Lebanon / Syria: Border Lock Down….

Thousands of transport trucks line the winding highways of Akkar, an impoverished region in northern Lebanon which borders Syria. Currently all land border crossings into Syria are shutdown to economic traffic, dealing a serious blow to Lebanon’s already unstable economy. The Syrian government has publicly justified this border lockdown in the name of regional “security”, as Syria is under intense international political pressure mainly from the U.S. to introduce tighter border controls. In Lebanon, the newly formed government and various unions representing impacted sectors, have painted the border crisis as an attempt to hit the country economically after the forced withdrawal of upwards of 15 000 Syrian soldiers from Lebanon in April 2005 and the recent election results.

A line of trucks at the Lebanese border crossing in the Akkar region in the North of the country. (Photo: Stefan Christoff/EI)

Diplomatic warfare has erupted between Beirut and Damascus, as the Lebanese government attempts to build international pressure on Syria to reopen its borders to Lebanese economic traffic. Lebanese MP Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, spoke on the border lockdown as a Syrian attempt to “impose an economic blockade on Lebanon”. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on a surprise visit to Lebanon this past week, strongly condemned the border shutdown and demanded that Syria reopen its borders, while Syrian government officials continue to speak of “security” concerns to justify the border lockdown.

Ziad Mansour, a Lebanese journalist with popular Arabic daily Al-Safir, spoke about the current border lockdown in a recent interview conducted while driving through Akkar in northern Lebanon. Mansour placed the lockdown in the context of political relations between Lebanon and Syria. “It’s clear that the Syrian government will not open the borders, as people are generally convinced that this is not about security, but about politics. It’s related to the Lebanese internal situation and a Syrian attempt to influence Lebanese politics again. Certainly it’s a sort of punishment for the results of the elections.”

In the shadows of these political battles, which have erupted between elite politicians in both nations, are the working poor. As major media institutions throughout the world cover the conflict through the voices of Syrian and Lebanese government officials, thousands upon thousands of farmers and transport workers remain hidden in a struggle for survival.

Truck drivers of both nationalities have been stranded in the border regions for upwards of two weeks living on bare necessities and sleeping on the highways beneath transport trucks. As Lebanese and Syrian officials negotiate from air-conditioned towers in capital cities, the true victims of this economic crisis remain on the scorching highways of Lebanon, without the colours of any national flag painting their identity.

Truck Drivers, Politics and Poverty

All roads leading to Syria in Akkar are packed with thousands of trucks and their drivers. When visiting the border areas, you see them sitting, huddled in small circles on the highways, talking politics, drinking tea and playing cards.

Living day and night on the highways, the drivers have become political playing cards, in an ongoing diplomatic war between Syria and Lebanon, which unofficially commenced with the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

Drivers are quick to express their opinions on the current situation when asked and are quick to attack the lack of action of both the Syrian and Lebanese governments concerning the crisis. All who spoke asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprimands from the Syrian government, as many of the drivers are Syrian nationals.

One Syrian truck driver spoke on the current crisis and their desperate situation. “Food, there is no more. Water, there is no more. We are not living. We are neither living nor dying! Both the Syrian and Lebanese governments are not supporting us. It’s all about letting the poor people die, and this is it. Imagine I’ve been sleeping on the highway for 15 days.”

A truck driver sleeping under his vehicle at the Masnaa border crossing in Eastern Lebanon. (Photo: Stefan Christoff/EI)

As the drivers’ livelihoods are dependent on minimal daily salaries which have been absent during this crisis, they have obeyed orders from their employers to live out the border crisis on the highways without pay. The drivers caught in this crisis are a striking representation of the working poor in both nations.

Today it is commonly estimated that upward of 30% of the population in Lebanon lives in poverty, an economic situation widely blamed on neo-liberal economic policies of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A 2005 study conducted by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) concluded that upwards of 40% Syria’s population lives in poverty.

The Bekka Valley & Political Organizing

In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley trucks are lined for kilometers toward the Syria border, stretching into the distance in the summer sun. This traditionally agricultural region of Lebanon has become the hotbed for political organizing concerning the current border crisis. Unions representing Lebanese farmers in the Bekaa have concluded that millions of dollars have been lost, challenging the basic survival of thousands of workers from Lebanon’s agricultural sector.

Ibrahim el-Tarshishi, an organizer with the Union of Farmers in the Bekka Valley explained the effects of the current crisis on farmers. “The agricultural sector is losing an average of $300,000 every day, $12,000 each hour,” he said. “The goods waiting at the borders for weeks are rotten and can’t be consumed. Especially vegetables like lettuce, potato and all kinds of fruits are completely spoiled.”

A portion of the hundreds of trucks lined at the Masnaa border crossing in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. (Photo: Sawsan Kalache/IMC Beirut)

During the past couple of weeks, unions representing the transport trucks and farmers of the Bekaa valley, who transport a large percentage of goods to Syria, have been coordinating political pressure aimed at the Lebanese and Syrian government.

Last week, the Lebanese Union of Farmers in the Bekaa Valley organized for a mass demonstration against the closures, but cancelled the action due to intense political pressure from Lebanese authorities. This was an attempt of Lebanese authorities to undermine self-determined organizing of farmers concerning the crisis.

The same week, drivers at the Masnaa crossing held a spontaneous human blockade on the highway leading to the Syrian border. The action was directed at both governments for their lack of action on both the border lockdown and the terrible living conditions of the drivers living on the highways. In another crackdown on the political organizing of those most affected by the crisis, the participants in the road blockade were quickly dragged away and detained by Lebanese security officials.

Voiceless on the Highways of Lebanon

Throughout this border crisis major media outlets in Lebanon have been projecting voices representing the transports companies who own the trucks, while there has been little voice provided to the affected drivers. In Lebanon there is no official union representing the drivers, which can speak and apply political pressure concerning their terrible living conditions on the highways.

A driver on the highway at the Masnaa border crossing spoke on the current crisis at the borders. “Those people in the offices in Beirut and Damascus are not asking about us, whether we are eating or not, whether we are alive or not, they are not thinking about us. This is not a normal situation. When the Lebanese and the Syrian governments are having political problems, the people of both nations suffer.”

A group of Syrian truck drivers, who have been stranded at the Lebanese / Syrian border for over 2 weeks. (Photo: Stefan Christoff/EI)

The rage and despair expressed by the drivers on the borders, illustrates the lack of support that governments of both nations have provided toward the working poor, impacted most heavily by the crisis. The Lebanese government has provided no compensation to the thousands of drivers stranded at the border, as they survive on bare necessities with little political representation.

In the squeeze on the flow of capital between Syria and Lebanon, the workers that have made economic trade between the two nations possible have been forgotten and left to survive on the highways.

This crisis has brought tragic consequences. In the delirium of being stranded in the hot summer sun of the northern Akkar region for over two weeks, a truck driver drover over his teenage son, who was sleeping under the truck without realizing it. The death of this young victim of the border crisis was met without the media headlines or public outrage that would be expressed for the death of any political figure in Lebanon. A life lost and ignored like the thousands of drivers held-up on Lebanon’s highways.

To view a photo essay from the Independent Media Center of Beirut on the current border crisis visit Indymedia Quebec. Stefan Christoff is currently in Lebanon as Electronic Intifada’s Special Correspondent, reporting on present-day struggles for social justice. Stefan is a member of the International Solidarity Movement and also is active with Indymedia Beirut. You can contact Stefan at: christoff(at)resist.ca. This article was written for the Electronic Intifada in July 2005 from Lebanon and was made possible with translation assistance from Sawsan Kalache and Mohammed Shublaq, members of the Beirut Independent Media Center.