebanon.
“It was very, very bad. These people are not being targeted because they are involved (in the unrest) – these are children, mums and dads who are literally just trying to get out of Homs. It’s pretty shocking,” she said.
Some refugees are trying to escape through mined border areas. Others are crossing where the border is demarcated by a river.
“The Syrian military is literally on the other side and they are sniping at people as they try to get past. People are being killed in the water,” Reynolds added.
Those she met at the secret clinic included a 16-year-old who had had his leg amputated because he stepped on a landmine trying to help someone else get over the border, and a grandmother who had been hit as she tried to leave Homs by car with her 10-year-old grandson on her knee. He was also struck.
Most people are living with host families in villages across northern Akkar, which is the poorest region in Lebanon. Others have sought shelter in community centres and schools. In some cases more than a dozen people are crammed into one room. The weather is bitterly cold.
Those registered with the UNHCR are receiving dry foods, cooking oil and household items like mattresses and blankets.
But Reynolds said they had no fresh fruit, vegetables, meat or fish and their monthly rations sometimes ran out after 10 days, leaving them dependent on local charities and their hosts. Almost a fifth of the refugees are babies and children under four years, she added.
A doctor treating mothers with babies told Reynolds some 80 percent of them could not breastfeed because they were producing no milk or too little. He blamed trauma, depression and poor diet.
Mothers unable to nurse are desperate for formula milk, Reynolds said. At the moment they are resorting to cow’s milk, which is low in vital nutrients.
Medical centres also need prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs and crutches, medicines and financial support for physical and mental health therapy, particularly as many people are depressed, she added.
Reynolds said humanitarian services in Lebanon must be greatly expanded and better co-ordinated and should make full use of local impartial non-governmental organisations.
The Lebanese government has been reluctant to acknowledge a refugee crisis, preferring to refer to the new arrivals as “people of concern”.
But Reynolds said it had just agreed to issue registration certificates, which will help aid agencies respond and give people quick access to medical care and protection against deportation.
Reynolds praised Lebanon for keeping its borders open and welcomed the decision on registration. But she said the government still refused to issue "circulation permits" to people who had entered Lebanon without permission, leaving many arrivals very restricted in their movement.
She also urged Lebanon to allow food vouchers to be issued to the refugees – something it has so far not been keen to do. This would allow them to buy fresh foods and formula and would bolster local economies, she said.
Click here to read Reynold’s blog: Life in Lebanon for Syria’s newest refugees