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Counting the Cost in Arsal | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Syrian refugees who fled the violence from the Syrian town of Flita, near Yabroud, are pictured at the border town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley, on March 20, 2014. (Reuters/Hassan Abdallah)

Syrian refugees who fled the violence from the Syrian town of Flita, near Yabroud, are pictured at the border town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley, on March 20, 2014. (Reuters/Hassan Abdallah)

Syrian refugees who fled the violence from the Syrian town of Flita, near Yabroud, are pictured at the border town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley, on March 20, 2014. (Reuters/Hassan Abdallah)

Arsal, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Syrian town of Yabroud, located on the slopes of the Qalamoun mountains, was in the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons.

The town finally fell to a joint Syrian Army–Hezbollah offensive earlier this month, part of a campaign by the Syrian government to drive rebel forces out of the Qalamoun region that began late last year. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to opposition fighters who managed to escape or were evacuated from the town in Arsal, across the border in nearby Lebanon, and a key transit point for both refugees and opposition fighters alike.

On the day Asharq Al-Awsat arrived, the families of wounded Syrian fighters stood in line at the emergency entrance of the Al-Rahma hospital in the Lebanese town of Arsal near the Syrian border. A doctor could be heard shouting desperately for people with blood type B positive to donate blood to save the life of Abu Ihab, a Syrian fighter who fled to Lebanon after the fall of Yabroud.

Abu Ihab suffered injuries to his head, leg and two arms after shrapnel from a barrel bomb hit him. His torn, blood-soaked clothes show the extent of his injuries at the time he arrived at the hospital. “We do not know if he will survive. His brain is severely damaged and the care he needs is beyond what the hospital can provide,” said Bassim Al-Qalh, one of his doctors.

“When Yabroud fell, 22 wounded [fighters], with minor to severe injuries, resorted to us. On the third and fourth days the number of the wounded went down to six, most of whom have returned to their camps to continue their treatment,” he added.

Syrian fighters at the Al-Aman camp are tormented by the pain of defeat rather than their physical injuries, hoping for a quick recovery so that they can return to the frontline in Syria.

Abu Youssef, another Syrian fighter laughingly says: “We used to fight with an almost damaged 14.5 inch anti-craft machine gun that would stop after firing six shots. I used to look at the military plane, expecting to be buried alive and tell myself every time it approaches, ‘I will die,’ and when it goes away I say, ‘I will not die.’”

“Over the course of 40 years Syrians have paid taxes to the government so that their national army can buy weapons, tanks, artillery and warplanes, only to be used against them and [for them to] be killed with the weapons they bought,” he said sarcastically, adding: “The population of Yabroud reached 150,000 refugees, most of whom came from the Eastern Ghouta, Al-Qusair, Homs, Rif Dimashq. During the siege of Yabroud, most of the refugees fled in fear of the missiles.”

Abu Youssef, a former teacher of mechanics at the intermediate vocational institute, is a hemiplegic and has lost his right arm and left leg. He came to Arsal from Syria along with 15 fighters, only five of whom survived.

Sitting next to him is Abu Raad, a defecting sergeant who joined the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front. Abu Raad says he is ready to fight in Lebanon “in revenge for Hezbollah, Iran and Bashar Al-Assad.”

Abu Raad joined the rebels’ ranks a year into the revolution. “I saw innocent children having their fingernails removed only for shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great),” he said. “I was among the first to witness their tragedies and feel their pain at the time when the president’s maternal cousin Atef Najib was taking pleasure in hearing their painful moans.”

Abu Raad hides his Al-Nusra Front membership card while in Arsal, where he brought his wounded father.

When asked about the suicide car bombs exploding in Lebanon, Abu Raad blamed the rival Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), though he said he would not hesitate to join in if the Al-Nusra Front began operating there.

“If the Al-Nusra Front’s war moves to Lebanon, I will be the first to blow myself up among Hezbollah and all Assad’s allies,” he said.

In a nearby tent lay Ahmad Harba, another fighter who fled Yabroud. The taxi driver turned fighter joined the rebels after being released from a Syrian government prison. He came to Arsal two days after troops loyal to Assad announced their seizure of Yabroud.

Harba told Asharq Al-Awsat that he joined the struggle thanks to his experience of government custody—an experience, he said, that “filled him with hatred which only revenge can wash away.”

Upon his arrest, Harba said a Syrian soldier told him: “We know you did not do anything but we have orders to arrest you.”

“I spent two years in prison. In the first four months all methods of torture were inflicted on my body, chest and head in the secret intelligence prisons, until I was transferred to Homs central prison,” he added.

Harba fought alongside the rebels in the very first battle that erupted in Yabroud but had to flee to Arsal after Assad’s troops tightened their grip on the town.

According to Harba, most of the Syrian fighters who have recently crossed to Arsal through Yabroud and Fallita are “using the Lebanon–Syria border near Arsal with ease,” adding that “the presence of the army is limited to a number of checkpoints that do not have the ability to block all side crossings which those who flee Syria take.”

Although the Syrian government has recaptured Yabroud, reportedly with the assistance of Hezbollah, the fighting in Syria will undoubtedly continue. Despite its string of recent successes, the Syrian government lacks the military power to secure all of Syria, even with Hezbollah’s assistance. Although the loss of Yabroud was an undoubted setback for the opposition and will hamper its ability to move weapons and supplies into Syria, there are already reports of increasing activity on the “southern front,” along the Syrian–Jordanian border.

It seems, then, there will be more Yabrouds to come in the future, and more Arsals, where wounded and the displaced flee for treatment and whatever respite they can find from the horrors of war.