“He was expected at his fiancée’s house to ask for her hand in marriage, but he could not find gasoline.”
“He could no longer take his disabled daughter to the hospital.”
“They were soldiers who came looking for fuel to be able to go to their post.”
The residents of the small town of Tleil and the surrounding villages agree on one thing: it is deprivation and misery that pushed hundreds of young men from Akkar to rush in the middle of the night to the fuel tanker.
The Lebanese Army had seized the tanker and allowed residents to extract a few liters of gasoline so the people could go about their daily life amid an acute fuel crisis that has left Lebanon paralyzed, and particularly Akkar — a marginalized area in the far north of the country.
A video of the tanker just before the explosion made the rounds on social media on the night of Aug. 15, showing distressing scenes.
In almost complete darkness, a group of men clustered anxiously in front of the tanker to fill their plastic gallons. Some were extracting fuel by frantically soaking a garment in the tank before wringing it out over their canisters, while others were impatiently waiting for their turns behind them.
But what looked like a gift from heaven was soon to open the gates of hell.
“People were agitated and bickering amongst themselves. Some blamed others for having taken more fuel [than their share]. At some point I heard someone say, ‘I’m going to light it up, I’m going to light it up.’ The next thing I knew, I was propelled about 2o meters from where I was standing,” says Omar, an 18-year-old man who lives with his family near the site where the explosion took place.
Omar suffered a wound to his hand, while his friend was badly burned.
“We heard a lot of commotion that night,” Omar says. “We could not sleep, so we went to the site to check out what was going on. There were hundreds of people.”
While some testimonies have said that the son of the landowner had fired at the tanker, causing it to catch fire, the teenager said he did not hear any gunshots.
Earlier that day, in the hours leading up to the tragedy, the army and the town’s residents had seized the tanker, which appeared to have been hidden by a smuggler on a plot of land belonging to a resident of the predominantly Christian village of Tleil.
Omar’s brother, a soldier himself, said the tank had contained about 100,000 liters of fuel, of which the army had taken out a large portion and left the rest for the local people.
“But the soldiers did not expect to see so many people showing up at this late hour,” he said. “At midnight, a few people who were there with the army began calling their relatives [to tell them about the fuel]. Residents did not have a drop of petrol at that moment. Can you imagine? People came running like madmen from all over the area.”
The gruesome scene of these young men engulfed in flames, some of whom were burned to death and others left with severe burn injuries, exacerbated the despair of residents in the marginalized area.
“Akkar is forsaken. Akkar is a place of sorrow,” everyone who lives there says.
The most depressing statistics of Lebanon can be found in the area.
Akkar is the most disadvantaged province in the country, with the lowest literacy rate and per capita income, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The area has all the characteristics of a poor and relatively isolated rural community, with failing infrastructure and a pitiable quality of education and health — falling far short of meeting its residents’ basic needs.
In such a context, the unprecedented crisis rocking Lebanon could only have disastrous repercussions for Akkar, whose natural wealth and diversity are nevertheless notable.
An area in chaos
“Would I have gone to fill up a gallon of fuel? No, I wouldn’t because I have no car,” says Omar’s older brother, who was on duty elsewhere the night of the explosion.
He adds, “This is what I tell myself, but … maybe if I had seen all these people rushing to the site, I would have done the same.”
“Also, a canister of fuel is sold for up to LL300,000 on the black market. Many people were getting fuel just to sell it,” he says.
The yellowish fuel jugs are everywhere to be seen in Akkar. On the badly damaged highway that leads to the area’s villages and connects them to Tripoli, small, often empty shops are lined up next one another: grocery stores, hairdressers, car garages, poultry vendors.
On sidewalks across from the shops sit fuel jugs offered for sale at prices ranging from LL100,000 to LL300,000 per eight liters, against an official price of LL77,500 for 20 liters of 95-octane petrol at the time of the explosion.
No gas station remains open in Akkar, in part because of the numerous security incidents due to the nationwide fuel shortage.
Amid brawls resulting in gunfire in queues of vehicles at gas stations, the hijacking of fuel-loaded tankers and the blocking of roads by angry demonstrators, petrol suppliers have become reluctant to venture into the area.
The residents of Akkar, where a car is more than necessary given that most essential services are very poorly distributed, find themselves forced to drive all the way to Jbeil or sometimes to Beirut — some 112 kilometers from Halba, the province’s capital — to refuel, or else rely on these fuel jugs sold by street peddlers, when their tanks run dry.
