Several hundred refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon on Thursday while hundreds more waited to hear whether their applications to go home would be approved by Syrian authorities.
With their possessions piled high on trucks and tractors, around 300 Syrian refugees began trickling out of the border town of Arsal in the early morning. They represent a fraction of the 1 million refugees in Lebanon – about a quarter of its population – registered by the United Nations.
"We are going back to our country, our home, in our cars, with our possessions and our families," said Ali Abdullah, 34, who fled four years ago to Lebanon, where one of his two sons was born a refugee.
Arriving on the Syrian side of the border a few hours later, he said: "I want to visit all of Syria. I've missed it."
The Lebanese authorities hope that more such returns organised directly with Damascus will reduce the number of refugees in Lebanon. But for Lebanon's policy, the limited scope of Thursday's return from Arsal points to big complications ahead.
Fearing persecution in Syria, the bulk of refugees in Arsal will only go back in a UN-supervised return, said Ahad Kalkoush, a member of a Syrian refugee council in the town which is hosting tens of thousands of Syrians.
Around 3,000 refugees in Arsal have submitted their names to the Lebanese authorities to go back to Syria in the return being organised by the two governments.
The Syrian authorities had so far approved 300 of the names submitted to them by Lebanon's General Security Directorate, said Basel al-Hujairi, the head of the Arsal municipal council.
"(The Syrians) did not reject any of the people registered but there are about 60 or 70 people who wanted to return today who had not obtained permission and reached the borders (where) the Syrian authorities sent them back," he told Reuters.
Hossam Ishak tried to return to Syria with his family though his name had yet to be approved. He said he was turned back by Lebanese security personnel, speaking as he drove his truck loaded with family possessions back into Arsal.
He had been told the approval might come in the next few days "but we don't know" for sure.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who sees the refugee population as an existential threat to Lebanon, says refugees should start returning to parts of Syria he has described as safe even before a political solution to the war is found.
The refugees leaving on Thursday were heading back to areas of Syria near the border where rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad were defeated by government forces with critical support from the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said it was not involved in organizing the returns, and its team in Syria had so far not been able to access the villages where people were headed.
The UN view, supported by donor states, is that conditions for returns to Syria are not yet fulfilled. UN-backed efforts to forge a peace deal are making little or no progress as Assad presses military campaigns to defeat his enemies.
Kalkoush, the Arsal refugee official, said there was "no trust in the regime" of Assad. An opposition local council member before he fled Syria, he says concerns include fear of imprisonment and conscription.
"To return without guarantees, with no trust, security or stability – this plan has no foundations for success," he said, expressing pessimism about the prospects of return and thanking Lebanon for its hospitality.
Lebanon says it is hosting 1.5 million Syrians. They are scattered across the country, often in makeshift camps and severe poverty, facing the risk of arrest because of restrictions on legal residence and work.
Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the General Security agency, has said Beirut is working with Syria for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go home.
Ibrahim told Reuters that Thursday's return marked the "first phase out of thousands".
Syrians seeking return had asked General Security if they could secure a six-month reprieve from military service, he said. The Syrian authorities had replied "they have no problem with six months", Ibrahim said, but there were no guarantees "they will not serve in the Syrian army".
"We have nothing to do with this" issue, he added. Military service is a legal requirement in Syria.
Several of the refugees returning on Thursday said relatives had assured them their houses were fit to live in. Others had heard theirs were destroyed or damaged.
"The house needs work, there are no windows, no doors…We cannot live there," said Murshid Darwish, 55, who had decided to stay in Arsal instead of returning with her cousin on Thursday.
Once my room is fixed, I will go back.
Holding a child under each arm, Hala Fidda said she was glad to be going home to Yabroud though her home was destroyed. "We will live with someone until we sort ourselves out."