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Syrian refugees escape the war, but die from the cold

Editor's Note: This story contains extremely graphic images of dead and wounded people.Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (...

Posted: Feb 6, 2018 12:45 PM
Updated: Feb 6, 2018 12:45 PM

Editor's Note: This story contains extremely graphic images of dead and wounded people.

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (CNN) -- The rocky, plowed hillside is scattered with clues of what happened that January night. A woman's scarf. A diaper. Empty cans of tuna fish. A plastic bag of sugar. An empty box of Turkish chocolate biscuits. A single cheap Syrian-made woman's shoe. Several white, mud-spattered rubber gloves.

It was here, last month, that 17 Syrians froze to death in a night-time snowstorm while trying to cross the mountains into Lebanon.

Three-year-old Sarah is one of the few who survived. She now lies in a bed in the Bekaa Hospital in nearby Zahleh, two intravenous tubes taped to her small right arm. Frostbite left a large dark scab on her forehead. A thick bandage covers her right cheek. Another bandage is wound around her head to cover her frostbitten right ear.

Sarah doesn't speak. She doesn't make a sound. Her brown eyes dart around the room -- curious, perhaps confused. Her father, Mishaan al Abed, sits by her bed, trying to distract her with his cell phone.

No one has told Sarah that her mother Manal, her five-year-old sister Hiba, her grandmother, her aunt and two cousins died on the mountain.

"Sometimes she says, 'I want to eat.' That's all," Abed says. Sarah hasn't mentioned anything about her ordeal, and he is hesitant to ask her.

An unfortunate reunion

Until now, Sarah hadn't seen her father for two and a half years. He left Syria for Lebanon and found work as a house painter, leaving his family behind.

Mishaan al Abed sent money back to his wife and kids, who stayed outside the town of Abu Kamal, on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

ISIS controlled Abu Kamal from the summer of 2014 until last November, when it was retaken by Syrian government forces. Fighting still rages in the countryside around it, where Al Abed's family lived.

After their house was damaged, Abed's brother and his family, along with Abed's wife and two children, fled to Damascus. There they paid $4,000 -- a fortune for a poor family -- to a Syrian lawyer who they were told had the right connections with the army, intelligence and smugglers.

The plan was for them to be driven to the border in private cars on military-only roads. From there, says Abed, they were to walk with the smugglers for half an hour into Lebanon, where they would be met by other cars.

The plan started to fall apart when snow began to fall. The smugglers abandoned the group. The family lost their way and became separated. In the dark and the cold, most of them died. It's not clear how Sarah and a few others survived.

The only thing that is clear, says hospital director Dr. Antoine Cortas, is that "it is a miracle Sarah is still alive."

Hidden by the darkness and the snow was a house just a few hundred steps down the mountain.

Abed was expecting his family to cross over, but became concerned when he didn't hear from them. "I was told the army had arrested people trying to cross into Lebanon. I thought it must be them. Then the intelligence services sent me a picture. I identified her as my wife."

He opens the picture on his cell phone. It shows a lifeless woman curled up on the snow amidst thorn bushes, a red woolen cap on her head.

A struggle to cross over, a struggle to remain

More than a million Syrians have taken refuge in Lebanon, straining the resources of a country with a population of around six million. The Lebanese authorities have, to some extent, turned a blind eye to those entering the country illegally. But they have refused to allow relief groups to establish proper refugee camps, unlike Jordan and Turkey, for fear they will become permanent.

What pass for camps -- officially called "informal tented settlements" -- are ramshackle affairs. Syrians typically pay $100 to a landowner to build drafty, uninsulated breezeblock shelters with flimsy plastic tarpaulins as roofs.

Abu Farhan, a man in his sixties from Hama, in central Syria, lives in one of those shelters in a muddy camp outside the town of Rait, just a few kilometers from the Syrian border. His wife Fatima is ill. She is huddled next to a kerosene stove under a pile of blankets. Between coughing fits, she moans loudly. Farhan has had to borrow more than two million Lebanese pounds -- around $1,300 -- for her medical treatment.

Illness is just one of the perils here. Vermin, he says, is another. "There's everything here," he chuckles bitterly, "even things I've never seen before. Rats. Mice. Everything!"

The dilemma that Syrians in Lebanon face is glaringly clear. They're not welcome here, and it's difficult to scrape by. According to a recent report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, 71% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in poverty.

Point of no return

Some Syrians have returned home, but many, like Abu Musa, a man in his forties who lives in the same settlement as Farhan, insist that returning would be nothing short of suicidal. He comes from Maarat al-Numan, in Idlib province, where Syrian forces, backed by Russian warplanes, are waging an offensive against government opponents.

"Of course, I'd like to go back to Syria!" Musa exclaims, gesturing around his damp, cold hut as if that were reason enough to return home. "But Syria isn't safe. They're fighting in my town. My house has been destroyed."

And thus, Syrians continue to try to make their way to Lebanon, despite the very real risks.

"The people who are walking across the mountains, and taking days to cross the mountains in the middle of winter, are a testament to the fact that Syria is not safe," said Mike Bruce of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

"Until Syria is safe, until there is a lasting peace, people should not be going back to Syria."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 263023

Reported Deaths: 5752
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17675191
Hinds16813331
Harrison14224204
Rankin11167219
Jackson10839190
Lee9050144
Madison8568168
Jones6668114
Forrest6177124
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Jasper179538
Holmes171768
Clay165837
Tallahatchie156235
Stone151425
Clarke147262
Calhoun140822
Smith129226
Yalobusha122034
Walthall114337
Greene113529
Noxubee112926
Montgomery111636
Carroll106622
Lawrence106517
Perry104531
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Webster96124
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Benton85623
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Franklin69917
Choctaw63213
Wilkinson59825
Jefferson56821
Sharkey45117
Issaquena1606
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 439442

Reported Deaths: 6657
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson644371007
Mobile31435569
Madison28158217
Tuscaloosa21492275
Montgomery19873332
Shelby19248132
Baldwin17128189
Lee13137107
Morgan12594142
Etowah12070181
Calhoun11496206
Marshall10420123
Houston8988164
Limestone832081
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Elmore8183110
DeKalb7871107
Lauderdale7847107
St. Clair7808130
Talladega6445112
Walker6028183
Jackson599145
Colbert548694
Blount546286
Autauga535862
Coffee460764
Dale409685
Franklin374150
Russell354215
Chilton344373
Covington338580
Escambia334544
Tallapoosa3143109
Dallas312996
Chambers303470
Clarke298036
Pike262431
Lawrence253355
Marion253161
Winston233342
Bibb222348
Geneva210247
Marengo208231
Pickens199531
Hale184944
Barbour180538
Fayette177829
Butler173160
Cherokee165131
Henry159525
Monroe152021
Randolph145536
Washington141727
Clay129746
Crenshaw123745
Macon121937
Cleburne121525
Lamar119922
Lowndes114836
Wilcox107922
Bullock103328
Perry99918
Conecuh97822
Sumter90527
Greene77923
Coosa63418
Choctaw51924
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