Trafficking has always existed in this region, along the Lebanon-Syria border, and it has not stopped during the war in Syria. On the contrary, it has expanded to include diesel fuel and wheat, subsidized in Lebanon and transported illegally across the border, while Damascus is subject to international sanctions.
For the inhabitants of Qaa, a village in the Baalbek-Hermel region, trafficking is impossible without the tacit permission of the Lebanese and Syrian authorities. This “institutionalized” trafficking, according to a common expression in the region, is not going well, while farmers and generator owners lack diesel, for example. “Everything goes to Syria, and in the favor of Syria, gas stations throughout the eastern Bekaa are emptied of the diesel, which is subsidized by the Lebanese state for the consumption of its own citizens. So we have to turn to the black market to find the diesel fuel needed to pump water out of artesian wells in order to irrigate the fields and orchards in the Qaa plain,” said Pierre Saad, a farmer from this fertile plain, bordered by an arid mountain. However, he pointed out, if the state-subsidized diesel tank (20 liters) costs LL11,000, the one sold on the black market is bought at LL18,000.
“I am obliged to ration power,” said Milad Matar, owner of a generator in the village, which has a population of about 5,500 and is home to more than 35,000 Syrian refugees. “At first, people called us to complain about rationing; now they got used to it. I turn off the power for one to two hours a day. Always during the day. If tomorrow I cannot find diesel on the black market, I will have to turn off my generator,” he said.
Power cuts also affect businesses. Charbel Tom, who owns an internet café, does not know what to do anymore. “With every power outage, you have to wait for the Wi-Fi router to restart. And it is getting slower and slower,” he said.
Under the Nose of Syrian Border Patrols
In recent months, Qaa residents have often encountered columns of tankers leaving Lebanon through illegal routes to the Syrian border. Trafficking is also done, using cans filled of several liters of diesel hoisted on motorcycles.
It was only in the last fortnight, when the state began to take measures to combat trafficking, that the number of trucks crossing the border diminished. The entry into force on June 17 of the US Caesar Act, which imposes new sanctions on the Syrian regime but also targets anyone, Syrian or otherwise, aiding or collaborating with the Syrian government, is probably a factor, as the Lebanese state wants to show its goodwill concerning border control.
“We have 20 kilometers of border with Syria and four municipal police officers. We cannot fight trafficking and this is not our task,” said Bashir Matar, Qaa’s mayor. “Trafficking is not at the disputed points of the border, which are two in Qaa, four in Ras Baalbek and four in Jdeidet el-Fakha (predominantly Greek Catholic Christian villages on the Lebanese-Syrian border) where the army is deployed, but on the rest of the border where, every 400 meters, there is a Syrian border patrol post. Contrary to what many people think, the Lebanese-Syrian border is well delineated outside the few points that remain contentious,” he added. He also noted that in “Qaa's small neighborhood of Mesherfeh which shares 200 meters of the border and where many lands are squatted by Hermel families, trafficking is flourishing.”
In another part of the village, bordering the Qaa plain, not far from a Syrian refugee camp, a Syrian family has taken up residence on both sides of the border. It built small shacks on the Syrian side near the house of a customs officer. Here, too, smuggling is flourishing.
The municipality has submitted a request to the concerned authorities to establish a buffer zone along the village border, preserving the two disputed open points guarded by the army. The request remains unanswered.
“Trafficking is a common thing all over the world. Here, as long as there are two people face to face on either side of the border, trafficking will flourish. So we need more controls and a political decision, especially to put an end to this,” Bashir Matar said.
On the peaks of Anti-Lebanon, which are part of Qaa’s state property, the Lebanese army built three watchtowers a few years ago, facing Syria. And a fourth is under construction, to better observe the movements in this neighboring country.
Bashir Matar, whose father and uncle were murdered in the June 1978 Qaa massacre perpetrated against Christians in the region by the Lebanese Arab Army (a splinter faction of the Lebanese army at the time) and Palestinian forces, himself escaped death in June 2016 when the village was the scene of eight suicide bombings during one day. He is concerned that the scenario will be repeated in the future, to exacerbate sectarian tension as in the past. “This trafficking, which also includes the even more dangerous trafficking in human beings, must be stopped at all costs. With the Caesar Act, the noose will tighten around Lebanon and Syria, and there is no guarantee that the situation will remain stable. We must therefore remain vigilant and prevent the possible passage of terrorists who would cross the border illegally to carry out attacks in Lebanon. It is very important that the Lebanese state has better control of the border,” the mayor said.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 23rd of June)
In the village of Qaa, only small sand embankments demarcate the border with Syria. Here, the inhabitants see, helplessly, the traffickers take the crossing paths to smuggle medicines, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, diesel and various consumer products. The goods vary, sometimes according to the seasons. Products imported from Europe, not found in Syria, are also routed from Lebanon....