“I want to be buried in my hometown, al-Qusayr,” said a retired school teacher who has been worn down by years of misery and old age that caught up with him soon after he and his family were displaced in from his town in 2012.
The teacher, 65, recently became one of many refugees who returned to Qusayr in recent months. He returned to his home, which was all but destroyed during the Syrian war. All that stands is a single room.
Asked by Asharq Al-Awsat about why he returned knowing that his house was in ruins, he replied: “Living in a tent over property that I own is a thousand times easier than living as a refugee in a rented home.”
“I have spent years in displacement and pray to God that I die in Qusayr,” he added.
Qusayr lies 35 kilometers west of Homs and 15 kms from the border with Lebanon. The city witnessed in 2013 the first and largest wave of displacement during the Syrian war. At the peak of the unrest only a handful of the 65,000 residents remained in the city. The population is predominantly Sunni with Christian, Alawite and Shiite minorities.
The picture has since changed after the Syrian regime and Lebanese Hezbollah party imposed their control over the city and its countryside.
Qusayr holds strategic importance to Hezbollah because it links the Lebanese Bekaa region to the central Syrian province of Homs. It is accessed through the Jousiyeh crossing that was set up in 1919. Qusayr was also a significant trade hub between Homs and northern Lebanon.
Soon after the regime captured Qusayr from opposition factions, its ally, Hezbollah set up major centers throughout the roads connecting Homs to Lebanon. Qusayr was inaccessible except to its residents, who were still living there. After the reopening of the Jousiyeh crossing in 2017, travelers heading to Lebanon were allowed to pass through the area, local sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Once Jousiyeh was reopened, pro-regime residents, mainly Alawites, Shiites and Christians, were allowed to return. Some 8,000 people have gradually returned between 2013 and 2017. Up until July this year, Sunnis were barred from returning. Even then, only those not suspected of anti-regime activity were allowed to come back.
The first batch of refugees returned to Qusayr’s Hezbollah-held western countryside in July. Exposing who really controls the region, the some 1,000 returnees were seen waving the Hezbollah flag, far outnumbering official Syrian flags and images of regime leader Bashar Assad. The second batch, of some 5,000 people, arrived in October. This time, the majority waved regime flags and Assad posters. Since 2013, some 14,000 residents have returned to what was left of their homes.
With very limited means, they struggled to rebuild Qusayr as they awaited aid from charities, civil and public agencies. The city council was also unable to cope with the massive reconstruction. Neighborhoods that were seized by opposition factions were almost completely destroyed, in contrast to the districts that never escaped the clutches of the regime during clashes with the opposition. Pro-regime residents, Hezbollah and security stations are located in these districts.
Overall, the city lacks the most basic infrastructure. Sewage systems remain mostly inadequate, power cuts are frequent and water is in short supply.
A refugee from Qusayr, currently residing in Lebanon, told Asharq Al-Awsat that prior to the war, people from Homs and nearby Lebanese villages used to flock to Qusayr for their daily needs, education and medical treatments. Bread produced from the city used to be enough to feed all neighboring areas. Smuggling from Lebanon of various goods that were not available in Syria was also active.
This led to the development of close ties between the surrounding areas. These relations rose above sectarian and political interests and Hezbollah was virtually nonexistent in the area.
At the turn of the 21st century, fuel began to be smuggled from Syria to Lebanon through Qusayr. This led to the emergence of fierce outlaws, who were controlled by corrupt figures in the regime’s security apparatus. The situation was exacerbated further with the beginning of the smuggling of drugs from Lebanon to Syria after 2005.
This naturally led to increased school dropouts, higher unemployment, a weakening economy and fragmentation of the traditional social and economic fabric.
After the displacement of the people in 2013, Hezbollah seized the region west of the Orontes (Assi) River. The party succeeded in recruiting residents of the region to fight in its ranks against their own fellow Syrians. The party also seized control of all legal and illegal border crossings between Qusayr and Lebanon. The region consequently became the most important drugs smuggling route from Lebanon to Syria and then from Syria to the Mediterranean through Latakia port.
In the city itself, Hezbollah captured several properties and buildings and transformed them into party headquarters, barring their owners from accessing them. The party also seized agricultural fields to grow its cannabis crops, transforming it into a lucrative gang-run business linked to regional networks.