From Beirut to Babila, Syrian refugee family returns home

Syrian child Luay drinks milk before boarding a bus with his family on Sept. 17, as they return to Syria after living as refugees in Lebanon for years. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2018
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From Beirut to Babila, Syrian refugee family returns home

  • Since Syria’s conflict erupted, more than 5 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries and another 6 million are internally displaced
  • Around 6,000 refugees have gone back to Syria in these coordinated returns since April, according to an AFP tally

BEIRUT: Syrian toddler Luay happily explores his grandfather’s modest house near Damascus for the first time. After years as refugees in Lebanon, the three-year-old and his family have returned to their homeland. They are among several thousand Syrians who have made an emotional journey home from Lebanon, where they sought safety from the war that has ravaged their native country since 2011. Worn down by tough economic conditions in Lebanon and seeing regime victories back home as bringing stability, they have taken advantage of return trips coordinated by Lebanese and Syrian authorities.
Last month Luay’s father Rawad Kurdi, 30, his mother, and his baby sister Luliya decided to make the trip themselves. As the sun was rising, they lined up with dozens of other refugees to board buses that would whisk them out of Beirut. With them were more than a dozen suitcases and boxes — everything they could carry from their five years in Lebanon. During a nine-hour wait for the buses to move, Rawad was anxious to end his family’s long exile. “This return is definitive. I will never leave Syria again,” he told AFP.
In 2012, Rawad and his 35 relatives were forced to flee their hometown of Babila southeast of Damascus after fighting broke out between rebels and government forces.
They came to Lebanon. Three years later, some of the elderly family members including Rawad’s father Ahmad returned to Syria, and more have hit the road home since.
Rawad’s return to Babila meant Ahmad, now 70, could finally meet the two grandchildren born in Lebanon after he left. A content look on his face, Ahmad sits with one-year-old Luliya in his lap, as Luay scrambles over the couch in the dimly lit living room. “My home is not worth anything without my children and grandchildren. Now, both I and my home feel alive again,” said Ahmad, his hands stained black from picking eggplants on his nearby land. Although six of his children have already returned to Syria, another three are still living as refugees in Lebanon. One day, he hopes, they can all be reunited back home. “I’d much rather live with my children and grandchildren in war, than them being safe but far away,” he said. Since Syria’s conflict erupted, more than 5 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries and another 6 million are internally displaced.
But back-to-back military victories this year have put more than two-thirds of Syria under regime control, including Babila and other areas around the capital in the spring.
These wins prompted host countries, like Lebanon, to encourage refugees to move back home. Just under 1 million Syrians are registered as refugees in Lebanon, although the number is likely higher.
This year, Beirut and Damascus began coordinating weekly convoys taking Syrians back home, only if their names are cleared by Syrian security services.
Around 6,000 refugees have gone back to Syria in these coordinated returns since April, according to an AFP tally. Others have remained in exile, fearing Syria’s compulsory military service or stuck in too much debt to leave Lebanon. Rawad said he is exempt from the army because he is overweight.
He wanted to leave in 2015 with his father, but said he was unable to cross the border because he could not afford paying fines he had accrued for overstaying his residency in Lebanon. This September, the Lebanese authorities waived these penalties for those taking part in the coordinated returns, and Rawad decided to bring his family home.
Back in Babila, he gazes at old photos hanging on the wall. “War has changed us so much, and then came emigration, also leaving its marks on our faces and in our eyes,” said the portly tailor in a gray T-shirt and sleeveless black jacket. The fabric workshops he owned in Babila have been looted, but he remains optimistic.
“For now, the future is uncertain — but however long it takes, goodness will only come from this land,” he said. The dream of returning home also kept Rawad from seeking asylum in Europe. “As beautiful, quiet and safe as those countries were, they could never be a substitute for the one where my family, my memories and my neighbors are,” he said. He spends his days with family or wandering the streets of Babila, eager to get to know its streets and homes again. During such a stroll, his phone rings. It is his brother Ayman, who still lives in Lebanon and is hesitating to return. “There is no reason to stay in Lebanon. The war is over,” Rawad reassured him.


Israel army accuses Hamas of firing rocket, new troops headed for Gaza

Updated 20 min 25 sec ago
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Israel army accuses Hamas of firing rocket, new troops headed for Gaza

  • Netanyahu said the incident will evoke a strong Israeli reaction
  • Palestinian rockets rarely reach an area at that distance from Gaza

MISHMERET/JERUSALEM: Israel’s military accused Hamas of carrying out a rocket strike from the Gaza Strip on Monday, and said they were sending two additional brigades to the area around the Hamas-run enclave and will carry out a limited call up of reservists..

The Israeli military said on Twitter the rocket had been fired from the Rafah area in the southern Gaza Strip. Major Mika Lifshitz, a military spokesperson, says two armor and infantry brigades were being mobilized and that there is a limited drafting of reserves underway following the attack.

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also on Monday said that he is to cut short his trip to the United States after a rocket attack near Tel Aviv.

“In light of the security events I decided to cut short my visit to the US,” Netanyahu said, calling the attack a heinous crime that would draw a strong Israeli response.

He said he would meet with President Donald Trump in the coming hours and then fly back immediately.

A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in a community north of Tel Aviv and caused it to catch fire, wounding seven Israelis, authorities and medics said.

Israel’s army said the rocket was fired from the Palestinian enclave run by Islamist movement Hamas, raising the risk of another escalation between the two sides just ahead of April 9 Israeli elections.

The house hit was located in the community of Mishmeret, police said. Medics said they were treating one Israeli with moderate wounds and four others injured lightly.

Mishmeret is more than 80 kilometers from the Gaza Strip and rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave at that distance is rare.

Monday’s incident comes after two rockets were fired from Gaza toward Tel Aviv — also rare — on March 14.

No damage or injuries were caused, but Israel responded to that and further rocket fire by hitting what it said were around 100 Hamas targets across the Gaza Strip.

Four Palestinians were reported wounded in those strikes.

Both Hamas and its ally Islamic Jihad denied they were behind the March 14 rocket fire toward Tel Aviv, raising the possibility they were launched by fringe groups.

Israel’s military said they were launched by Hamas, but later there were Israeli media reports that the army’s preliminary assessment was that they had been fired by mistake during maintenance work.

The reports were a sign that Israel was seeking to calm tensions. The military had refused to comment on the reports at the time.

Monday’s rocket comes just days ahead of the March 30 one-year anniversary of Palestinian protests and clashes along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.

An informal truce between Hamas and Israel had led to relative calm along the border of the blockaded strip, but recent weeks have seen another uptick in violence.