The Arab Highway's construction site at Jdita

By Maysa Shawwa & Walaa Harb

Kifah, meaning struggle in English, is her name and her destiny…Kifah Hachem gives her child a gaze full of apprehension and then cuddles her leaving a faint smile that vanishes behind her troubled face. She says, “We won’t leave our homes even if the bulldozer runs over our dead bodies.” Kamal Masood, another Jdita resident whose house is going to be destroyed says, “The money they want to give us won’t buy us even a tent!”  The head of the municipality of Jdita Wahib Keekano says that there are around 150 families in Jdita who will have to evacuate their homes because their houses lie on the trail where the Arab highway will be constructed. He adds that he isn’t satisfied about the monetary compensations that will be paid to the residents “at the end of 2010”, but Elie El Helou, the Arab Highway project manager, has something else to say about the values of the compensations. He says that a committee from the Council for Development and Reconstruction in 2003 visited the houses that are going to be abolished and decided on the compensation values. “These residents were actually paid treasury bonds of 9% interest rate in 2004. We didn’t even ask them to leave their houses back then,” El Helou says.

Darwiche Ghaziri, director of the department of education services in civil organization in the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, says that “the monetary compensations were paid in 2004 and the responsibility lies on the residents themselves since they had the right to either take the treasury bonds or leave them in the bank.” El Helou adds that the problem that has emerged then is the result of some citizens investing their treasury bonds in the banks,” instead of buying with them new houses when the prices of houses and lands were low.”

Some citizens claim they haven’t received any compensation. Ali El Andari of Abadieh town says irately “This Arab highway will be constructed neither in Lebanon nor in any of the Arab countries!” He stops talking and lights a cigarette so that to escape the tense moment and continues “No compensations have been paid to us and even if they give us money we will not leave our homes.” His smoke puffs intensify and he glares at his watch murmuring “Darn them all!” Others clarify that in Abadieh town, construction process hasn’t started yet and thus no compensations have made. Anis Madi says, “The Arab highway’s project has only been planned ”

Another conflict that has emerged between the residents whose homes or lands are going to be destroyed or expropriated is the “free quarter” controversy where the government has the right to take quarter of the lands without paying anything for its citizens by law. Some citizens were skeptical about this issue and started questioning about it. Some declared that such a thing doesn’t exist in Lebanese laws. Keekano states “Since the Arab highway is a closed project, the government doesn’t have a right to take the quarter of these lands without paying its citizens and this fact is stated in the Lebanese constitution”, but El Helou, when asked about this issue, denied the existence of such laws that prevent the government to take the quarter of lands for free. Looking at some of the property laws, there seem some kind of contradiction between what El Helou was saying and what the Lebanese modified property law number 58 date 29/5/1991 actually declares. This law was modified on the first of November 2006 and was published in the official newspaper. It states in its article 14 that no one could expropriate the quarter of the lands/estates without equivalent compensations in real estates made to the citizens and this law corresponds to the closed highways or bridges. When asked about the validity of this law, the lawyer Habib Abdo said that “the government has the right to expropriate the quarter of the lands/estates without paying the citizens anything in return.” This issue seems a bit of a stuck one since the law declares something whereas everyone seems to be interpreting it in a way that is adequate for his own interests.    

“The public benefit is more important than the personal benefit” Ghaziri says. Ghaziri mentions that each time a new project is implemented in this country, some citizens will agree and others won’t and would blame the government for the negative consequences of the project. Madamme Ammar Andari of Abadieh town says that she supports the construction of the Arab highway. “It is a great benefit for us because it will decrease traffic and will enhance the roads between Damascus and Beirut” Andari says optimistically. According to Ghaziri , the citizens who were complaining about the destruction of their houses initially have built their houses illegally. “Those people who are complaining are actually acting against the Lebanese law by the illegitimate building of houses on that area because when studies were conducted about the Arab Highway, there were no houses there and the government prohibited any construction of houses in that area” Ghaziri explains.

