Escaping the unknown
Violent street battles have now reached the Syrian capital Damascus, with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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Syrian demonstrators and the Free Syrian Army protest against Al-Assad at Sermada near Idlib, Sunday
The unrest that began a week ago in the Syrian capital Damascus has now developed from being essentially skirmishes between the Syrian armed forces and opposition revolutionary brigades into violent battles and urban war, the city becoming a battlefield with all types of light and heavy weapons being used, including field artillery and helicopters.
Residents said that cluster bombs had been used in attacks on some residential districts and that three-quarters of the capital's neighbourhoods had been bombed or had witnessed fierce battles. The number of dead in Damascus alone has risen to nearly 100 every day, most of those killed being civilians.
Heavy artillery stationed on the Qasyun hills overlooking Damascus and under the control of the army's fourth division and the Republican Guard led by the president's brother Maher Al-Assad has been pounding the city day and night. Helicopters have also been hovering over the city firing heavy automatic weapons and rockets.
Tens of thousands of residents have fled their homes to calmer neighbouring areas, with schools and mosques filling up with refugees. Over the past week, the sight of families living in public parks or mosques has become common, and what has been taking place in Damascus is a watered-down version of what has happened and what continues to happen in other Syrian towns and cities.
Residents of the afflicted districts in Damascus have pleaded for help from UN monitors in the city to end the bombing, but without success. The relatively quiet areas that residents have fled to in order to escape the bombing have themselves become disaster zones, causing yet more residents to flee.
The Syrian-Lebanese border areas of Al-Jadida in Syria and Al-Masna' in Lebanon have been the crossing points for thousands of Syrian refugees, with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimating that over last weekend some 30,000 Syrians fled their homes to escape the fighting.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon report that conditions there are difficult and that there is medical care and accommodation for only one quarter of the refugees. Security measures are strict, and there is a lack of food and medicine.
Some mosques located close to the border with Syria in Lebanon have put up signs welcoming their "Syrian brethren" as an alternative to traditional refugee camps. Syrians continue to pour into Lebanon at an average of 1,000 refugees a day.
Making matters worse has been the Lebanese government's refusal to treat Syrian refugees in Lebanon, claiming that it does not have the financial resources to do so, though Syria welcomed more than 200,000 Lebanese refugees during the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah.
The day after the border crossing between Iraq and Syria fell into the hands of fighters opposed to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the Iraqi government closed the border with Syria and built a wall to block the passage of further refugees.
Iraq has refused to receive further Syrian refugees, saying that it cannot provide assistance or services to them and using "security conditions" as an excuse. The move has been condemned by many Syrians, who feel that the Iraqi government is not returning Syrian generosity in hosting more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees during the recent conflicts in Iraq.
"The Syrian people, who opened their hearts and homes to the displaced from Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, will continue to love their Iraqi brethren even through the Iraqi prime minister has refused to receive Syrian refugees and shut down the border," Michel Shamas, a Syrian human rights activist, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"We should remind ourselves that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki was himself a refugee in Syria when he fled the brutality of [former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein's regime and that Syria honoured him and took him in for many years."
The UNHCR reported this week that the number of registered refugees in Jordan has now reached 35,000, though more than 140,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan are not registered with the organisation.
Some 600 Syrian refugees are arariving in Jordan on a daily basis, with many being concerned about their fate because the Jordanian authorities have been handing over activists to the Syrian regime for unknown reasons.
The UNHCR stated that the number of documented Syrian refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey since the start of the uprising in the country 15 months ago has now reached 120,000, though a large number of Syrian refugees have also entered these four countries without asking for international protection.
The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has estimated the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to be closer to 400,000, including thousands of people who have been wounded. The number of those displaced inside Syria is estimated at more than one million by the SNC.
The SNC has called on the UNHCR to provide them with necessary assistance, creating an international fund and most importantly refugee camps, field hospitals and schools for children.
"As the Syrian regime teeters on the brink of collapse, the state's powers have been curtailed in many regions, and chaos is breaking out everywhere. There has been a wave of emigration by Syrian Assyrians, Armenians and Christians to European countries," Suleiman Youssef, an Syrian Assyrian opposition activist, told the Weekly.
"These people fear the regime or the security vacuum that is likely to occur once the regime collapses. If we want to keep Christians in Syria, the transitional phase should not be too long, and the regime must fall as soon as possible," he said.
Those Syrians who have not fled abroad are now dealing with difficult and perilous conditions and are awaiting an unknown fate. Daily life is becoming more and more difficult, as the army continues to bomb Syrian towns and cities and the security forces continue to arrest and torture hundreds of people every day.
As a result of the bombardments of Syrian cities, including the capital Damascus and the commercial capital of Aleppo, most Syrian cities have been paralysed, including public and private institutions.
Government offices have shut and shops have been emptied of goods, with those still available being markedly overpriced. Public transport has dropped by between 25 to 50 per cent, and the workings of the legal system have been suspended until further notice.
Universities have been closed, and the ministry of education has postponed exams that were scheduled to begin at the beginning of the week to an unspecified later date.
Shops and factories have closed either because employees have not been able to get to work or because business owners and shop keepers have been expressing their solidarity with the uprising and responding to calls for a general strike made by the general secretariat of the Syrian revolution.
Public services such as post offices and communications centres have been shuttered, as have the ministry of trade's consumer outlets. Street cleaners have vanished from the capital, and garbage is piling up in different districts.
The security and military forces have cordoned off Damascus, barricading main thoroughfares that connect rural areas with the city and banning passage into or out of Damascus. Activists say the military has burnt thousands of hectares of agricultural land and forests around Damascus and in rural areas near the border with Turkey.
The UNHCR has reported that Syrian banks are no longer making cash payments and that the cost of renting accommodation in some safe zones has risen to more than $100 a day because people are rushing to find housing in safe areas.
Human rights monitors have reported that more than 20,000 civilians have now been killed in the Syrian crisis, with more than 200,000 being wounded, more than 120,000 missing and considered dead, and thousands of homes being reduced to rubble.
Security, humanitarian and economic conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate, and worse is expected to follow as the regime continues its attempts to retain power. As a result, many observers believe that neighbouring countries will have to deal with further waves of Syrian refugees, whether they want to or not.