Six years before the outbreak of the war in Syria, many Syrians thought that escaping to Lebanon would be a good solution. But tragedy after tragedy has chased them in that tiny country. Some have opted to return to Syria, despite the bombing and carnage there, because life in Lebanon proved too difficult, in a hostile environment working against them and harsh measures taken by the Lebanese authorities to regulate their presence in the country.
The Syrians who chose Lebanon after leaving Syria had come from various professional backgrounds. Among them were journalists, who experienced a compound sense of anxiety in Lebanon. In Syria, they had already been subjected to persecution by the security authorities, but in Lebanon, they faced a similar risk, given the close relations between the Syrian government and some Lebanese parties represented in the government, according to the Syrian journalist Salem Nassif.
“In Lebanon, the social risk was greater than in Syria. In Lebanon, intolerance and racism are endemic and this has put all Syrians under direct threat from ordinary people. While the danger in Syria had come from the authorities living in the community felt safer,” he says.
Among the threats faced by Syrian dissidents, especially journalists, was the presence of Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This militia is easily able to carry out abductions of Syrian activists and dissidents inside Lebanese territory.
“To avoid Hezbollah’s threat, I avoided writing reports related to Hezbollah, and sometimes I asked the editorial board of Al-Mustaqbal newspaper to suppress my name if I felt the topic could elicit a serious threat to me from the party,” Nassif adds.
Nassif spent four years in Lebanon before leaving with his wife and daughter to France. He says he used to move within a narrow area of Lebanon, avoiding those parts controlled by Hezbollah. He describes that period of his life as a form of isolation, as he avoided any risks he could encounter should he have come face to face with Hezbollah’s militiamen, as it was very possible he could be detained and deported back to Syria. In 2012, he was detained for a period of time following his resignation of Shurfat Magazine, published by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, in protest against the crackdown by the authorities against protesters.
In recent years, threats to Syrian refugees have grown steadily. The Lebanese army, and the Lebanese General Security General Directorate (GSGD), an agency close to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, joined the list of entities violating the rights of Syrians according to Amnesty International. The pretext used by the GSGD when detaining Syrians is often illegally entering the country or having expired visas, which are difficult to renew because of the near impossible conditions and restrictions imposed by the Lebanese authorities on Syrians.
According to Syrian journalist Abdullah Hallaq, “Most of these cases happened in Beirut and involved unfortunate Syrians who were led by chance to a Lebanese army or GSGD checkpoint. Some were released after signing a pledge to check in at with a GSGD office later, but others could not have their cases resolved because they had entered illegally… they would spend very long periods in Lebanese prisons.”
Hallaq worked at the Samir Kassir Foundation for Press Freedoms in Beirut, a watchdog that documents violations against media workers. He currently lives in Italy with his wife after he managed to leave Lebanon at the end of 2016. He had been detained twice in Syria because of his politics. Hallaq said the foundation in many cases intervened and appealed to the Lebanese security services to release Syrian activists or journalists arrested in Lebanon.
“Supporting and protecting Syrian journalists must be part of a broader and more comprehensive Lebanese and international plan to protect the Syrians in Lebanon…,” says Hallaq. “There are persistent attempts to return to the days of the Syrian presence in Lebanon through repressive practices targeting Lebanese journalists who speak out against what is happening in Lebanon and the region, ” he adds.
Hallaq does not regret his decision to go to Italy. He believes he has sacrificed false stability in Lebanon, in order to live in a safer country governed by the rule of law, despite the difficulty of rebuilding his professional life there. “The biggest loss is that you no longer find anyone who wants to listen to you or cares about what you write,” he says.
In 1976, the Syrian army intervened Lebanon as the civil war there intensified, at the request of the legitimate authorities in Lebanon. However, this intervention lasted for 29 years and turned into a terrible nightmare, during which Syrian forces committed grave violations against the Lebanese, orchestrated assassinations, and appointed presidents and ministers. Although Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 following accusations Damascus was behind the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the relationship between the Lebanese and the Syrians did not recover. Some say that the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon rekindled those bad memories among the Lebanese, prompting many of them to show exceptional cruelty to Syrians.