IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

On the Syria border: High chaos, high anxiety

NBC News' Kerry Sanders describes a “get me outta Dodge” mentality at the Syria border on Tuesday as people try to leave Lebanon as fast as they can.
Jdaydet Yabous border crossing at the Syrian-Lebanese border 35 miles west of Damascus was choked with cars leaving Lebanon last Saturday.
Jdaydet Yabous border crossing at the Syrian-Lebanese border 35 miles west of Damascus was choked with cars leaving Lebanon last Saturday. Bassem Tellawi / AP
/ Source: NBC News

BEIRUT, Lebanon — There were very few people at the Syria-Lebanon border heading in the direction I was going — toward Beirut.

The scene in the opposite direction, however, was very different.

Busloads of people were arriving and then piling up into a tiny little office with their passports. They were shouting and were highly anxious.

Basically, everyone was looking for the quick stamp in their passport so they could get out. But it didn’t look like anybody was getting anything quickly.

On top of that, it’s extremely hot here right now. The long wait in 90-plus weather — while people were afraid that they may not get out before another bomb drops — definitely created a high-energy, high-anxiety situation. 

There was a “get me outta Dodge” mentality where people are trying to get out as fast as they can and don’t really have plans. The attitude seemed to be: get out, get into Syria, go to Damascus and figure it out from there.

On the road
There are basically five major roads in and out of Lebanon, and four of them have effectively been cut off by the bombings. The one that is left is a single route to the north at the Syria-Lebanon border.

While we were there at around mid-day on Tuesday, at least seven busloads pulled up and there were about 80 people per bus. There were all sorts of buses traveling from Beirut to the border — from air conditioned coaches, to those with police escort. All were piling off to get their passports stamped by Syrian officials.

Along the road from Beirut, there was a steady stream of cars, many of them with luggage piled on racks or with trunks overflowing with luggage and tied down.

I saw one car that looked like a Mercedes 240 Diesel and I think I counted about nine or ten people piled into that one car. They were sitting on one another's laps, squashed in there with the luggage on the top and just doing whatever they could to get as many people out from this one family as they could.

It was a telling picture of the desperate lengths that people are taking to get out of Lebanon. If there is a car moving north, they are going to pile as many people as possible into it.

The drive from Beirut to the border is probably about two hours long, then there is the wait to get passports stamped at the border, and then another at least another three hours' drive to Damascus.

Not your typical “refugee”
Often when you hear the word refugee you think of somebody who has wrapped up their clothes in a blanket and has rushed out of their home. This is not quite that picture of a refugee I saw today.

For instance, Rhonda Campbell, a Canadian of Lebanese descent who looked to be about 50, was wearing a sequined halter top. Her hair was perfectly set, her finger nails were perfectly painted, and it almost appeared as if she was going out for an evening on the town. Instead, she was up on the Lebanese-Syria border with her nine-year-old daughter.

She was extremely angry, but a war was not going to stop Campbell from getting all dressed up for her trip out of Lebanon. 

Some passports welcome, not all
As I said, at the border there was a crush to get passports stamped so people could move along.

There are a multitude of passport nations going in there, and Syria is pretty friendly — if you have an Arab passport. But if you have a U.S. passport, you need a visa. And you can’t just buy the visa at the entry point.

So the fact that they are bringing in this cruise ship today to get the Americans and get them out, that’s going to be a much more effective method.

And even though many Americans in Beirut may not be pleased with the wait to get out, it’s a lot easier than going to Syria and trying to negotiate with a Syrian border guard or immigration official to get them to allow you into their country to make it to Damascus to fly out and leave.

Last look reminds you why you’re leaving
Adding to the anxiety of the evacuees at the border is one of the last things that anyone leaving Lebanon sees — a bombed out military installation which took a hit from Israeli air strikes two days ago.

So, everyone leaving Lebanon is left with that searing image in their mind shortly before they cross into Syria. 

Many people who are leaving may have heard the concussions of the bombs, but might not have really have not seen the results of these bombs because they haven’t fallen in their neighborhood.

People are clearly aware of what’s going on, that’s why they are leaving — they have heard the concussions from the air strikes and seen the images on TV — but after seeing that graphic reminder right before crossing the border, some leave with a sense of heightened anxiety.   

Damascus no picnic either
And where they are going is not a picnic, either — Damascus already has huge problems. There are estimates that 150,000 refugees have made their way in to Syria; not all of them have made it to Damascus, but as more people arrive by the hour, there is no place to stay.

The hotels are full. Families are doubling and tripling up in hotel rooms, and even that’s not enough. Some people had to sleep in their cars and in the streets in Damascus.  

And it’s not for a lack of having money to find a place, there is no place to stay.

Another curious thing we saw before crossing the border into Lebanon was the Syrians moving a fair amount of artillery up to the border — rather openly. There didn’t appear to be any sort of attempt to shield it from public view.

I can’t say exactly why exactly the weapons were going there. It may just have been an attempt by the Syrians to show to their citizens that they are protecting their borders, if need be.

But, it was sort of notable to see cannons pulled behind two transport trucks heading up to the border to set up some kind of position. The trucks were mixed in with other trucks hauling watermelons and eggplants. It was just a strange mix.