ARSAL, Lebanon: When Ahmad al-Breidy, an Arsali fruit farmer, went last week to check on the state of his orchards in the town’s embattled outskirts, a Syrian rocket fell a narrow 30 meters away from where he was huddled, patiently trimming roots.
Breidy owns 60 cherry trees in Khirbet Daoud that provide him upward of LL15 million annually, but due to the security situation, he has not seen a single lira this year.
“That rocket completely burned 10 trees, each one produces 15 cherry boxes a year, about LL100,000,” he said.
Arsal’s once-prolific farmers appear to be the inadvertent victims of spillover from the Syrian civil war into Lebanon, as routine airstrikes conducted by the Syrian regime and hostile rebel presence on their orchards have prevented an overwhelming number from harvesting their fruit, wreaking havoc on the local agrarian-based economy.
Farmers expressed unease about venturing to check on their orchards for fear of falling victim to air raids intended for rebel bases or being kidnapped or shot by militants. Of the few that brazenly made the trip, adamant on capitalizing on their yields, many came back with stark tales of uprooted and scorched trees.
Saadeddine Karnabi, Arsal’s mukhtar, said all of the town’s 35,000 residents own land in the outskirts, which extends for 60 kilometers, varying in size and production value.
Most engage in other income generating activities, including the prosperous local stone quarries.
But Karnabi reckons that about 2,000 households depend entirely on the fruit harvest.
“The most afflicted are farmers who own orchards in the southern side of the outskirts, which has effectively become a demarcation line [stretching about 20 kilometers] between Hezbollah and the Syrian opposition,” Karnabi told The Daily Star. He estimated that their annual net losses amounted to LL250 million, adding that farmers with land along the northern end of the outskirts were able to harvest at least a third of their crop.
Arsal was considered a lawless enclave long before the Syrian regime’s offensive to clear rebel strongholds in the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon pushed both refugees and fighters to amass in its outskirts, situated about 13 kilometers west of the Syrian border.
By 2013, the town had become an important support zone for the rebels, a place where they had access to resources and could regroup. Some fighters, such as Imad Jomaa, the Fajr al-Islam battalion commander whose arrest instigated the clashes, had families dwelling in Arsal’s refugee camps. But the rebels themselves are believed to be occupying farmhouses used to store tilling equipment and pitching tents in the orchards to accommodate growing numbers of rebels and families.
The rebels’ strategy in Arsal – overtaking government services and security buildings – is consistent with the methods of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for attacking urban areas. But the decision to seize the town was likely an attempt to push back against restrictions on their freedom of movement, after the Cabinet-backed security plan came into effect last spring, according to an analysis conducted by the Institute for the Study of War.
Security concerns, especially after the five-day clashes between the Army and Islamist militants earlier this month, have overshadowed the plight of the farmers, Arsal’s Deputy Mayor Ahmad al-Fliti said.
“It is absent from the municipal council’s agenda,” he said, blaming the absence of international organizations willing to take in interest, determine the scope of the problem and offer solutions.
Arsal extends over 350 square kilometers, at altitudes ranging from 1,100 meters to 2,300 meters. About 80-100 square kilometers are believed to be occupied by rebel forces, according to local estimates.
Fruit farming, though extensive, is relatively new to Arsal. It was only in the late 1960s that local farmers decided of their own volition to transition from traditional agro-pastoral practices, common to other villages along the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range, to non-irrigated fruit cultivation. As a result, cereal production declined and was replaced, after an estimated 2 million trees were planted, with cherries and apricots. The outcome was an ostensibly sustainable low-input agricultural system, rain fed and requiring no fertilization, as the region witnesses precipitation averaging 300 millimeters in the highlands, typically in the form of snow.
Fifty years later, the shift to fruit production, based exclusively in Arsal’s highlands between ranging from 1,200 to 2,200 meters, served to modify the landscape of the town’s rugged taupe outskirts. The area quickly developed into a leading cherry producer in both Lebanese and Syrian markets, with 20,000 tons of the fruit reaped in good years, according to an AUB study. By the time Syrian rebel groups took refuge in the area, local fruit yields supported 60 percent of Arsali households.
Suham Ezzedine’s father owns three different cherry and apricot orchards in the northern outskirts, but hasn’t managed to visit any of them due to security fears.
“We’re too afraid to go and check on our orchards today because of the militants there,” she said. “No one dares.”
She said the few who risked their lives to check on the northern orchards reported back that the entire crop had been decimated by the bombings.
“I am a school teacher, so I can help my parents, but I know many who can’t,” she said.
Of her aggrieved neighbors she counts Mohammad Atrash, who estimated he would make LL30 million this year from his orchards “but now he will have nothing at all.”
She said two other neighbors, Ali and Mohammad Hujiery, went to check on their crops but were almost killed by an airstrike.
“The municipality gives some people LL100,000-LL200,000 in compensation, but not everyone gets that kind of help,” she added. “Because you know we are in Lebanon and not everyone is treated the same.”
Communicating with the militants has also proved futile, residents reported. When Ayman Nouh attempted to engage with the fighters, long before the Aug. 2 clashes, they threatened him.
“‘This time you’ve made it,’ they said, ‘but if you come next time we will spill your blood,’” Nouh quoted them as saying. There was no need to go back either way, he said, because the militants had cut the majority of his 680 apricot trees for firewood.
Hasan Hujiery went to check on his orchards just four days ago.
“The militants fired at me,” he said. “I barely managed to escape.”
He estimates he has lost $10,000 worth of crops over the years, at first due to Syrian air raids that destroyed not only his grown trees but also saplings. “Three to four rockets had fallen on them” he said.
“Militants have also caused damage by passing over the plants with their cars and motorcycles.”
“Thank God I can still provide for my family with my stone quarries,” he said, adding that up till now he has not received any financial compensation from the government.
Farmer Mohammed Rayed’s fears extend beyond annual financial losses. He owns approximately 4,000 cherry trees, which form the mainstay of his livelihood. Like other farmers, his fields have been subject to rocket attacks, uprooting and burning. Despite the dangers, he and other family members have risked their lives to salvage their crops by making trips to the occupied orchard once every two weeks.
He has managed to retrieve about one third of his season.
Every visit, he said, confirms his most dreaded angsts.
“The problem is not just with the battles between the regime and Hezbollah on one side, and the opposition,” he explained, “but our inability to tend to the trees and remove weeds that will lead to total irreparable damage.” – Additional reporting by Rakan a-Fakih and Edy Semaan