Beirut – Fruit farmer Saleh Hujeiri has not laid eyes on his crops for months.
The last time he took the calculated risk to visit his lands, located in embattled areas eight kilometres from the Lebanese border with Syria, fighters who have been battling for control of the area threatened his life, Hujeiri said.
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What little he did see filled him with dread: His trees had overgrown and the wood was diseased. He quickly determined that unless he was able to access his crops and remedy their condition by the end of May, more than a year of overgrowth would take its toll on the harvest, destroying a generation’s worth of toil.
“If our work is not carried out before then, the trees will dry up and we will lose our crops. It will take another 15 years before they can give fruit again,” Hujeiri said. “We need to visit our orchards or else our trees will die.”
It is typically in the spring that Arsal’s farmers set out to prune their trees, a process that ensures air circulation, removes dead wood and prevents overcrowding. They also plough the soil and spray plants with pesticides ahead of the June harvest.
However, Lebanon’s low-intensity war with fighters holed up in Arsal’s outskirts – fighters who briefly overran the border town in August 2014 – have kept farmers from carrying out their agricultural work. Now, as a crucial period in the harvest season approaches, many fear they are at imminent risk of losing their crops.
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In March 2014, fighters belonging to al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Free Syrian Army were pushed towards the border areas after suffering defeat in Yabroud, Syria. By August, they had established their bases in orchard lands belonging to Arsal residents. Since then, farmers brave enough to venture to the outskirts to check on their crops have faced threats from Syrian warplanes overhead and from the fighters themselves.
By January, the farmers were also quarrelling with the Lebanese army over its stringent counterterrorism measures, which blocked a key road to the outskirts and effectively kept them from accessing their lands.
“The orchards are too dangerous,” Arsal’s Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fliti told Al Jazeera, stressing the importance of the army’s measures to carefully monitor those entering the outskirts. Wider security issues have taken precedence over the farmers’ plight, he said. “Even aid organisations are reluctant to enter Arsal.”
A security source with knowledge of army measures in Arsal, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said these measures were implemented in part to halt the smuggling of food and other supplies to fighters.
“It was done to protect Arsal,” he told Al Jazeera. “A passage can be opened if the security situation allows it.”
Farmers who feared for their crops held a series of protests in April, as spring fast approached. After brief negotiations with the army’s local branch, a small corridor was opened to appease them, but it was closed as soon as battles escalated in Qalamoun this month between the Nusra-led Army of Conquest on one side, and Hezbollah and the Syrian army on the other. The Qalamoun area straddles Lebanon’s northeastern border.
The taupe expanse beyond the last Lebanese army checkpoint before Syria stretches 20km, and has been the main source of living for the majority of Arsal’s 35,000 residents, who own orchards and stone quarries in the disputed area – the two principal industries in the town. An estimated 60 percent of Arsal’s residents have been affected economically by their inability to harvest their crops for more than a year, according to data from the municipality, and repercussions of the Qalamoun battle will only serve to exacerbate their already desperate situation.
“Each one of us wants to have access to our orchards,” Majed Ezzedine, who took part in the protests, told Al Jazeera. “My orchards are my only means of making a living, and I put years of effort in taking care of them. I don’t expect to find fruits and trees in good condition since it’s been a while and I haven’t gone to visit my orchards in two years, but I need to … help them grow again. There’s hope the trees are still alive because they are rain-fed and don’t need irrigation every day.”
Ayman Nouh, an Arsal-based farmer who owns 680 cherry trees, says he went to check on his crops six months ago. “The Syrian militants had cut our trees and used them for firewood,” he told Al Jazeera, noting the fighters threatened to kill him if he came back. After 10 years of tending, his crops brought in an annual revenue of about 15 million Lebanese pounds ($10,000), he said.
“The truth is we are scared and it’s a risk to go to our lands,” Hujeiri noted. “If we stay at home and do nothing because of the militants and strikes, we would not be able to make a living. Working our lands is our only choice.”