Some citizens don’t want their houses they have inherited from their ancestors to be demolished because of the fact that these houses remind them of their ancestors, their traditions, and their heritage. Georges Bijjani, the head of the municipality of Kahale, stresses on the fact that these houses are the embodiments of the ancestors that used to live in them. “They are sacred to the people” says Bijjani. “With each wind gush and church bell ring I hear, I can picture my family sitting near the sobya on a holy Sunday night and this house is what is left of that blissful memory” says the old Ronda Feghali. Bijjani mentions that Kahale’s roots are Syriac and Aramaic. He says “the name Kahale means breath of the God El, who was considered father of the Gods and of mankind and this makes Kahale divine to its residents.”

A building that will be destroyed in Jdita (path of Arab highway)

Bijjani talks about the main reason behind his residents’ refusal to the Arab highway construction project. He says “We are not refusing the idea of constructing the highway, but we are against its passage in our town” He adds “It is not because we are not satisfied about the values of the compensations made, but because we lived all our life here and we don’t want to leave the past behind us.”  Bejjani explains that getting out of the houses isn’t an easy thing. He adds that whatever the price is to leave the houses; that means nothing.”What matters are the memories and the feelings detached to these houses.” Bejjani asked the Council for Development and Reconstruction to change the path of the Arab highway. “We need to solve this problem with least disadvantages, trying not to hurt anyone” The current construction process of the Arab highway at the Kahale region is halted because of the citizens’ objections. Elie El Helou says, in this regard, that till now “we didn’t find a path where everyone consent on and we had an old path for the Arab highway and we tried to renovate it, but Kahale residents also objected”. This is not the only cause for the Arab highway construction hindrance, but there are other reasons for that. El Helou says, “At some point, the funding was not available because we relied on outside funding and this procrastinated the construction process” Abed Al Hafiz Kaissi, Director General of Land & Maritime Transport, says that the Sofar Arab highway part is funded by the Lebanese government whereas the other parts are funded by outside countries. “The Masnaa part is funded by the European Investment Bank, the Namlieh bridge-Taanael is funded by the Saudi Fund, and the Baaleshmay part is funded by the Kuwaiti Fund” Kaissi elaborates. In fact, studies done on the finance of the Arab construction highway showed that it costs billions of dollars and Kuwait is one of the Arab countries that is funding Arab Economic development with Lebanon and both have signed an agreement to finance the construction between Hazmieh and Sofar. With this agreement Kuwait’s contribution in the project has reached 32 million dinars.

The Arab highway construction has started since the 90’s where “the Sofar 5 km part was completed” as El Helou describes, yet some citizens haven’t heard about the project. “I have no idea” says Rose Rizallah, a resident of Kahale town. “I heard my neighbors talking about it, but I don’t know exactly if it will pass through our town”

 In 2007, construction works started at the Masnaa section and in June 2009 works started at the Namlieh bridge-Mudeirij bridge part. “Sofar-Jamhour-Siyyad part is under construction now” says El Helou whereas the Sofar-Beirut part is not under construction because of conflicts between the towns’ residents and them, as El Helou puts it. “On the 14th of May 2009 and under the patronage and the presence of the Prime Minister, Mr. Fouad Siniora, the foundation stone for the Arab Highway project (Mudeirij – Taanael section) was laid” Kaissi says.

