Ersal’s Economy Suffers Following Kidnapping Blitz

Following such incidents, the Ersal-Labweh road, Ersal’s only access to the international highway leading to Syria and the rest of the Bekaa. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Rameh Hamieh

Published Wednesday, August 14, 2013

After every kidnapping in Ersal, Lebanon, the townspeople are denied access to the international highway. The town loses thousands of dollars each day as a result, threatening the livelihoods of dozens of its families. Many in Ersal have thus been prompted to “act against the kidnappers and thugs,” both in the town and beyond.

“Even God can’t force me to go to Ersal.” Without any embellishment, this is how the owner of a generator repair shop in Zahle expressed his absolute refusal to go install an electric generator in Ersal.

The shop owner does not seem interested in the profits he could earn working in the border town. To make his case, he cites the kidnappings that have been taking place there, including the abduction of Krikor Vossian, a colleague in the same trade, even though Vossian had many friendships in Ersal. Vossian was held for three weeks and released only a few days ago on ransom.

However, the main victim of these murders and kidnappings is ultimately Ersal itself. These crimes, involving a limited number of people from the town and armed Syrian groups, are weighing heavily on the town, both socially and economically.

For one thing, Ersal, like most northern Bekaa villages, has for long suffered from government neglect – including under Rafik and Saad Hariri. Still, the town has managed to make a livelihood even from the barren rocks surrounding it. “Ersal is being strangled today at the hands of a few residents. What everyone worked hard to build over many decades, whether in agriculture or commerce, is being destroyed systematically, and this must be stopped,” said a mukhtar, or local leader, in Ersal.

It all started in 2011 with the abduction of the seven Estonian cyclists. Then, since late 2011, the Lebanese army was attacked repeatedly by residents of Ersal, leading to the deaths of such officers as Pierre Bachaalani and Ibrahim Zahraman. Subsequently, there was an attack on an army checkpoint in mid-May 2011, which claimed the lives of three soldiers.

Ersal’s economy experienced the most damage following the hostilities between the clans of the northern Bekaa, based in the villages near Ersal. This began with the June 2013 Wadi Rafeq “massacre,” which killed four young men from villages inhabited by the Jaafar clan in Hermel. It continued with the kidnapping of Hussein Kamel Jaafar, followed by retaliatory kidnappings that continued over the next 23 days.

Following such incidents, the Ersal-Labweh road, Ersal’s only access to the international highway leading to Syria and the rest of the Bekaa, would be continuously blocked by the clans of the abductees. No resident of Ersal would be allowed to use the highway, as there was a high likelihood of their being kidnapped and then used as bargaining chips in order to secure the release of other abductees.

For 10 days now, the Baalbeck-Homs international highway has not been safe for Ersal residents after Youssef Mokdad was kidnapped. Ten people from Ersal have been abducted in retaliation, forcing many in the town to stay home and abandon their livelihoods.

The town’s 200 rock-cutting saws have stopped operating. This is not to mention the transport sector – trucks, passenger vans, and taxis – and the agricultural sector that Ersal relies on heavily, which have also ground to a halt.

Ahmad al-Faliti, owner of a rock-cutting business, explained to Al-Akhbar the nature of the heavy losses incurred by the townspeople each day after a kidnapping or murder.

Rock-cutting and rock quarries, which produce building material and stone marble, represent the most important economic activity in the town. Rock-cutters can make up to $200 a day, according to Faliti, who said that business has been non-existent, with daily losses of up to $40,000, excluding the losses of the 2,000 laborers who are paid $30 a day each.

According to Mohammed al-Houjeiri, a truck driver, the daily profit for pickup trucks in Ersal is about $100 – moving stones and livestock to Beirut, Mount Lebanon, and the South.

The same goes for Ersal’s agricultural sector, which has met with “catastrophe and utter ruin,” according to Mohammed Ghadada, a local farmer. Ghadada said that his cherry and apricot orchards have produced little profit this season, as picking coincided with the kidnapping of Hussein Kamel Jaafar and the Wadi Rafeq incident. Ghadada said that many farmers lost entire crops because the town’s access to Syria and the rest of the Bekaa was blocked.

The mukhtar stressed that Ersal was losing “morally” too. “First, we lost our neighbors in the northern Bekaa, something that did not happen even during the Lebanese civil war.”

Ali al-Houjeiri, mayor of Ersal, maintained that those behind the kidnappings “are now known, and were named a while ago in a statement issued by the municipality and dignitaries from Ersal.” Houjeiri said that the security forces must quickly put an end to this phenomenon and apprehend the criminals behind it.

The mukhtar wondered bitterly if any officials will ever offer to pay school tuitions for students in the town and the cost of heating fuel in the winter. He then asked, “Will these be paid by those among the town’s residents who are reckless?”

Some Ersal residents seem to have resolved to move to Beirut, and protect their children from kidnapping, murder, and humiliation, according to the mukhtar. But he stressed that this was still not a solution, saying that the government must assume its responsibility to bring back order and arrest all the thugs in Ersal.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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