Syrian civilians paying price of war

By Rachel Smalley

Syria's deadly civil war has created a human tidal wave of refugees in neighbouring Lebanon. NewstalkZB host Rachel Smalley travelled there with World Vision and found stories of brutality and hope.

Abdul lost part of his right hand in a rocket attack and his foot is so mangled it is unlikely he will ever walk again. He and his family now live in a garage in Lebanon.  Photo / Chris Sisarich
Abdul lost part of his right hand in a rocket attack and his foot is so mangled it is unlikely he will ever walk again. He and his family now live in a garage in Lebanon. Photo / Chris Sisarich

The old man can stand, but not for long.

His shoulders are slightly rounded and he's favouring a hip. He wears sunglasses to shield cataracts from the bright Lebanese sun, and he walks in a shuffle, throwing up clouds of orange dust as he goes.

He is 77, and the years are clearly catching up with him.

Bandar lived in Syria for seven decades before his grandson of the same name was born; an eternity in the Middle East where political ructions, conflict and bloody revolutions are the triggers of change.

He thought his grandson would never see war, but he was wrong. The old man shakes his head at what his grandson's eyes have seen. They have witnessed the killings and brutality that have come to typify the Syrian conflict.

"It is terrible what we have seen ... terrible," the old man says.

The two now live in Lebanon, enduring the same tortured existence as almost a million Syrian refugees. They share a room in a cramped concrete-block shed in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, just across the border from Syria.

"We had just built a big house in Syria," says the old man. "We were wealthy."

The family's journey to Lebanon began eight months ago when Syrian troops launched an offensive to claim back the rebel-held city of Homs. The fighting was intense and indiscriminate from both sides, and the rockets were raining down.

Young Bandar politely raises his hand, requesting to speak.

"My best friend lived next door. I was waiting for him and his family to come home. I saw their car and then I saw a bomb. They became pieces," he says.

He says he didn't know what to do so he ran inside and hid, and waited for his father to come home.

"He came home and he just hugged me. And we cried," he says.

Syrian refugee Bandar  despairs at the brutality his grandson Bandar  jnr has seen.
Syrian refugee Bandar despairs at the brutality his grandson Bandar jnr has seen.

The family hastily got their documentation together and boarded a bus to the Lebanese border. They made it to the final regime checkpoint where government troops gestured to their bus to pull over.

They ordered the bus and a private car to leave the road and travel across an area controlled by the Free Syria Army (FSA). The soldiers followed behind in an unmarked car, using the bus to test the readiness of the opposition to attack. It worked. The FSA wrongly identified the lead car as a regime escort and blew it up as Bandar's 7-year-old eyes looked on through the bus window. His grandfather was sitting next to him and his face is troubled as he recalls the story.

"Our driver quickly turned the bus around ... he got us out of danger."

The bus made for the border, and entered Lebanon later that day.

The family no longer live in fear but they have lost everything. They are grateful to the aid provided by World Vision and stretch their monthly US$27 ($32.50) food vouchers as far as they can, but there is never enough food.

Bandar's diabetic wife Sabah has had both her feet amputated after her insulin prescription ran out. She doesn't want to speak to us and she doesn't want her photo taken. Her life is a misery.

Her suffering seems to be lost on her young grandson. This is his normality now, and his needs are the same as any other young boy. He wants only for a football.

"I will go back to Syria one day and play football for our national team," he grins. The last time he played football was with his neighbour, the day before he saw him die in the rocket attack.

Outside the sun is up, and the old man is shuffling along beside his grandson in the dirt. Bandar is at ease with our photographer, Chris Sisarich, and they have been communicating in broken English. Chris asks if he can photograph Bandar alongside the young grandson who shares his name.

Chris is not hopeful. Syrian men are fearful of retaliation if they speak out against the Assad regime. Photographs are almost always off-limits.

Bandar pauses for a moment and looks towards the young man standing next to him.

"Yes. It would be my honour to be photographed with my grandson," he says.

Further along the road, Abdul sits awkwardly inside a garage on a bed. His foot is a mangled, useless mess. He can't walk and it's painful for him to stand.

He says he was at home during the shelling of Baba Amr when a rocket struck. "I remember briefly looking down at my bloodied feet and thinking 'I am in the death phase now'."

His next memory is of waking up in hospital. Part of his jaw was gone, he had broken ribs, a gaping wound in his torso, and he'd lost part of his right hand.

His family fled to Lebanon, but Abdul's father and uncle stayed with him. They knew Abdul's injuries would act as a bullseye to government troops who'd believe he'd sustained his injuries fighting for the rebels.

Once his condition was stable, his father and uncle began an arduous 15-day walk to the border through the rugged Anti-Lebanon mountains.

At one point they stumbled into a forested area and found themselves on the edge of a firefight between rebels and government troops. The two men left Abdul on the ground, telling him to lie as still as he could, and then climbed behind rocks to hide.

"It was the most terrifying 15 minutes of my life," he says.

Abdul made it across the border that night, and now lives in a garage with his family. He accepts, at the age of 32, he will never walk again.

"Part of my ankle is gone," he says. "But my children are frightened of the way I look, and they won't come near me. That is more painful than my wounds."

His family has been given mattresses, food vouchers, water and a baby kit but there is little more the aid agencies can do when the need is so great. There are two million refugees to help, and at least 2000 people cross Syria's borders every day.

"We survived," Abdul says. "We are still together. Some families have lost all of their children."

Rachel Smalley talks to others from the war-torn country.
Rachel Smalley talks to others from the war-torn country.

Yet, his family is suffering. His mother bounces his young son Moatassem on the garage floor. There is no money for milk so he is fed warm, black tea.

"Of course there is hatred in my heart. I hoped to raise my children with a good education. They destroyed my home, they destroyed my dream, they destroyed my life," he says.

"I don't care about the politics of it. All this is happening for the sake of one person. I don't want the international community to help either side. Just help the civilians ... they are not guilty of anything."

Two million refugees have now fled Syria, but more than 20 million remain inside its borders; displaced, traumatised, and hoping they will survive a war that has now raged for 2 years.

And, it seems, every one of them has a tragic and brutal story to tell.

- NZ Herald

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