Skip to main content

'It's all death, but at least here it is slightly more gentle'

By Arwa Damon and Raja Razek, CNN
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Lebanese town of Arsal lies just across the border from war-torn Syria
  • Since the Syrian conflict broke out, the flow of refugees has roughly tripled Arsal's population
  • A million Syrian refugees are now registered with the U.N.'s refugee agency in Lebanon
  • The U.N. says it has just $242M of the $1.89B it needs for the crisis in Lebanon alone

(CNN) -- In one of the clinics in Arsal, a young fighter asks that we conceal his identity, going simply by the name Ahmed.

Three years ago, when Syria's revolution had not yet morphed into the brutal war it is today, the 20-year-old was still in high school. His ambition in life was to be a doctor, but a year-and-a-half ago that all changed.

"We reached a point where if we don't fight, we will get killed, it was the only option," Ahmed tells us, one hand rubbing against the bandages swathed around his waist. "If I don't fight for my country then who is going to?"

Ahmed was wounded during the fighting for the town of Yabroud, just across the border.

"It's a strategic area, it's a main access route to get the wounded out and the medical and other aid in," Dr. Kasem Zein explains, as he checks Ahmed's wounds.

Pleas for mercy

In pre-revolution Syria Dr. Zein was a gastroenterologist, hardly equipped to deal with war wounds ranging from bullets to severed limbs.

Refugee sets herself on fire
U.N. Refugee chief on looming crisis
Photographing the Syrian refugee crisis
IRC's plea to remember Syria's refugees

The doctor is a familiar face, known to us in the media and the world from countless YouTube videos during the fighting for the town of Qusair.

Often overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of casualties Dr. Zein would broadcast impassioned pleas for mercy, for help, but none came.

He spent more than two years apart from this family. Over the summer when Qusair, due to an influx of hardened Hezbollah fighters fell back to the regime, Dr. Zein fled to Lebanon.

"It's not just a war with weapons -- it's a war on our soul, our psyche," he says. "It's all death, but at least here it is slightly more gentle."

Increasing tensions

Arsal was once a sleepy border town tucked amidst the mountainous terrain of Lebanon's eastern frontier with Syria. The flow of Syrian refugees has seen the town's population roughly triple, makeshift camps seeping into any open space or empty lot.

Lebanon hit the one million registered Syrian refugee mark last week. The number is on track to hit 1.5 million, according to the UN.

This in a country whose own population is 4.4 million. Aid agencies can offer little. The United Nations' refugee agency, the UNHCR, says it only has $242 million of the $1.89 billion needed just for the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon alone.

Some towns house more Syrians than Lebanese, and while many Lebanese sympathize with the plight of the Syrians, the strain being put on this tiny nation is unsustainable and tensions are increasing.

Lives forever scarred

Arsal finds itself in the crosshairs of the Syrian war, a Sunni enclave in Lebanon's Shi'a Bekka valley -- Hezbollah's stronghold.

Hezbollah dispatched its fighters to battle alongside the Assad regime, its hardened fighters allowing the Syrian government to reclaim key towns and territory close to the Lebanese border, choking-off key supply lines for the rebels, and sending masses streaming into Lebanon.

Lives lost, lives forever scarred, a population that hardly recognizes its homeland or in many cases even itself, thrown into the midst of unimaginable violence, adapting to survive.

In one of the newest refugee camps on the outskirts of Arsal, under a rusty Ferris wheel, the youngest residents dart through large chunks of limestone. The men gather around us, angry, desperate, frustrated.

"Is this a way to live?" one man demands. "If we were animals the world would have more compassion."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
updated 4:23 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
updated 12:22 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
updated 5:33 AM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
updated 5:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
updated 7:41 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
updated 5:17 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 2, 2014
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
updated 2:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT