NAAMEH/BEIRUT: Activists temporarily suspended their activities at the Naameh landfill Friday afternoon after a police crackdown earlier in the day cleared the way for Sukleen to resume dumping at the site serving Beirut and Mount Lebanon.
At dawn Friday, hundreds of police removed tents erected by protesters near the landfill.
Ajwad Ayyash, an activist, was detained at 8:05 a.m. and released several hours later. Earlier in the day, some 300 police officers had descended upon the demonstration, activist Ragheda al-Halabi told The Daily Star.
“I’m just an activist. I love my country, I love mother nature. I’m just educating people about the poison of this goddamn landfill,” Ayyash told The Daily Star upon his release, his voice hoarse from agitating.
Soon after Ayyash was released, activists decided to suspend protest activities, at least for the coming days.
“We basically took a decision to refrain from any confrontation with the police, but to maintain our right to take action later on,” activist Mark Daou said.
Still, Daou says the battle over Naameh landfill is far from over.
“Fifteen days after the formation of the government we will take to streets again if our demands are not met,” Daou told The Daily Star.
Specifically, activist Melhem Khalaf said, the protesters want the landfill to be used for only biodegradable waste as stipulated in the agreement with Sukleen, the private company contracted to sweep and clean the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon.
The activists, Khalaf added, also want the government to create a monitoring committee consisting of representatives from civil society and the affected municipalities.
Protesters have been blocking the access road to the Naameh landfill on and off since Jan. 17, repeatedly bringing trash collection in Beirut to a standstill. The road, however, was opened during the police raid early Friday morning.
Sukleen resumed its operations in Beirut and Mount Lebanon Friday and garbage trucks were passing through the access road unhindered Friday afternoon under the watchful eye of the Internal Security Forces.
The crackdown comes after Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt vowed Thursday to close the controversial Naameh landfill by 2015, saying that his National Struggle Front parliamentary bloc would find alternatives to the dumping ground and follow up on the file until the formation of a new Cabinet.
Protesters said they welcomed Jumblatt’s initiative but still sought assurances that their demands to relevant authorities and the Council for Development and Reconstruction would be respected.
“We’re thankful for the statement offering a solution, but the initiative is lacking. ... Political vows are not enough for us; we need written assurances from the relevant authorities that the landfill will be closed next year,” said Bassam Kantar, a spokesperson for the protesters.
“The caretaker Cabinet can handle the issue and give us the vows we need now. Why do they want to keep the file pending until a new government is formed?” he asked.
However, others were skeptical of Jumblatt’s pronouncement.
“He’s just talking [for the sake of talking],” said Sara, a student activist whose family hails from the Naameh area. “I think Walid Jumblatt always follows the money,” she added.
Others, however, were more concerned with the role of Sukleen in the affair.
“Sukleen is primarily responsible for how things have deteriorated at the Naameh Landfill,” said Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party. “The company’s opaqueness and the settlements it has brokered with successive governments led to this level of environmental deterioration.”
Residents in the nearby areas have complained for years that the dumping ground was being filled beyond its capacity and ruining the environment as well as making residents sick. Many suspect that a slew of recent cancer deaths in the community are related to toxic waste in the landfill.
Student activist Sara, whose family hails from the region, says her cousin Khaled died of cancer last month at the age of 22. She blames toxic waste from the landfill which has seeped into the soil and tainted locally grown crops.
“We are dying,” said Jaber Ayyash, who also said he was worried about the health of his family living nearby. “If they [the police] kill me now, what will change? Nothing, because I’m dying.”
If Beirut is feeling reprieve from the rubbish buildup, residents of Naameh are not.
A paint can was seen bobbing in a creek near the landfill; a broken fluorescent light bulb had run aground nearby, its chemical contents long since washed downstream.
“It’s not safe for us,” Sara concluded. “We are suffering from all this pollution and garbage.”