Mules have regained their long lost glory. This strong animal, able to cross rugged mountain paths, has become the focus of a vast category of citizens in Lebanese villages bordering Syria. They have found that acquiring mules is a golden opportunity for providing their families with a satisfactory income that fulfills part of their urgent needs, in light of the difficult living conditions and harsh economic situation in the country.
This is according to Abu Mustafa, who hails from Shebaa and who has inherited the mule-trading business from his ancestors. “Mules almost became extinct in our town under Israeli occupation, due to the security situation that prevailed in the region for more than 15 years. However, the Syrian war has brought this animal to the scene of conflict. It has become a source of income for a large sector of Lebanese citizens and some displaced Syrians,” he added.
Mules have imposed themselves as the best (and probably the only) means of transportation between both sides of the rugged Lebanese-Syrian border mountains. They are used in two ways: to transport and smuggle supplies — particularly flour, bread, canned food, weapons, ammunition and fuel — and to transport displaced people, especially the elderly, children, and civilian and military war casualties from Syria to Lebanon.
These animals are becoming very popular in Lebanese markets. In less than two years, their prices have more than doubled. Consequently, demand for mules from cattle traders in Lebanon has increased, according to Abdullah al-Ali. Flea markets in various areas of the south and the Bekaa Valley have boomed with mule trading, and smugglers from all regions have become frequent visitors. “The prices of mules skyrocketed due to the huge demand that exceeded supply. Mule prices vary depending on body, age, ability and speed. They range between $1,000 and $4,000. In winter time, the prices slightly decrease, because snow cuts off roads between Lebanon and Syria for several months and halts mule traffic,” Ali said.
Salem, a resident of a village bordering Syria, said, “Two years ago, I renewed my fleet of mules. Now, they resemble a land fleet shuttling across the Lebanese-Syrian border. These strong animals represent our main source of income these days. They carry supplies, weapons and ammunition on rugged mountain routes in the highlands of Mount Hermon. The Syrian war brought the mules their past glory, which they lost over 25 years ago. They have become the best method for the transport of food products, medical supplies, equipment and weapons that parties in the conflict need.”
According to Omar al-Hussein, the most expensive mules are young 3-4 year olds, taking into account their body, speed and ability to carry weights. “There are mules that are trained to take specific routes. They become familiar with these paths and cross them alone without the need of their owners. These mules can maneuver and escape ambushes set up against them; they take other roads and more than one direction, then they return to the right route to reach the point specified by their owner, after they escape the ambush.”
Abou Tareq, who works in the mule transport field, said, “We are taking advantage of the clear weather and dry days to conduct smuggling operations between Lebanon and Syria. Transportation fees by mules depend on the load. A load of canned food and flour is up to $50. The amount doubles if it is a load of weapons and ammunition, because there is a real risk for the mules and their owners.”
Animal convoys loaded with supplies, especially flour and canned goods, have become a common scene in the heights of Mount Hermon between Lebanon and Syria, with an elevation of more than 2,200 meters (1.37 miles) above sea level, and where several rugged roads are taken by the convoys of mules between these two countries.
According to a smuggler named Jameel, food supply convoys are usually searched by the Lebanese security forces, but weapons convoys pass secretly “as we resort to camouflage to keep suspicions away, and take roads that are away from the eyes of the Lebanese security and military forces. However, in some cases we are trapped in ambushes. These forces were able to uncover some smuggling operations a few months ago — including the smuggling of gas masks and their accessories, and a large quantity of grenades, ammunition, explosives and light and heavy automatic weapons — which were on their way to the Syrian opposition, through the heights of Mount Hermon.”
It is historically known that Mount Hermon pathways were a key smuggling route between Lebanon and Syria, and that there were hundreds of people working in this field, according to Abou Wajdi, a smuggler. “In our town alone there were more than 270 mules. Their main task was to transport goods from Lebanon to Syria and vice versa. Under Israeli occupation, smuggling operations continued. They were carried out by officers in the Israeli army and Antoine Lahad's [Lebanese South] Army.”
He added, “Foreign cigarettes were the main smuggled product. This is because cigarettes used to arrive to Lebanon by sea to Naqoura Port, which was not under the control of legitimate Lebanese authorities, but rather under that of the Israeli and Antoine Lahad armies. Cigarettes used to reach Lebanon at lower prices, given that they were not subject to customs taxes. Thus, smuggling [cigarettes] to Syria was profitable and provided commanders of the Lahad and Israeli armies with millions of dollars. Smuggling operations decreased after the liberation [of the South], but have returned with the Syrian war. Smuggling has become a source of income for hundreds of Lebanese and Syrian families.”
Abu Shaker, another smuggler, said, “Winter is just around the corner and snow will accumulate on Mount Hermon, where smuggling routes will be cut off for up to four or five months. Then, our job will stop and mules will not work and will spend that period in their stables.”
“We are currently taking advantage of every moment, and we are smuggling day and night to compensate for the breaks in winter. My colleagues and I are carrying out two smuggling operations per day. I have 10 mules, and each one can carry between 200 to 250 kilograms (440 to 550 pounds). The cost ranges between $500 and $1,000, depending on the quality of the smuggled goods. It is really a lucrative career, even if it is risky.”
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