BEIRUT: From an overlooking precipice, the sprawling Wadi Hujair seems to tumble on, hill after hill, for as far as the eye can see, its verdant ascents dotted with rock and dry brush, and a clear river running in between. Little is known about this seemingly untouched area of Lebanon’s deep south. Its arresting sights, however, prompted the Union of Mount Amel Municipalities, which includes 16 municipalities, in April to declare it a nature reserve. This came after the organization Generations of Peace worked for months to clear it of land mines accumulated during the July 2006 war with Israel.
In a matter of months the area was emptied of cluster bombs, artillery, grenades and mines, as bright yellow signs erected by the clearing authorities along the river banks proudly attest.
“After liberating the south in May of 2000, tourists began to flow into the region,” explained Ali Zein, the head of the union of municipalities that sponsored the area to become a reserve. “Wadi Hujair is a very green and forested area with oak trees over 500 years old. So we had to do our best to protect the area from hazards caused by negligence, and that’s why we thought of making it into an official nature reserve.”
A committee formed by Zein was tasked with looking after the reserve and protecting its resources. In line with these duties, Civil Defense teams are on call at all times around the area in the event of emergencies, especially forest fires.
“Working in a team, with the union of municipalities, and not in an individual capacity has helped us a lot in achieving our aims and carrying out a comprehensive development strategy, which includes a plan to combat fires, spreading awareness and planting more trees in public areas,” he said.
A team of 40 young men and from the villages surrounding the reserve were trained to watch the area to protect it in the event of a fire. A joint operation committee was also established by the villages to coordinate such efforts.
Despite the obstacles, Zein said, the reserve has come a long way in a very short time: “When we first started the project here in Wadi Hujair, there was nothing. Now we have acacias and other plant species growing.”
Nevertheless, there is still more work to be done, as Zein explained the concept of what a nature reserve means would take time to grasp for those native to the area:
“We need some more time for people to really understand what we mean by a nature reserve. There are large private properties within the reserve and we are preparing a plan in order to incorporate these properties, so that they play a part in the reserve.”
The union is still working with the Agriculture Ministry to plant more trees on the public properties of the valley, with about 12,000 planted so far. The union is aiming to convince the Agriculture Ministry to allocate about LL65 million a year in conservation efforts.
“We are doing our best to advertise and attract more visitors,” said Zein.
The valley is named after the pure water Hujair Spring, which can be heard rippling along the main road and the dusty tracks around the hillsides. Another current, the Slouqi Spring, flows around the periphery of the valley. Families can be seen gathering by the banks of the river during the hot summer months, including mothers, still modestly dressed in their abayas, wading through the shallow waters with their rambunctious children splashing about.
Nearly 18 kilometers square and cutting across 21 villages distributed in the districts of Marjayoun, Nabatieh and Bint Jbeil, the area hosts a diversity of tree species, such as oak, bay laurels, hawthorns and carob trees.
It is not uncommon for passers-by to pick the edible legumes, relatives of the pea family, of the carob tree to savor its odd combination of dry and sweet flavors.
Those who have lived near the area, however, often speak of its historical significance. Wadi Hujair was known as the meeting place of Shiite scholars. Prominent among them was Sayyed Abdul-Hussein Sharafeddine, who in April 1920 convened an important gathering to launch a resistance campaign against the French Mandate. Amid the majestic landscapes of Wadi Hujair, Sharafeddine called for national unity and stressed the importance of respecting individual sects, a call that political figures leading Lebanon still proclaim to this day.
Despite its considerable distance from the capital, about a two hour drive north of the area, Wadi Hujair draws families from across Lebanon, as far as Tripoli, to relax in the recent spate of restaurants in the area. With its whimsical conical roofs, cobbled facades and oak-lined interiors, the design of the restaurants in the area appear to be a unique cross between a traditional Nabatieh village home and the fantastical world of a Grimm fairytale.
Ali Mustapha opened his restaurant and resort, Throne of Kings, just three months ago because he found the tranquil area of Wadi Hujair relaxing.
“Many people come here because it’s a nice place to relax,” he said, as children played in the resort pool while other families lunched on the patio.
About 500 to 600 people flock to his restaurant on the weekends, he added, with the numbers increasing after Mustapha ran a promotional commercial on television.
Youssef Fahs, another restaurant owner in Wadi Hujair said his family had already owned the land where his restaurant is, and the idea to open Al-Arzal, occurred to him last year.
While he said he received a lot of customers, he acknowledged there were some in Beirut who might think the area was too dangerous:
“Some might think it is too dangerous, given the political environment. And there are people who are too afraid to come because they just don’t know what it’s like. But the people who are from around here but who live in Beirut, they often come here to breathe.”