BEIRUT: Several hundred Syrian refugees left Lebanon to return home yesterday in a rare instance of voluntary repatriation to one of the world’s most notorious war zones.
Around 500 people, including children and the elderly, left the Shebaa area of southeast Lebanon for the district of Beit Jinn, southwest of Damascus.
They decided to return more than a month ago, but waited until weather conditions improved before making the journey.
Younes Othman, 31, who was a farmer in Syria and has spent the last four years in Lebanon, told Reuters: “We had no news about our hometown. My family and I are happy to be going back.”
Yesterday’s convoy of 15 buses, adorned with posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, was organized by the Lebanese government, with the UN refugee agency insisting that it had played no part in the arrangements.
UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told Arab News that the agency had only visited the returning Syrians to make sure they were going home voluntarily, but had not checked the situation in Beit Jinn.
She said the refugees said they were returning to Syria because living conditions in Lebanon were difficult and they wanted to reunite with family.
“The displaced persons’ decision to return is based on assurances from their families inside Syria,” she said.
Syrian refugees make up roughly a quarter of Lebanon’s population, with around a million people estimated to have fled there since the civil war began in 2011.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun has called for displaced Syrians in his country to be returned to “safe areas” in their homeland.