CNN international correspondent Mohammed Jamjoom has covered stories across the Arab world, from Baghdad to his native Saudi Arabia. Based in Beirut, he now covers the Syrian conflict from the Lebanese side of the border, focusing on the influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees and its effects on a country whose sectarian divisions, he says, “mirror” the divide happening in Syria. Here, he discusses the increasing danger along the Syrian border, rising tensions in Lebanon and what reporters need to focus on when covering the refugee crisis.
The aspect I’ve covered the most is refugees here in Lebanon. This is the country with the highest concentration of refugees outside of Syria. It’s a quarter of the Lebanon population now. Lebanon is bursting at the seams, it’s a completely untenable situation. Because the government won’t allow for official camps to be constructed, it’s just made it so much worse for the refugee population because they have these makeshift camps all over the country and it’s not just in the Bekaa Valley or Arsal or Sidon – it’s even in Beirut, in commercial districts like Hamra.
Recently I was walking down the main street in Hamra and within a four-block radius, I passed four different refugee families, at least 10 kids under age seven, and most of them were begging alongside their mothers. We need to try and showcase to the international community just how bad the situation is for the refugees in Lebanon. A few weeks ago I was at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and every time I go there, the place has just grown exponentially. It was striking to see the differences in what it was like for the refugees at Zaatari – it’s so different from what you see in Lebanon. It’s so difficult for the kids in Lebanon to get access to medical care, most of them aren’t in school. We need to continue to point out how hard this is physically on Syrian children in Lebanon.
One of the things I’ve seen up close the past few years is how these young children don’t have any hope for the future. That’s a very difficult thing to witness. I can’t tell you how many times a Syrian child has said to me, “If I had known that my life was going to be like this in Lebanon, and if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have left Syria. I would have preferred to have died in Syria.” That’s a shocking thing to hear from the mouth of an eight- or nine-year-old.
I was talking to Syrian kids in Lebanon who were talking about how they get beaten up by Lebanese kids on a regular basis because resentment has grown. Some are forced to work to support their families and they’re being exploited. And there are enormous health risks. We did a story in December about the polio threat. We went alongside medics in the Bekaa Valley, to this makeshift settlement where Syrian kids were playing and walking through human waste. It was like an open sewer. The doctors couldn’t even believe how bad the conditions were. I asked one of the medics, “Aren’t these the kind of conditions that would make for an ideal breeding ground if one case of polio from Syria actually showed up in this camp?” And the medic said, “Absolutely.”
The lack of medical care these refugees are receiving is staggering. A lot of the ones we speak with don’t even want to register because they don’t think they’re going to get the medical care [even if they do]. We went to one half-finished university building in Sidon last summer, and we met refugees that were having to cross back into Syria and put themselves in more danger in order to get medical care, because the costs of care in Lebanon was prohibitive, and they weren’t getting the kind of care they thought they would get when they originally crossed over.
I think it was always difficult getting extremely close to the border, but it’s riskier these days. Once Hezbollah declared publicly that they were sending in fighters, and once they were helping the Syrian regime take back towns on the Syrian side of the border, places like Arsal became more dangerous for journalists as well. The threat of being kidnapped is higher than it once was.
You see a constant influx of Syrians. That hasn’t stopped and it won’t stop. Lebanese officials talk about how it may have been wrong initially not to allow the construction of camps for refugees, if they had to do it again they still wouldn’t. The sectarian divisions here have deepened: they mirror the sectarian divisions in Syria. You feel those boiling over in Lebanon now, where you didn’t before.
The Lebanese, even those who lived through the civil war, thought it would be bad for a while, but that the international community wouldn’t allow it to go on. But it’s no longer just a spillover of violence in places like Tripoli that were always a bit more dangerous: now you have densely populated neighborhoods with a Hezbollah presence being targeted, and that has scared the Lebanese in a way I haven’t seen before.