What’s more, Akkar is no longer supplied with medicines and many foodstuffs.
“The residents recently stopped a truck loaded with infant milk and seized and distributed everything among themselves,” says an employee at Abdallah Al Rassi Governmental Hospital in Halba, where many of those wounded in the explosion were taken before being transferred elsewhere due to the facility’s limited treatment capacity.
Although the hospital is sorely lacking in diesel to run the generators necessary for operating medical equipment, no employee here points a finger of blame at the people who intercept trucks.
“This is all the result of deprivation. People are hungry and the state has abandoned them. If my child needed milk, maybe I, too, would have hijacked a truck,” says a caregiver who denounces the authorities for not lifting a finger to secure supplies for essential services such as hospitals or flour mills, where bread production has come to a halt.
“My car has been parked for four days now. My tank is empty,” says a nurse, who has to find a way back home from the hospital each evening.
“Every time I have to contact an emergency doctor for a patient, I pray that they are not far away from the hospital, or that they have fuel. Yesterday, I tried to reach two orthopedists. One of them was stuck in Anfeh and the other was on his way to Beirut to refuel,” the nurse says, exasperated.
In the small room next to the nurses’ office, Mahmoud Abdel-Razzak, the only emergency physician at the hospital, recalls when he was stuck at home for three days because he did not have fuel to get to work.
“I couldn’t be reached at home either, because there was no internet or phone service,” he says with an uneasy smile.
Already poorly connected to the internet, Akkar was the first area where Ogero, the backbone of the country’s communications infrastructure, interrupted its services due to the lack of diesel.
“Akkar does not even exist on Lebanon’s map. What is happening here is not normal and does not happen anywhere else in the country,” says a weary woman, holding her sick daughter in her arms. For days, she had to scramble to get her child admitted to a hospital. “The ultimate proof of this is the explosion. Life here has no importance. No one cares about this area.”
A man in his 60s is waiting for his nephew to come out of the operating room.
“I arrived here pushing the car. On the way back, uphill, it is going to be more complicated,” he says.
“They are all liars. Some hide the fuel; others sell jugs alongside other products. It makes no sense! Here, anyone who doesn’t work takes part in cigarette, oil or gasoline trafficking,” he adds angrily.
‘One tragedy after another’
Akkar, which covers an area of 790 square kilometers, is bounded to the west by the Mediterranean Sea, to the north by Syria and to the east by Syria and Hermel. It is home to 400,000 people, a third of whom are Syrian refugees who fled their country after the conflict broke out there in 2011.
Half of the region is cropland, and its agrarian plain is the country’s second largest after that of the Bekaa Valley. Agriculture, which is evidently the prevailing economic activity in Akkar, is not profitable. The lack of government support for the sector, coupled with low yields, have left local products unable to compete with imports.
Akkar’s inhabitants are therefore forced to engage in other economic activities to make ends meet. The fact that 40 percent of the population is under the age of 15, and that women’s integration into the economy is low, has imposed a heavy burden on the working people who have more mouths to feed on average than the rest of the country.
The women and children in Omar’s family are all dependent on the two oldest brothers, who serve in the military. In Akkar, which is known as a fertile recruiting ground for the Lebanese Army, almost all families have an enlisted son, which explains the high number of soldiers among the victims of the Aug. 15 explosion.
The soldiers’ pay is the main source of income for many households, and is valuable to the area’s economy. Yet these salaries are becoming increasingly worthless in the face of the sharp depreciation of the country’s currency.
“I earn LL1,100,000 [per month, about $57 at the parallel market exchange rate, compared with $730 at the official rate] and my brother makes LL1,200,000. If leaving the army were an option, we would leave,” Omar’ older brother says. “Being in uniform used to ensure security, medical coverage, good pay and, most importantly, a sense of having worth in this country. It is a dreadful situation now,” he adds.
The vulnerable conditions that many of the soldiers’ families live in do not bode well for the security situation, which has deteriorated sharply, as well as the rampant smuggling that has become very common in the area.
Akkar’s inhabitants, who are left to their own devices and seen in an unfavorable light by a segment of the Lebanese population, are imbued with an immense feeling of injustice.
“They say that Akkar is another world and that this area belongs to Syria, not to Lebanon. If only it were, I swear! At least they still have power supply in Syria after 10 years of war. We, the Akkar families, sometimes seek treatment there, because there is nothing here. There is no food, no gasoline, no medication. We can’t even pump water from our wells due to power outages,” Fawaz, a local resident who lost four members of his family in the explosion, says.
