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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Tens of Thousands Pour Into Syria From Lebanon

Families fleeing the bombing left so quickly that some are missing children. Many people arrive at shelters with nothing but their IDs.

July 19, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

JDAIDAT YABUS, Syria — For five days, Ahmed Mestrah's family has been stuffed into his four-door sedan like beans swelling out of a pot.

The children alternately crying in the back seat and wondering when they're going to arrive. ("Arrive where?" Mestrah wonders.) His wife, Renez, sitting in the front seat, swearing and nursing a shrapnel wound carved in her arm when an Israeli missile exploded in front of their car. A poster of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah propped up in the back window, his smiling face shading the children from the searing desert sun.

Led by Mestrah's brother Nawaf in another vehicle, the foul-tempered convoy spilled safely into Syria on Tuesday, the latest in what officials estimate are more than 100,000 Lebanese and foreign nationals who have fled over the eastern border to escape attacks that have raged for nearly a week in Lebanon.

"We left Beirut five days ago. We've moved all over the country, from one place to another. All of the places, if you don't feel the bombs, you hear the flights. These children are so afraid, we had to get them out of there," Mestrah said at this bustling border post 30 miles west of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

"This child is 9 years old. He hasn't slept and he hasn't eaten for five days -- look at him! This is the reason we left," interjected Nawaf, thrusting his dazed-looking son in front of him. "I have no idea where we will sleep tonight, but we're going to the president of Syria, Bashar Assad, and he will help us."

Damascus is awash in refugees. Luxury hotels are booked for more than $300 a night, taken by wealthy Arab families from the Persian Gulf and their Philippine nannies, after their vacations at the Beirut seaside were interrupted by Israeli bombs.

Five temporary shelters set up by the Red Crescent in schools and orphanages house more than 1,000 Lebanese refugees. Tens of thousands more have sought shelter with Syrian friends and family or flooded to the airport.

At least 80 have camped out on the sidewalks in front of embassies, hoping to persuade their governments to help them get home.

Most foreign nationals are being evacuated directly out of Beirut in a massive air and sea lift, mainly toward Cyprus. Those too frightened to wait, or with no one to rescue them, have ended up at this oven-like border crossing in the stark, sandy hills along Syria's border with Lebanon, the country's only land outlet besides Israel.

Syria is allowing refugees to cross with as little as a driver's license as identification and is quickly distributing free water, meals and international phone cards.

Khaled Erksoussi, a Red Crescent spokesman, said many people fled so fast they became separated from family members, and are now desperately searching them out.

"There are families missing children. They just left after the bombing of a building, and for these families, obviously, we're offering psychological support," Erksoussi said.

"Most of the people coming here don't have anything. No clothes. They don't even have money to make a phone call. So they need everything," he said.

"Yesterday there was a bombing near the border, and we received the wounded here. Many of the Lebanese are finding it easier to hold on to the injury until they can make it here, because to go back into Lebanon is even more dangerous."

At the border and in shelters, refugees commonly tell of spending 12 hours to several days making their way from shellshocked towns in southern Lebanon, through the continuing bombing in Sidon and Beirut, and across the only remaining intact roads to Syria.

"I don't even know how we got here," said 25-year-old Nasser Mustafa, a farmworker who arrived Tuesday from the battered southern town of Tyre with his wife and four children. He wore a T-shirt with the insignia, in English, "It's only funny until someone gets hurt -- then it's hilarious."

"We couldn't stay. It was day and night; they didn't stop for a single minute," said Mustafa, speaking of Israeli bombs, one of which destroyed his home hours after the family fled. Trucks with food and medical supplies bound for the city were bombed along the way, he said. Another family described a truck burned to a crisp near the Syrian border, its load of vegetables splayed across the highway.

Hassan Bashir, 16, said he raced for Lebanon with others from his town in the Bekaa Valley after seven bombs dropped near his house in one night. His 85-year-old grandfather had to be left behind because he couldn't walk, he said.

"God knows what will happen to him," he said.

Of course, not all were destitute. Half the cars coming across the border were air-conditioned Mercedes-Benzes and sport utility vehicles, their accelerators pressed to the floor once they cleared the border post.

An Egyptian bus driver hired by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Transport to bring well-to-do vacationing Kuwaitis to the Damascus airport lounged on an abandoned concrete planter beside the road, smoking and waiting to cross into the Lebanese mountains to pick up the next load of well-heeled vacationers.

"There are 12,000 Kuwaitis in Lebanon. Every one of them has been drinking and partying their way through Lebanon, and now I'm bringing them home along the back roads, and suddenly they become good Muslims!" said the driver, who said he'd be fired if he gave his name. "Scared? They've been soiling their pants the whole way back."

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