BEIRUT: Protesters tore down barriers and a chain-link fence in the Bisri Valley Sunday during a demonstration to oppose the controversial dam project and connect it to the mass uprising across Lebanon that has entered its second month. “We feel this campaign is an essential part of the revolution,” Roland Nassour, the director of the Campaign to Save Bisri, told The Daily Star via telephone.
“We are not just here for the environment. We are fighting corruption, debt from the loans from the World Bank and clientelism.
“All of the corruption in Lebanon is present in the Bisri Dam deal: [Parliament Speaker Nabih] Berri, [Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid] Joumblatt, [caretaker Foreign Minister] Bassil and [caretaker Prime Minister] Hariri all have a part. The dam reflects ‘All of them means all of them,’” he said, referencing a common protest chant.
Activists like Nassour have led a long campaign against the World Bank-funded project, which they say would cause immense harm to the Bisri Valley. The valley is densely forested and contains farmland and a large number of ruins and heritage sites.
The World Bank and the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the state body overseeing the project, have said it would provide essential drinking water to the greater Beirut area and have said they would preserve the ruins elsewhere.
Nassour and about a dozen activists have been camped out in the Bisri Valley since the previous weekend, when they got past a barrier at its entrance that had been set up about six months prior. They were joined Saturday night by dozens of protesters who spent the night in a pine forest in the valley and ate a traditional Lebanese breakfast Sunday morning.
Afterward, the protesters tore down a chain-link barrier that blocked access to the valley’s historic Mar Moussa Church, a heritage site that would be removed if the dam project goes forward. They also destroyed security cameras hung near the fence and removed a signboard bearing the project’s name.
Some then headed to the church. Video from the scene Sunday showed a large bulldozer parked next to the quaint stonework building.
“People from across Lebanon have become interested in this site,” Nassour said, noting visitors had come from north Lebanon’s Tannourine, Beirut, Sidon, the Chouf, Nabatieh and the Bekaa Valley. “[Protesters in] every square are talking about Bisri, so I think we have helped the revolution and it has helped us too.”
The CDR has a different view.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a CDR official told The Daily Star that the institution was assessing whether to press charges against those who had destroyed the fence and other equipment Sunday.
Nassour said that one of the activists’ main demands had been that the CDR remove all equipment from the valley, and they would remain there until their demands were met.
The CDR source responded that an excavator had been repositioned, but that the project was going forward despite now being more or less at a standstill due to the situation in the country. “We can’t get all the employees there and it’s hard to get fuel,” the source said.
But the project had begun with light works before the uprising began, and once the situation returned to normal, works would continue, the source said, adding, “The state doesn’t base its decisions on a group of people who get excited and break down a fence or play the guitar around a fire.”
Nassour alleged that activists camped out at the valley had faced threats of violence from employees of Khoury Contracting, a firm involved in the project.
The CDR source denied knowledge of threats by the contractor. The Daily Star was unable to reach Khoury Contracting for comment.
Nassour has himself already been the victim of an attack in the valley that left him bloodied with a chunk of his ear missing. At the time of the June incident, Nassour claimed that men affiliated with the CDR where involved, a claim the council denied.
Asked if he felt safe spending nights in the valley, Nassour replied that there were security forces present around the clock, and those camping there with him felt they were able to defend themselves.
“We have brave people with us,” he said with a chuckle. “They are revolutionaries.”