Maggie Tookey: Refugees’ plight has moved me to tears

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FOR some months the international aid organisation for which I work as field director has been supporting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in a small town in Lebanon on the mountainous border with Syria.

Little did I realise, as I shuttled between the interior and Beirut where huge container-loads of clothing, food and other aid arrives by sea from the UK, that Arsal would become a violent focus of the new crisis caused by the Muslim extremist movement Isis, which has made sweeping military advances in northern Iraq and Syria.

As Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, makes dramatic progress in Iraq, little publicity has been given to its attack on Arsal – home to 30,000 people in “normal” times, but now swollen to 130,000 as refugees keep coming – where my organisation, Edinburgh Direct Aid, has been providing help for many months.

Isis and other jihadist groups poured across the border this month and temporarily seized Arsal in the most serious spillover of Syria’s civil war into Lebanese territory since the conflict began. The push into Lebanon reflected the aims of the group, whose fighters see the entire region from Iraq to Lebanon as their future monolithic Islamic state.

The Isis advance was resisted by the Lebanese Army. In three days of intense fighting 14 or more Lebanese soldiers were killed and 86 wounded, while another 22 are missing with at least some of them presumed captured. About 20 Islamist fighters are also believed to have died, but it is impossible to determine their precise casualties.

Following an Isis withdrawal, I have been the only international aid worker to have reached Arsal. I came in a convoy of trucks carrying eight tonnes of food, medicines and clothes. Part of the convoy was a donated Land Rover ambulance.

I have a certain toughness, having worked also in Bosnia, Kashmir, Gaza, Kosovo and Sri Lanka in trying circumstances, but seeing what has happened to families we have been helping for months here in Arsal has brought me near to tears.

Camp after camp after camp housing the refugees in tents and flimsy plastic shelters have been destroyed in the fighting between Isis and the Lebanese Army, with militiamen from the Lebanese Shia organisation Hezbollah also joining the mayhem. The majority of the Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims.

In some of the camps there is nothing left – just ashes and refugees kicking around in the mess to see if any useful scraps have survived. At the first camp I met a young father in huge distress because both his tiny babies had died in the flames that engulfed it. The fires must have raged through, with little chance of escape. Rescuers have pulled out scores of bodies and the search continues.

At the second camp I reached my Lebanese helpers and myself were mobbed by desperate refugees. Seventy families were living in only nine surviving tents. They had no food, no spare clothes, no mattresses or blankets. As I waited for the aid from the convoy to be sorted and distributed, I negotiated from three nearby villages three water trucks and bread for around 600 people. A Syrian co-worker and I stuffed the bread in every corner of his car and when we made the delivery it was as though we were delivering handfuls of gold.

In all the burnt-out camps the story is the same. EDA is the only aid organisation, foreign or international, on the scene. I cannot understand why. There are thousands of refugees who have lost everything and yet there is no sign of help from United Nations agencies.

Fortunately a school for refugee children has survived almost intact, as is the clinic we manufactured from one of our shipping containers. But in war there is always so-called “collateral damage”. The headteacher’s 13-year-old son was hit by shrapnel during the fighting and had to have a leg amputated. The head and his teachers had for months been making the best of a bad situation, doing something to restore “normality” to their broken world. And now that world is broken again.

Today will be another long one as EDA and its local volunteers continue to help as much as possible while waiting for the bigger agencies to arrive on the scene. And, all over again, we will renew our commitment of help to the refugees in this corner of the Middle East upheaval. Their tragedy is a double one. First, they fled the conflagration in Syria, and now in their place of sanctuary they have been overwhelmed by fresh devastation and misery.