 The planning for the Arab highway project was done long ago.”There has been talk of a new highway that would be built between Beirut and the Syrian border, to connect with Damascus as many Arab countries even before the civil war started” Kaissi declares. The plans intensified after the civil war ended. “The plan for the Arab highway was renewed in 1998” El Helou says. It would be of 56 kilometers long yet it would have dire environmental impacts, as Keekano says. “The main reason for our oppositions to the Arab highway’s construction is the fact that it is going to damage the environment especially in Jdita” Keekano emphasizes. He says that doctors have confirmed that Jdita has an idiosyncrasy of being a natural treatment place for people with diseases of bronchitis. “‘The bulldozer has eaten the mountain’ my 7 years old son said when he saw the bulldozer shoving the dirt nearby”, says Narida Yaseen, a Jdita resident whose house won’t be destroyed, but will be near the Arab highway when constructed.” He cried and said that he won’t be able to go to the field anymore and enjoy playing near the pine trees as he used to do each summer”, adds Yaseen. Keekano also points out that Jdita will soon lose its capabilities of being a center of spa tourism in Lebanon. “With the Arab highway construction, investments in spa tourism projects would decrease because there would be a threat of contamination of Jdita’s springs.”Keekano clarifies. The Environmental Assessment for the Mudeirej Bridge Reconstruction (Mudeirij Bridge reconstruction is part of the Arab highway project), July 2007, summarized the potential adverse environmental impacts as follows; air quality deterioration (dust, on-site power generators), pressure on natural resources (construction aggregates), construction waste, wastewater from project headquarter (located on site), handling of hazardous waste (for construction activities), and the disruption of natural groundwater regime. The assessment points out that the reckless disposal of the demolition waste would seriously degrade the environment and the landscape The reuse of rubble however is less prominent taking into consideration that “…there are no rubble recycling plants in Lebanon.”

So if the Mudeirij Bridge, which constitutes part of the Arab highway project, would cause such undesirable environmental impacts, what about the whole project’s environmental effects? Ghaziri views the environmental Arab highway impacts controversy from a broader spectrum approach. “Environmentally it is better. All the CO2 and gases that are released from the containers passing on the roads will decrease.” Ghaziri explains that on the long-term the trucks’ fumes would be concentrated in a specific area. Dr. Samira Korfali, the chairperson of the Natural Sciences department at LAU, emphasizes the same point made by Ghaziri. She says “This highway should be done” She explains that it will solve a big problem since “it will reduce the pollution and the congestion of air that results from traffic.” She adds that “the ongoing heated discussions on the Arab highway project are because of politics.” Kaissi mentions that they had conducted studies on how they are going to retain the natural balance of the rural areas. “We have a plan to implant trees on the sides of the Arab highway and we have already brought the fertile soil for this reason” We can’t deny the fact that ,as studies showed, that over a million square meters of forest, meadow and orchard would be put under pavement, not to mention areas on either side disrupted by construction. Countless houses, old and new, would be destroyed, necessitating new construction elsewhere just to house the displaced people. Important summer resort areas would suddenly be subjected to the noise and fumes of thousands of big trucks and cars.

Gharizi gave the example of the highway between Beirut and South Lebanon to show how the Arab highway’s future would be brighter and people would learn to accept its idea gradually. “It was planned for this highway since 1954 but it wasn’t implemented until Rafik Hariri did this in the 1990s. In that time also people were paid compensations but not of values they agreed upon.” In that time many houses were destroyed and people opposed the project, but now the highway solved many problems. “Before the highway was constructed it took more than two hours to South while now it takes less than one hour” he adds cheerfully.

While many people may look at this as bad news such as some of the residents of Kahale and Jdita, it may be looked at as a good sign. Ghaziri says that the way to Alley consumes a lot of time and the way is congested of containers in addition to the traffic and the accidents that occur on this way. Despite that, the citizens still have problems with it. “Government has no conscience” Youssef Madi, a citizen in Abadieh village, expresses his frustration. He adds that the government has made a chaos in our village by destroying the people’s homes. “This project is a complete failure. The government brainwashes the minds of the residents since they trick them by letting them expect high compensations which is not true at all! The government didn’t give us even a dollar!” Madi claims. 

Each one talks from his own point of view. The government which is represented by the ministry of Public Works sees that the benefit of the public dominates over the personal level. Moreover, what they say is that they are compensating the people with treasury bonds of 9% interest rate in 2004. On the other hand the heads of municipalities of Kahale and Gdita refuse the idea considering the environmental impacts, the values of compensations, and the emotional aspects.

“My husband is in another country and I have to pay the school fees of my children… I need one to two years to find another house”, Hachem says, poses for a minute and continues” We have only God to rely on.”

As simple as it may look, this shop (that will be destroyed) is the source of living for Massoud's family