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Affluent Syrians return to Damascus after city declared ‘safe’

An elderly Syrian (C) receives the iftar meal (the breaking of fast) as aid for Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, during the holy month of Ramadan in the north Lebanese town of Wadi Khaled, July 25, 2012.

Roula Naeimeh/REUTERS

Syrian refugees continue to flow across the Syria-Lebanon border but a majority of them are heading in the reverse direction.

At the frontier crossing of Masnaa, the principal land-link an hour east of Beirut and 40 minutes west of Damascus, cars overflowing with people and many of their worldly possessions continue to drive into Lebanon at the rate of about 10 an hour, seeking refuge from the raging conflict in Syria.

But similar minivans and crossovers, also chocked full of Syrians and their effects, are heading back to Syria at a rate at least 50 per cent greater. Most are destined for the homes they fled in Damascus.

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"It's safe now," shouted one exuberant man jumping from his white Range Rover and bounding into the Lebanese customs office for papers to leave the country. He was referring to fact that the Syrian army had cleared most of the capital of opposition fighters who had entered the city soon after the assassination of four top security officials on July 18.

While declining to give his name (a very common response from the people approached for an interview at the border crossing) the man said he and his wife and their five children had arrived a week before – when the fighting in Damascus had been most intense – and had spent their period of "refuge" at a hotel in Beirut.

Indeed, most of those who fled the fighting in the Syrian capital were affluent folks, whose lives and comforts were being threatened by the fighting that only recently had reached the capital.

A sampling of people this day (Saturday) indicated most of those returning had spent their Lebanese days in relative comfort in Beirut or Sidon, two coastal cities with substantial Sunni Muslim communities. They made a vacation out of their involuntary leave from work and their daily lives. Hotels in these cities had high vacancy rates because regular visitors from the Gulf Arab states hadn't shown up this summer.

Many other less affluent "refugees" opted for hotels between the border and Beirut, filling the mid-range establishments that also were having a bad business year …until the battle for Damascus took place.

On the other side of the divided roadway that cuts through this town, the usual cars and trucks trekked into Lebanon and, among them, the vehicles of new refugees trickled in.

No one among the people seeking refuge would give his real name; all were apprehensive. Most hailed from areas near Damascus or Homs and were fed up with the violence. Several said their homes had been destroyed.

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Unlike the Damascenes, these people were much less affluent, and were crowded a little tighter in their minivans.

Some came by taxi and were transferring their belongings to Lebanese cabs.

Though their numbers may be down these days, all these people were planning for a long "vacation" in blessedly peaceful Lebanon.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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