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Refugees Are Being Returned To Rebel-Held Province In Syria From Lebanon

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to check in now on the situation for people who've been displaced by Syria's civil war. Yesterday, thousands of refugees began moving from Lebanon back to Syria. But this actually isn't the good news story it sounds like because it still isn't safe at home. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us from Beirut right now to explain. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So I understand that several thousand people are beginning to head back, about a hundred buses today. Is this by choice?

SHERLOCK: That's right. So the buses started going yesterday. But I should say this is a choice between terrible options. That's the best way to characterize it. These people are not getting on these buses because they feel safe to do so. It's part of a ceasefire deal between Hezbollah - that's the Lebanese militant group - and Syrian opposition rebel groups that have been fighting here just on the border in Lebanon and just inside.

Some of these rebel groups are connected to al-Qaida. Hezbollah launched attacks to clear them from the Lebanese border and they won. So these rebels have agreed to withdraw. And then there's thousands of people who are part of their family who are leaving, too. But then there's also other Syrian refugees not connected to the fighting, who've just been sheltering here, who are also getting on these buses.

CHANG: What options are out there for Syrians? I mean, where are these buses taking them?

SHERLOCK: So these buses - well, they're not going home. These are not Syrians going back to their homes. These are people who are being taken to Idlib, which is a province in the far north of the country. Most of them have never been there before. But it's a move that's being encouraged by the regime and its allies.

So what's happening is that as the government tries to consolidate control over parts of Syria, it's offering people who fought with the opposition this sort of option to go to this part of the country because that part is still rebel-held. Yesterday, I spoke with refugees about how they feel about this. And Abu Omar is a nurse. And he was just about to board one of the buses.

ABU OMAR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: So here he's saying, "look, all my family have now are the clothes on our backs. We've been moved so many times. We just don't have any possessions left." And he says, he doesn't even know where he's going to end up living when he gets to Idlib.

CHANG: There are still millions of refugees living outside of Syria, and many of them are very young people. What happens to them?

SHERLOCK: Well, there's actually just been a new study that's come out on this. It's by a PR firm ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. And they polled about 3,500 young Syrians on this. They're all between 18 and 24 years old. And what's interesting is that more than half say they just don't see themselves ever going back to Syria.

I spoke with Samir Mahmoud. He's in Lebanon. And he and his family escaped Yarmouk. That's an area outside of Damascus that was besieged. You might remember, I mean, people starved there. And it was destroyed by fighting. And he says, he doesn't plan to go back.

SAMIR MAHMOUD: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: So he says, "look, I just don't think it would be the same." You know, his friends and his family have all left this area. It's been destroyed. And he's also afraid that he'd be conscripted into the Syrian military if he went back. And a lot of people just don't want to take part in this war. Many people feel the same as him.

CHANG: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from Beirut. Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF KABUL WORKSHOP'S "TRIGANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.