MADFOUN, Lebanon: Syrian truck drivers barred from entering Syria threatened to block the highway leading to the Madfoun Bridge Tuesday, where the trucks have been parked for nearly two weeks.
Caretaker Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan said high-level contacts should be made to lift a Syrian ban on Lebanese imports and exports that must traverse Syria to reach their destinations.
Dozens of trucks, with license plates bearing the names of Syrian governorates Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Raqqa, are still parked in lines in front of the Madfoun Bridge in north Lebanon. Drivers complained that they were turned back by soldiers at the Madfoun Army checkpoint.
“Tomorrow we will block the road here, we will tell the officer responsible at the checkpoint that we want to block the road. ... Enough is enough,” said Abu Mahmoud, a truck driver who hails from Aleppo.
“We ran out of provisions, we can’t buy food anymore. ... We are living like dogs,” he complained.
Abu Mahmoud said he came from Syria to Lebanon about two weeks ago to unload the clothes and food stuff he was carrying for a company in Beirut. He then filled his truck with diaper products and was heading back home when stopped by the Army.
“[The officer at] the checkpoint did not let us pass. They did not tell us why,” he said.
An Army spokesperson said he did not have any information about the matter, and hypothesized that a Syrian ban on trucks coming from Lebanon was the only way to explain why the military would prevent the trucks from passing the checkpoint.
Soldiers manning the checkpoint refused to comment on the matter.
Meanwhile, to pass the time many drivers drank tea, while others slept in their trucks.
“I have changed my clothes three times without taking a shower,” said Mohammad Rajab, another driver from Hama. “Look at my dusty clothes.”
Rajab said he had been parked by the side of the highway since March 18, after he discharged his load in south Lebanon. “The soldiers at the checkpoint told me, ‘You are not allowed to pass.’”
“We ran out of food and water. ... Today we will close the highway,” threatened Khaled, another driver.
“We need to spend $20 every day to meet our basic needs, it is a problem. Is this an attempt to take revenge on the Syrian people?” asked AbdelAziz, a third driver.
The suggestion of blocking the highway in protest was opposed by Rajab, who said that it was not the drivers’ fault.
“This is where we live, this is our house,” the three said, pointing to few mattresses and a portable gas burner in the loading compartment of the truck.
Last month, Syria banned exporting Lebanese citrus and bananas through its territories after several Syrian fuel tankers were attacked in north Lebanon.
Angry crowds supporting the Syrian uprising torched several fuel tankers in Tripoli, arguing that the fuel was being used by the Syrian army.
Hajj Hasan said Tuesday that Syria was now banning more trucks carrying Lebanese products from crossing Lebanon, not just citrus and bananas.
“A swift political and security solution for land transportation is required through high level contacts between politicians in order to serve the national interest,” Hajj Hassan told a news conference at the ministry after he chaired a meeting to discuss ways to resolve the problem.
Hajj Hasan said that while the Agriculture Ministry, the Transport and Public Works Ministry, the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon and other institutions have improved maritime transportation in the past year, there other some products that cannot be traded by sea.
“Lebanon imports and exports so many products by land because they cannot be exported or imported via the sea. Also, 20 percent of Lebanon’s exports are destined to Syria,” the minister said.
He added that some products would lose their competitive advantage if exported by sea due high costs.
Hajj Hasan pledged to continue intense contacts to resolve the issue of land transportation.
“This issue is national par excellence, particularly since the producers, farmers, exporters, importers and merchants belong to various Lebanese sects and are affiliated with different political factions,” Hajj Hasan said.
He voiced regret that some trucks had to wait by the Madfoun Bridge on the request of security authorities and said that many others were waiting on border crossings.
Speaking during the news conference, Abdel-Hafiz Qaisi, the director-general of land and maritime transport operated by the Transportation Ministry, said that for Lebanon, exporting products to Syria was crucial.
He added that halting land transport would have a negative impact on the entire Arab economy, and urged all relevant parties to protect the safety of trucks passing through Lebanon.