“Apart from the soldiers and security forces, no one has a job here. Akkar is distressed. It doesn’t deserve this,” says Tony, 28, who despite being a university graduate works in a grocery store in Tleil.
Samir al-Alman, a sheikh who runs a school for refugees and who went to Tleil to offer condolences to a Syrian family who lost two sons in the explosion, states categorically, “All of the things that happened recently are due to the state’s neglect of Akkar. Our life has been one tragedy after another. None of the hospitals here were able to provide treatment to burn patients. Caregivers rinsed the wounds with water: can you imagine that?”
In Akkar, there are only five hospitals, all of which have low capacity and are short on proper equipment and specialists, which forces the residents to seek treatment in other areas. The situation is just as alarming in the schools, which are mostly public, while a long-promised university for the area remains an empty pledge.
A sectarian system
How can we explain why the residents of a province endowed with abundant natural resources — especially water — with one of the country’s most fertile plains and huge forests with the potential for many activities, including ecotourism, are so destitute and marginalized?
Akkar’s misery took root in an uneven development policy that has been in place for decades, under which the government prioritized Beirut and some areas in Mount Lebanon to the detriment of the peripheral areas such as the north, the Bekaa Valley and the south.
However, while the north has been overlooked the most, the Bekaa Valley and the south have received slightly more attention, in addition to a handful of investments targeting infrastructure and services, especially in the aftermath of the Civil War and the 2006 Israeli war.
“From the state’s perspective, as long as the people in Akkar are able to be enlisted in the military, they can make a living. The soldiers have always sent a large part of their pay to the area. This is where lies the hypocrisy of the central authority, which has completely left this area behind, although the latter has given the country some of its greatest officers,” Joseph Bahout, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Akkar is a majority-Sunni area that is also composed of various other religious groups, including Greek Orthodox, Maronites and Alawites. It is a complex area where the dynamics of feudalism, which can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire, continue to be deeply rooted.
The recent developments are the expression of ongoing power games, which have sucked the life out of the area’s population more than anything else. Following the tragedy of Aug. 15, the population accused three of Akkar’s members of Parliament — namely, Tarek El Merhebi, Walid Baarini and Assaad Dergham — of being the accomplices, and even the artisans of the long-established smuggling activities that threw the province into the abyss.
These parliamentarians hail from large feudal families that have exerted significant control over the area for many years without achieving tangible development.
Merhebi and Baarini are affiliated with former Premier Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, which is very influential within the Sunni majority population, while Dergham is affiliated with former Minister Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement; the three stand accused of running a machine of political clientelism at full throttle.
“Our deputies let us down. They did not repair the roads, which have been in the same condition for almost 50 years,” says Ayash, a father from the village of Debbabieh who is struggling to make ends meet. “They have not launched any public project to create jobs for the people. All of them are liars, no matter the party they represent. They seek our votes during the elections in exchange for a few dollars before they disappear.
“Unfortunately, the people here allow themselves to be bought off, not because they are dishonorable, but because they live in poverty.”
Paradoxically, Akkar’s people pride themselves on setting an example of interfaith coexistence and solidarity. Yet the region has always served as a breeding ground for sectarian parties.
“Almost all of those who fell in the war defending the Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces hail from Akkar. Hariri presently finds here an unequaled Sunni reservoir fueling all protests held in his favor across the country. Here, the people are used as fodder for the opposing political camps, nothing more,” says Antoine Daher, the president of the Environment Council of Qobeiyat.
Although the people of Akkar are well-aware that these political parties have never sought to improve their lives, they find it hard to set themselves free from their yoke.
“It is because the people’s emotions are being manipulated. During election season, they are told that Hariri junior should not be let down against his Aounist opponents and Hezbollah. The other way around is circulated as well. At the end of the day, Akkar’s impoverishment is attributed to the sectarian system,” adds Daher, who is also medical director at Notre Dame de la Paix Hospital.
Nevertheless, the blame is not limited to one side. Few are the civil society candidates who have dared to run for parliamentary seats in the various elections, and history has repeated itself at the ballot box.
“Things will remain unchanged as long as we continue to vote for these people. At one point, you must rise up and replace them all,” Daher says.
The scorching wildfires that raged across Akkar recently and the tragic explosion on Aug. 15 could serve as catalysts to bring about long-awaited change in the area.
And residents’ rage — expressed by ransacking and setting fire to the houses of Akkar’s powerful — may only be the beginning.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub and Joelle El Khoury.