Syrians return to their home city by Lebanese border in state-organized trip

Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad carried a flag after taking the town of Qusayr. (File/Reuters)
Updated 07 July 2019

Syrians return to their home city by Lebanese border in state-organized trip

  • The army escorted around 1,000 people to the city
  • However, large sections of the city lie in ruin

QUSAYR, Syria/AMMAN: Qusayr, a once bustling commercial hub in western Syria, has not seen any fighting since government troops, with the help of Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group, drove out rebels six years ago.
Large sections of the city lie in ruin and of the thousands who fled the violence, most have not returned. Only about 10,000 people — a tenth of its pre-war population — have come back.
According to former residents living abroad, this is partly because Qusayr, around 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Lebanese border, is now a security zone where only those with special permission can enter.
The Syrian government appears to want to signal that this is changing: On Sunday, the army escorted around 1,000 people — former residents who fled to other parts of Syria — to the city, where they thronged the streets in celebration.
Several carried the yellow and green flags of the Hezbollah group, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad which played a crucial role in the defeat of the rebels in Qusayr and other parts of western Syria.
Western intelligence sources say the area remains part of a belt of territory in Syria where Hezbollah maintains a strong presence, including by way of tight control on the movement of people.
Although some former Qusayr residents who took part in Sunday’s trip said they had come back for good, others told Reuters their homes were too damaged to live in.
Jamal Hub Al Deen, 45, said his home in the city had been “razed to the ground” but that he wanted to see with his own eyes what needed to be done to try to come back soon.
“We call on the state to help us financially to build our home,” he told Reuters. When Hub Al Deen left Qusayr due to the fighting, he fled to Homs city, the provincial capital. His journey on Sunday took him along the same route as that of his escape, he said.
STATE-ORGANISED TRIP
The crowd had gathered in Qusayr’s eastern sector where shops were open on Sunday. The neighborhood sustained the least damage in the fighting, but some buildings had visible damage, with some partially destroyed or riddled with bullet holes.
It was to this district that government offices were moved once the fighting ended in mid-2013. Most of those who already returned are state employees and their families.
Some other state-organized initiatives for the return of Syria’s internally displaced — who total 6.2 million — to former rebel bastions have been made public, but the uptake has been modest. Many of these areas remain under heavy security, while in others there are no basic services.
Homs governor Talal Al-Barazi told Syrian state media that the government had organized the trip as part of its drive to eventually return Qusayr’s displaced residents.
But Bazari said at least 30% percent of the city had been destroyed and reconstruction would not be completed quickly.
“(Qusayr’s reconstruction) needs time,” Barazi told state owned Ikhbariyah television.
Qusayr and its surroundings have long been a route for smugglers. Rebels made use of it before their defeat and it is now a main supply route for Hezbollah into Syria.
This has made the area a target for Israel, which regularly carries out air strikes inside Syria against Iranian backed forces.
Qusayr’s residents who fled to other parts of Syria are only part of the story: Thousands of others sought refuge in Lebanon, many settling in the town of Arsal. Bazari said their homecoming depended on security clearances and basic services being restored.
For now, any prospect for their return looks unlikely.


Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

Updated 13 min 41 sec ago

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

  • Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast
  • The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors

QARTABA, Lebanon: Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” she told AFP from the Hitti family’s home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.
“We have been waiting for the remains for six days,” she added, dark circles under her eyes.
Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town.
They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since.
Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as “heroes” in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.
The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits.
In the background, the blast’s now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.
An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.
The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.
Karlen, Rita’s daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.
Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.
The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.
The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble.
A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.
But they were stopped by security forces.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.
“Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are,” the mother said she pleaded.
Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling.
Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.
Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been left unsecured for years.
Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.
“We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs’,” Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties.
“What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?” she asked rhetorically.
“They are martyrs of treachery.”
George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.
“I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man,” he told AFP.
“We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened,” he said.
“In the end, I started crying.”
He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.
The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.
A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.
Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: “We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel,” he said.
“Imagine. This is everything we now wish for.”