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Thousands Of Syrian Refugees To Return From Lebanon


There's a massive move of Syrian refugees that started from northern Lebanon. Those refugees are actually going back to Syria. But this move of several thousand people shows how few safe choices there are for refugees. In the six years of the Syrian civil war, more than 10 million people have been displaced.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now from Beirut. And Ruth, I understand several thousand people are on the move already, right? There's going to be about a hundred buses today. Is this really by choice?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, it's a choice between some very bad options. We should say that this is not Syrians who are going back to Syria because they feel safe to do so. It's part of cease-fire deal, and that's taken place between Hezbollah and rebel groups that it's been fighting with these people in Lebanon. And these rebels - some of them are connected to al-Qaida.

Hezbollah launched an attack here to clear these groups in the Lebanese border, and they won. But these rebels have had their families living in this area, too. And so they were worried for those families. And so to stop the violence, they agreed to withdraw. So now they and their families are leaving, and some other Syrian refugees that have been residing in this area, too, are also getting on these buses.

CORNISH: Help us understand these options, then. What were the difficulties of being in Lebanon, and what are they facing if they choose to go back to Syria?

SHERLOCK: Well, Lebanon is not a happy place for refugees. There's rising resentment against them here. They've put a big strain on resources in this country. And in Syria, if they go back, they can go to regime-held areas. That's where a lot of their homes are now. But some of those homes have been destroyed. And also, these people - a lot of them oppose the regime and have done for these years of war and just don't feel safe living under them. And they also fear that the regime would conscript their men into the Syrian military, which is not something they want. So the other option is to get on these buses and go to Idlib in the north of the country.

I talked to one of the refugees, Mais al-Khateeb, on the phone. She was standing by one of the buses that she was about to get on. She adopted three boys whose parents were killed in the Syrian war. And one of them lost an arm in a shelling attack, and he hasn't been able to get proper treatment in Lebanon. So she's taking them to Idlib because she hopes that they'll be able to get help there.

MAIS AL-KHATEEB: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So here she's saying, "look; it's a leap in the dark." She has no idea what's going to happen to them. All she knows is that she's been told to get onto this bus and go to Idlib. But once she gets there, she doesn't even know where she's going to live.

CORNISH: Why is this happening? What's the thinking behind the move?

SHERLOCK: So remember that Hezbollah backs the Syrian regime. And this area, Arsal, is right on the border. It's part of Lebanon but on the border with Syria. And Hezbollah is a Shiite group, and it was fighting these rebel groups that are mostly Sunni. And some of them are aligned with al-Qaida. And so these people - now the Hezbollah is keen to move them off the border.

And it's also part of a pattern that we're seeing across Syria where the regime and its allies win territory. And then they say to the people that lost out, well, you have the option of going to Idlib, which is this rebel-held part of the country. And they just think that this is a way to consolidate control over other parts of Syria - by removing opposition elements from it.

CORNISH: Are there concerns about going to Idlib specifically? As you said, for now, it is hold - it's held by opposition groups.

SHERLOCK: Yes. And I should say it's very important to remember that Idlib is still a warzone. So the regime regularly attacks it. There are barrel bombs that are dropped on villages from the air. This is not a safe place for Syrian refugees to be. But they just feel that at the moment, it may be the least-worst option that they have.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock speaking to us from Beirut. Ruth, thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Audie Cornish is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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