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After years of civil war, President Bashar al-Assad is inviting those who fled for their lives to return – but once home, thousands have been detained, tortured or made to disappear. In Lebanese camps, Syrians grapple with a life-or-death choice

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Zahir Houriye, 67, sits among his family, from left: Daughter Ahlam, granddaughters Ilham and Siham, and daughter Wi’am. They live in a refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon, which lies near the border with their native Syria. 'They think because we fled the country, we support terrorists,' Mr. Houriye's wife, Otra, not pictured, says of the al-Assad regime back home.Photography by Hasan Shaaban/The Globe and Mail

From outside their makeshift shelter, but from within the confines of an isolated town under the Lebanese army’s constant watch, the Houriyes stare every day at the same mountains they used to see from their home on the opposite side.

The Syrian family is living at the base of snow-dotted mountains that divide Lebanon from Syria. The home they fled five years ago after a night of intense shelling is only 20 kilometres from where they sit now, huddled near an oven as hail rains down and bounces off the metal roof of their shelter in an informal refugee camp.

In recent months, they have watched thousands of fellow Syrian refugees returning in trucks and convoys to the war-torn country – encouraged by news that some areas have been liberated from Islamic State terrorists. But despite living so close, the Houriyes will stay behind. They fear how they would be treated back in Syria by their former neighbours and the brutal regime that has emerged victorious.

“They think because we fled the country, we support terrorists,” said Otra Houriye, 57, sitting beside her teenage daughter Wi’am. Her husband, Zahir, 67, sitting opposite her, runs prayer beads through his hands. Two grandchildren in matching outfits giggle.

“We sit and cry when we see people leaving, because we can’t leave,” she said, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter.

She said people who have returned are discriminated against by Syrians who didn’t leave, “Like when they go to get gas or bread or anything, the people will [say] … ‘You’re the people from Arsal, you get to the back of the line.'”

Since the Syrian civil war began eight years ago, more than five million people have fled the country. About one million Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon, with 36 per cent living in the country’s vast Bekaa Valley.

Some of the Syrians who fled to Lebanon have been returning to their villages in Syria at the urging of President Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese government, an agonizing decision between going home to possible jail and torture, or languishing in makeshift shelters.

But the Syrian regime continues to arrest people who go back, despite amnesty laws that should protect them and a reconciliation agreement the Syrian regime established, the Syrian Network for Human Rights says.

The group says almost 2,000 Syrians who have returned home from the beginning of 2017 until 2019 have been detained. It said at least 784 people are still under arrest, including 638 who have disappeared in detention centres in Damascus. The rest, they say, have been released or taken to military bases for mandatory service.

“Every detainee is tortured from the very first moment of his or her arrest and denied any opportunity to contact his or her family or to have access to a lawyer,” said a May report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Lebanese people are also starting to think it is time for Syrians to leave, said Nasser Yassin, the director of research at Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

“We’ve been seeing this for the last couple of years, but increasingly this year and in the last few months … [people] claim that things in Syria are safe, it’s time for them to leave … which is not true, of course,” he said, adding that Lebanese media personalities have helped bolster this claim.

Mr. Yassin said that in the past few months, politicians have been increasingly pushing Syrians to go. “There’s … less and less tolerance for Syrian refugees who are living here.” He said in some cases, makeshift homes have been flattened with bulldozers.

According to Human Rights Watch, Lebanon deported at least 16 Syrian refugees in late April after they arrived at the Beirut airport. The watchdog and other human-rights groups said in a report that at least five of the 16 had registered with the UNHCR, and almost all said they feared torture or persecution if they returned. “The Syrians were not given a meaningful chance to seek asylum or challenge their removal, and were forced to sign ‘voluntary repatriation forms,’" the organization said.

Hosting a million Syrian refugees in a small country that has already welcomed more than 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees has caused pressure on Lebanon and its economy, Mr. Yassin said. This is particularly true of the many Syrians living in the poorest, most neglected regions, such as Arsal, where some are competing for limited job opportunities. But over all, he said, Syrian refugees’ effect on the economy is exaggerated.

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This refugee camp in Arsal lies at the base of mountains that divide Lebanon from Syria. Several informal camps have emerged around Arsal, which is about two hours away from the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

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The United Nations' refugee agency has about 40,000 refugees registered in Arsal, out of roughly a million in Lebanon overall.

Fear of going home

There are two types of return movements, according to the UNHCR. Lisa Abou Khaled, a communications officer with the commission in Lebanon, said some Syrians can return on their own, and others get help from Lebanon’s intelligence agency, the General Directorate of General Security.

The United Nations commission estimates more than 7,000 people left on their own from January of last year until the end of February, 2019, but these are only the departures the UN body has been able to confirm through contacts with family.

Ms. Khaled said the UNHCR has witnessed 90 group returns facilitated by the General Security from January of last year to April of this year, in which 14,080 people returned to Syria. She said the most recent figure shared by the General Security is "over 188,000 returns” which includes those making their own way back

Thousands remain, including about 40,000 registered with the UNHCR in Arsal.

Some say they are too afraid of the Syrian regime to return, and others have heard horror stories of arbitrary interviews and detentions or discrimination from people who have returned. Still, they say, it is depressing to watch them go.

Mr. Houriye said his family is so close to their home in Al-Qalamoun that from the top of the mountains, “you can see our village.”

“I was always facing the mountain that I climbed to get to Arsal. … My house is 20 kilometres away and I can’t see it,” he said, recalling the night his family clambered into two vehicles and drove away from their home. They thought they would be gone for two weeks.

