SUWEIRI, Lebanon: Three-year-old Sarah’s face was covered with black, necrotic skin from the frostbite. Appearing to sleep under a clean white blanket in a hospital in the Lebanese town of Chtoura, the doctor said she had in fact been in a semi-comatose state since being brought in late last week. Sarah was one of the survivors from a group of between 30 and 35 Syrian refugees who attempted to make the crossing through the rugged mountains into Lebanon in a snowstorm last Thursday.
The freezing, arduous conditions killed 16 men, woman and children from the group, including six members of Sarah’s family. Only her and her uncle managed to make the journey. The bodies of their relatives and the others who died were found in the snow after authorities were alerted to the struggling refugees Friday.
The group had tried to take the roughly 6-kilometer-long mountain pass used by smugglers near the Syrian town Jdeidet Yabous and the Lebanese town of Suweiri. The route skirts just south of the road leading to the official Lebanese border crossing at Masnaa, located in a valley deep below.
Although the storm had been brewing throughout Thursday afternoon, the refugees hoped that it would encourage the Lebanese authorities to stay inside and improve their chances of getting into the country unseen.
But as the trek went on, conditions worsened. Winds whipped across the mountainside at up to 95 kph. As more snow fell and fog descended, temperatures dropped. The smugglers, Lebanese and Syrian, apparently abandoned the group, most of whom were wearing no more than a few layers; some had wrapped themselves in bedding.
Despite the cold, they pushed on through the rocky, barren landscape – the smugglers had told them it was only a 30-minute walk.
In the middle of what was by that point a severe storm, the group started to separate and stragglers fell behind. Sara’s uncle, carrying her, pushed on and managed to reach the safety of Suweiri.
When the other members of their family didn’t arrive, he thought that they had been captured by the Lebanese authorities, as he later told Sara’s father, Mishaan al-Abed.
“It turned out they were dead,” Abed, 38, told The Daily Star. “They had fallen in the mountains.”
Among the six members of his family that died that night were Abed's 65-year-old mother, his wife, and his 6-year-old daughter. He spoke to The Daily Star shortly after having buried them in Tripoli, where he has been living.
Dr. Ali Gebbawi, a pediatrician at the Dr. Hamed Farhat Hospital near the Bekaa Valley town of Jub Jennin treated one of the group’s young survivors the next day.
He recounted the story the girl’s mother had told him. “The road took five to six hours,” he recounted to The Daily Star. “They were lost, everyone had gotten separated. She took her daughter because she was heavy and gave her son to his grandmother [to carry].” Neither the woman’s son nor his grandmother survived the crossing.
Yesar Smeili, an official with the municipality of Suweiri, showed The Daily Star the barren, rugged route, taken by the refugees roughly 1,400 meters above sea level. “We found them all across these mountains,” he said. “We found some 50 meters apart ... Some were 100 to 200 meters away from each other.”
“We all have a responsibility for this, I’m the first one,” he said.
Abed said the family had paid Lebanese and Syrian smugglers $200 per head to cross the border, having fled their home in Albukamal near eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zor.
“Our house was shelled around 20 days ago,” Abed said. “They [my family] didn’t get hurt, thank God, but they fled to Damascus. There was no place for them there at the time. You need to pay a lot of money. There was no space in the camps, so they decided to come to Lebanon.”
According to an Army source, despite the Lebanese government closing the borders to more refugees in 2015, regular border crossings are still accessible to refugees.
“If someone arrives at the border we take them in and hand them over to General Security, where they get a chance to make their papers legal,” he said.
General Security were contacted for a comment by The Daily Star but were unable to respond in time for publication.
When the Lebanese government ordered UNHCR – the U.N. refugee agency – to stop registrations, it did allow “exceptional” humanitarian cases but didn’t detail the criteria for this. Since then, UNHCR’s numbers of registered refugees has steadily fallen.
Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that gaining legal access to Lebanon is so difficult that refugees are driven to using smugglers and unofficial, unsafe routes. “There is the possibility of qualifying as a humanitarian case [at the border] but the bar for doing so is so incredibly high that in practice almost no one is able to do so,” he told The Daily Star. “Humanitarian organizations tell us that essentially the border is closed to Syrians who are fleeing violence and as a result, people are going through smuggling routes.”
Equally, some Syrians are deterred from using the official crossing as they are under the control of the Syrian government, he added. “If families are afraid of the Syrian regime or wanted by the Syrian regime they may not feel comfortable entering an official border crossing and so in those cases will also resort to these types of informal crossings and putting their lives at risk,” Khawaja said.
Although Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, he said, turning away refugees fleeing violence goes against Lebanon’s obligations under customary international law, the legally-binding rules that govern relations between states and are “considered to be the most fundamental norms.”
Abed said that his family members didn’t try entering Lebanon through the official route. “You need a kafala [sponsorship] and it’s difficult to get,” he said. “I’ve been here for longer and it’s still difficult, you have to pay more to the Lebanese sponsor than the smuggler.”
Having lost the rest of his family, he is focusing his energy on making sure his surviving daughter returns to health. The doctors say she will need plastic surgery and skin grafts to heal the deep scars on her face left by the frostbite. “All we need is help for this little girl,” he said. “Those that died, may God have mercy on their souls.”