Al-Tufail: A Lebanese town under occupation

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A truck drives along an unpaved road near the Syrian border in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (Photo: Afif Diab)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Lebanese town of al-Tufail in the Bekaa Valley is under occupation. Abandoned by the Lebanese state for many years, it became a safe haven for armed Syrian opposition fighters and, later, Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting in al-Qalamoun. So will the Lebanese state remember Tufail today?

Many people do not care if the Shebaa Farms are liberated or not. So it is certain that many others are not interested in the occupation of a Lebanese town by the armed Syrian opposition. Welcome to the town of Tufail in the Bekaa Valley, which some Lebanese probably did not even know exists in their country, and have no idea about the suffering of its residents.

Tufail is located high up in Lebanon's eastern mountain range. On the map, it looks like a little finger protruding into Syria. Its total area is 52 square kilometers, two and a half times or more the size of the Shebaa Farms.

Tufail is bordered by Syrian towns on three sides. Hosh al-Arab to its east, Asal al-Ward to its north and the Rankous plains to its south. On the Lebanese side, it is close to Ham, Ain al-Banaye, and al-Shaybe, part of the Britel mountainside.

The town is famous for its cherries and apples, and its residents are a mix of Sunni, Shia, and Christian, with a Sunni majority.

Tufail is connected to Britel through neighborly relations, marriage, and smuggling. At the start of the Syrian crisis, Syrian and Lebanese smugglers collaborated to send weapons to the Syrian opposition fighting the regime's forces. Before the weapons, the contraband had been food and fuel.

After the start of the opposition’s military operations in Qalamoun, a field hospital and weapons depots were set up for opposition fighters in Tufail, which became a gateway into Lebanon. When the Syrian army withdrew from positions facing the town at the end of 2012, Tufail, which had been devoid of the presence of the Lebanese state, fell under the complete military control of armed opposition brigades.

At the time, the town was being shelled by the Syrian army, which led many families to relocate west to Doures and Britel. Tufail and Britel remained on good terms until nine months ago when Lebanese citizen Yasser Ismail was kidnapped, and his whereabouts are still unknown. This led to a rift between Britel on one hand, and Tufail and the Syrian towns of Asal al-Ward and Hosh Arab on the other.

Problems had started prior to this incident, when three young men were kidnapped from Britel's mountainside while barbecuing in an orchard. The three young men were attacked by an armed Syrian group, who shot at them and took them to an undisclosed location. One of the Lebanese men was injured in the attack and later died. In response, some young men from Britel kidnapped four persons from Asal al-Ward in order to conduct an exchange between the two sides.

After the isolation of Tufail, Syrian gunmen began firing rockets in the direction of Britel. It was further isolated following the seizure of a car packed with 240 kilograms of explosives outside the town of Ham. According to security sources, the car was coming either from the Rankous plain or Asal al-Ward.

There is no paved road to Tufail. The dirt road used for smuggling can only be accessed using a 4x4, but even this dirt road is completely closed in the winter. The only paved road is the one from Rankous in Syria.

Tufail is only Lebanese by nationality. If someone calls a relative in Britel, they are charged the international rate since the only phone networks are Syrian, and so is the electricity. Even the currency used is the Syrian pound.

Today, the road leading to the town is controlled by the Syrian opposition and its outskirts from the Lebanese side are surrounded by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah.

Tufail is not only forgotten, it is occupied by Syrian opposition fighters, geographically isolated from Lebanon and neglected by the state. On top of that, the security measures aimed at stopping the infiltration of opposition fighters or the passage of boobytrapped cars has isolated it even further.

Although the town does not have a municipality, it witnessed the influx of 20,000 Syrian refugees recently, due to the battles in Syria's Qalamoun. Once the Syrian army starts its offensive on Rankous, Asal al-Ward, Hosh Arab, and other towns in Qalamoun, it is estimated that the number will reach 50,000.

The refugees are currently living in abandoned houses, as well as in caves in the surrounding area. Due to the huge numbers of refugees, which could not fit in a town of 2,500 people, some of them have started pitching tents in the orchards.

"We left the village with the people a year ago," Asad Shahin told Al-Akhbar. He was displaced to Britel and said most of the other families also left, indicating some Syrian families also used to live in the town. "We left because it was getting shelled a lot after the revolutionaries arrived." According to Shahin, the biggest families in the town are "Shahin, Deqqo, Sadaqa, al-Shoum, al-Sayyid, and al-Masri."

Samia al-Shoum, the daughter of Tufail's mayor, Ali al-Shoum, who is currently in Abu Dhabi, said they "left the town because it became impossible to stay, but our homes and lands are there." She revealed that her father "pleaded with the Lebanese army to enter the town under his protection."

How would that protection be? "All of our families in the town will be ready to sacrifice ourselves if they come. But the Lebanese state is leaving our people there to their fate, without even one official bothering to asking about us," she replies.

"The situation in Tufail is more than bad," indicated Abu Mansour, who is from Jabaadin in Syria and is currently living in Tufail. "There are thousands of refugees who cannot find anyone to give them food due to the siege."

Fayyad Ismail, from Britel, goes back in time to speak about their "neighbor" Tufail. He remembers his father, Fayyad Hamad Ismail, who was the first to build a road through Ain al-Bnaye to Tufail in 1981. It was completed in 1985.

"Tufail used to belong to Assem Sweidan, known as Assem Agha, a Syrian feudal lord who used to own 20 villages," Ismail explained. "Assem Agha sold Tufail to Jaafar al-Shalabi who owned a bank. He had a partner called Jawdat Fala (from Hermel). But after they began losing money, they mortgaged the land to the central bank."

Ismail also remembers the "fog road," which later became a crossing. "Tufail has changed today after it fell to the armed groups," he added, and wondered about the groups and who is behind them. "Everyone is working for their own interests. There isn't one group, rather there are several battalions, but al-Nusra [Front] is not there."

Its residents stopped visiting there to see their families, “because of the fighting in and around the town," Abbas Mazloum, one of Britel's mayors, told Al-Akhbar. "The majority [of residents] fled to Lebanon."

"The people of Tufail vote in the Lebanese parliamentary elections, but there is no open road from the Lebanese side. A Lebanese army helicopter would carry the ballot boxes to its schools so they could vote," he explained.

Tufail is occupied and forgotten. But where is the state? Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk promised a few days ago to present the town's case to the cabinet. He wants to request to open a road from Lebanon and the return of the state to the town. But will the government act or will it be a repeat of the promises of the 1990s following the massacre of Tufail's civilians by Israeli fighter jets? The answer will be received in today’s cabinet meeting.

Follow Radwan Mortada on Twitter @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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