Editor's note: The people in the story have been photographed with their faces covered and their names have been changed for security concerns. For the same reason, the exact locations in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon where the interviews took place have been kept hidden.
“They were five, their faces covered with masks. They broke into the house and went upstairs. Few minutes later, they came down with my son Ali, handcuffed. They brought him away with no explanation. 'Keep your mouth shut, or we will kill you' was the only thing they told me.”
Sitting on the porch of her new house in the Bekaa Valley, the Eastern Lebanese region bordering with Syria, Somaya struggles to hold back tears while recounting the last time she saw her son alive. Three days after his arrest, Ali's corpse was found in a ditch near Talbiseh, a small village close to the Syrian city of Homs. “He had eleven gunshot wounds in the stomach, the left arm was broken and both kneecaps had been removed,” she says. Following her son's death eight months ago, Somaya moved to Lebanon, where she is trying to cope with the nostalgia of her beloved country and the desperation of a mother that cannot get peace. “Ali was a simple taxi driver—he didn't like politics," she says. "During the protests against the regime he used to stay at home because he didn't want to run into troubles. Since his death, I pray to God every day to rid us of Assad.”
Somaya's story is not unique. Since the start of the revolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, more than one hundred thousand civilians (at least 114, 955 according to UN agencies) have taken shelter in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, the majority are children and women. Most of them are housewives, but there are also students, teachers, retirees and widows. In order to flee from a revolution that has slowly escalated in a full-scale civil war, many have crossed the border illegally, defying the bullets of the security forces to save the lives of their children. Today, they live scattered between the Northern city of Tripoli and the myriad of small villages along the Syrian border. “This war is a heavy burden on our shoulders. Many of us have lost husbands and sons, and now have to take care of their families on our own,” explains 27-year-old Rasha, who fled the village of Soran on March 1 and is now hosted with her family in a stark two-room flat in the Bekaa.
Like her, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees (more than 31,095 according to the UNHCR) are still unregistered and live in desperate situations. Hosted in basements, farm sheds or tents, they survive thanks to the rare food rations delivered by local NGOs. The Lebanese government, which never signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and does not have a specific legislation to deal with them, has so far refused to set up proper refugee camps for Syrians, out of fear that they might be infiltrated by armed groups and rebels, as was the case with the Palestinian ones in Lebanon during the 70s.
Many of the women refugees in Lebanon live halfway between prisoner and ghost, trying to avoid contacts with the local population for fear of being caught by the agents of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political party allied with Assad that constantly scours the country for dissidents. “Every time my husband is late at night, I become hysterical,” says Samira, 28, her dark, expressive eyes gleaming on her olive skin. Until six months ago she used to live in Hama with her four kids, the eldest of whom is only 11. Her husband, an opposition supporter, had already fled to Lebanon months ahead. During her lonely nights when Hama was bombed by the regime forces, Samira's only dream was to rejoin him on the other side of the border. One night, the long-awaited phone call finally reached her. The following morning, she made an 80-kilometer trip that lasted for 13, interminable hours, during which Samira had to change four cars and pay $400 to bribe the Syrian soldiers manning the checkpoints all the way to the border. Today, Samira and her family live in the outskirts of Tripoli, but their problems are far from over. The stairs of the dilapidated building they live in are filled with pools of water and piles of garbage, while their balcony overlooks a rubbish dump. The monthly rent of $100 is a prohibitive price for her husband, who is struggling to find a job in Lebanon and is quickly running out of money. “We don't know how to pay the next rent,” she says, before busting into a flood of tears.
The families who managed to reach Tripoli are the luckiest ones. Predominantly inhabited by Sunnis, the city has become the main stronghold of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon. There, refugees can enjoy proper health services and a relative security, but in the Bekaa valley, the situation is totally different. Divided among Shia, Sunnis and Christians, the region has been the theater of several raids carried out by the Syrian Army, as well as arrests and kidnappings of Syrian political activists and opponents of the regime. Hezbollah controls much of the region, and gives a hard time to refugees and the people who are helping them.
Though grateful for their safety, refugees still yearn to return to their own lives and homes. Mona, a 28-year-old refugee who escaped from al-Qusayr together with her husband and two young sons, now stays in the house of a host family all day long watching television with the kids. But the Arabic teacher has not lost the hope of going back to Syria to start teaching again. “Too much blood has been spilled for freedom,” she says. “If the revolution succeeds, I hope the next generations will not spoil its fruits. This is the message I would like to send to my pupils.”
Mona is not the only one missing school: 16-year-old Zaynab comes from the neighborhood of Al-Khaldeeye, one of the opposition strongholds in Homs. Until last January, she was the best in her class. But Zaynab's dream of becoming a doctor was abruptly put to an end when she was forced to quit school after some soldiers kidnapped, raped and killed three of her schoolmates. Zaynab now lives in Tripoli with her father, brother and a mentally-challenged sister she has to look after. When she receives food from charity organizations, she has to sell part of it to buy garcinia cambogia medicines. Despite the hard times she is going through, her faith in the future is still intact. “I was expecting the revolution to be brief and successful," she says. “But I am still hopeful. Assad will fall soon, and we will be able to go back to Syria victorious.”
Her optimism is not shared by other refugees, who are feeling the burden of the never ending clashes, deaths and deprivations. “I don't know how this war will end—we cannot even understand who is fighting whom anymore,” complains Badia, a 51-year-old woman who came to Lebanon to cure her daughter who suffered brain damages during a raid of the security forces in their house in Bab Drieb, Homs. “If this is the revolution, if it means that I am not able to go out of my house to buy a piece of bread—then I don't want it.” Or, as Rasha, the young Syrian girl from Soran, puts it: “It doesn't matter who wins this war—Syria women don't have rights from the day they are born. As a Syrian woman, I don't know what freedom means.”
Matilde Gattoni is a photographer based in Dubai and Lebanon. Her work often focuses on issues related to water around the world.
Matteo Fagotto is a 33-year-old freelance Italian journalist based in Dubai. He focuses on African and Middle Eastern issues through reportage and feature stories.