“It was a villa, now it’s a pile of rubble. Two stories, a glass screen from north to east with a panoramic view. It was facing Lebanon … facing this way,” said Mr. Houriye, who was a farmer in Syria, but sold his flock of sheep and used the money to build the house. He said people in his town used to send him pictures of it, and said Hezbollah used the house as a post when it was deployed to the town to fight the Islamic State. After Hezbollah left, he said, the house was looted.

Mr. Houriye said he wants to stay in Arsal because he fears he would be investigated and persecuted in Syria. He said he is also scared that his son, who was at work in a local quarry the day he spoke to The Globe and Mail, would be forced into the army. While Syria has largely defeated the Islamic State, it is still battling rebels in Idlib province.

“We don’t want to join the army because we don’t want to fight people we know,” he said, adding that he is not concerned about himself, but for his son, who is in his 30s. The fear, he explained, is being forced to raid a home and fight a brother, cousin or other relative.

For now, Mr. Houriye and his family will remain in Arsal, the northeastern border town that is more than two hours from the country’s capital. Informal refugee camps are sprinkled throughout the sprawling town, car tires and bricks line their roofs, offering what little shelter they can from powerful winds.

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Yehya al-Khatib, 55, and his wife Kholoud al-Zhury pose for pictures in their tent in the border town of Arsal.Hasan Shaaban/The Globe and Mail

‘We can smell Syria from here’

On that cold April day, the town is relatively quiet, with few shops open and not many people outside. It has been through a lot in recent years. In 2014, the Lebanese army had conflicts with Islamic State militants and other extremist groups, with terrorists kidnapping 30 Lebanese soldiers and police officers.

Sixteen of the kidnapped men were released more than a year later in exchange for terrorists from a Lebanese prison. In 2017, suicide bombings targeted the army in a refugee camp in the area, killing seven soldiers and a young refugee girl.

Now, the Lebanese army closely monitors the town in an effort to keep extremists out, blocking its primary entrance and requiring visitors to obtain a permit to get in.

Around the corner from the Houriye family, Yehya al-Khatib, 55, sat cross-legged on a cushion as his wife and children puttered in an adjoining room.

Mr. al-Khatib said his family is not allowed to go back to their village, for reasons he does not understand. “It’s political more than anything else,” he said. He wept as he thought of his home in Al-Qusayr, Homs.

The sound of kids playing outside wafts through the open door, which allows in a ray of sunshine, but also the biting breeze.

“I finished building my house, but I didn’t get a chance to live in it … 50 years of hard work and it’s all gone now,” he said, adding that he is not crying over his house, but because the entire town is gone.

“The whole town. Everything was running smoothly and now everything is rubble,” he said, wiping away tears.

He said he knows people who have returned to other parts of the country, but no longer hears from them, adding that the ones who go back limit communications with those left behind in case someone “slips” and says something bad about the regime.

“Anyone who left Syria is considered a terrorist in Syria. I’m considered a terrorist in Syria because I left Syria,” he said. Mr. al-Khatib said he has heard from friends and on TV that the regime will kill Syrians who left particular regions and want to return because “they are traitors.”

Mr. al-Khatib’s wife, Kholoud, leaving their sleeping children in the next room, sits on a cushion beside her husband. “Are Syrian people who live in Canada happy?” she asked. “Do you advise us to go?”

Turning to his wife, Mr. al-Khatib said, “I have faith in God that we’ll go back one day. We can smell Syria from here.”

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Mr. al-Khatib gestures before entering his tent.

'A solution for everyone’

In a separate informal camp within the hilly town, a 32-year-old dentist and his 29-year-old wife, a physician, say they will return to Syria only after the current President is gone.

“Most of the people who return are in jail or back in the army,” said the father of three, who asked not to be named out of concern for his safety.

“You reach a point and you’re afraid of your own shadow when saying things. You have to be very careful.”

Unlike Mr. al-Khatib, he said he has talked to neighbours who have returned. He said they have told him they have been forced into the army or know others who have been detained, accused of trying to start a new revolution.

“This is one of the excuses the regime makes so they can apprehend people,” he said. “Some of the people who left want to come back to Lebanon, because now they have an economic crisis for gas and bread and oil.”

His primary reason for staying in Lebanon is to avoid the army. “I don’t want to go to the army so I’m not forced to fight other Syrians,” he said, later adding that he does not want to spend years of his life that way.

“Assad was fighting terrorists, but he was also fighting normal people and killing civilians.”

He said most Syrians living in Arsal are “waiting for a mass return” because they want to go all together, a feeling that other families echoed. He said if Syria offered pardons to people imprisoned and those who oppose the regime, he would return.

“Pardon everything and people will come back and we’ll start a new chapter. … We’re wanting a solution for everyone…” he said. “I feel depressed. Why are they returning and not me?”

Heba, the dentist’s wife, placed cookies and tea in front of her husband, and offered that, compared with the place they fled, “it’s better” in Lebanon. Their three young daughters play in the cold room, seemingly undeterred by the frigid temperature.

“They’re still young … they don’t face difficulties [yet],” she said. “The biggest difficulty is when they grow up for school, education.”

Mr. Yassin said most refugees in Lebanon can’t afford to leave and are stuck in “miserable conditions.”

He said the response to their plight is managed by the UNHCR and other NGOs, but the funding is “mostly going to keep the refugees floating their heads above the water.”

Back at the Houriyes', Otra said all of the Syrian refugees living in Lebanon would return to Syria if they were promised one thing: “International assurance that no one will get any harm or investigated.”

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The Houriye family plans to stay behind in Arsal, fearful of what will happen if they return to Syria.

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