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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
Change comes to Syria's Lebanon 'home'
By Sebastian Usher
BBC News, Anjar in Lebanon

The road leading to the Syrian border in Lebanon's Bekaa valley is usually full of dilapidated trucks wheezing pollution as they struggle towards Damascus.

But in the past few weeks, it has seen another, swifter kind of traffic as Syrian army vehicles rush backwards and forwards across the border, carrying the accumulated baggage - military and otherwise - of their 30-year presence in Lebanon.

Syrian intelligence HQ in Anjar, Lebanon
Anjar has been the Lebanon home of Syria's feared intelligence service

If you trace the vehicles back to their point of departure, you are likely to arrive in the lovingly tended, palm tree-lined main avenue of the small town of Anjar, just a few kilometres from the Syrian border.

Squeezed up against a rocky hillside - beyond which lies Syria - Anjar's main claim to fame is a ruin from the early Islamic Omayyad dynasty, rising in gentle arches on the edge of town.

Armenian legacy

The other focal point is an Armenian church at the end of the main street, from where you can look across to the other side of the Bekaa valley, whose mountain tops are still white with snow.

Next to the church is a modernist memorial to the heroic last stand of Armenians at Moussa Dagh in Turkish Armenia against the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

It was from there that the town's inhabitants were finally brought to Anjar by French troop ships in 1939.

The transplanted Armenians turned what was then a swamp into a town - though at a heavy cost, with many dying of malaria.

It is a history that the town's current inhabitants are intensely proud of, showing visitors the original plan of the town and the deed to its ownership on the slightest pretext.

The Armenian identity of Anjar remains intact, with street signs in three languages - Arabic, French and Armenian.

Intelligence base

But in the past 30 years, the town has had another, less tourist-friendly face.

SYRIA IN LEBANON
Military intervention began in 1976
30,000 troops in Lebanon during 1980s, currently 14,000
Syrian forces helped end Lebanese civil war in 1990 and maintain peace
Calls for Syrian withdrawal increased in 2000 after Israeli pull-out from southern Lebanon
UN resolution calling for foreign forces' withdrawal in Sept 2004

The Syrian army chose it as one of its main military bases in the Bekaa and - more disturbingly in the eyes of most Lebanese - as the headquarters of its feared intelligence services.

The people of Anjar have grown to accept and even to benefit from the Syrian presence in the town, but their dread of Syria's intelligence operation has never gone away.

It provides its own sinister focal point - to match the Omayyad ruins and the Armenian church - in a nondescript-looking house, guarded by an unsmiling phalanx of unshaven Syrian intelligence agents - mukhabarat in Arabic - in cheap leather jackets.

An Armenian jewellery maker in Anjar's main restaurant, al-Shams - still frequented by Syrian officers - was loath even to say the name of the best-known inhabitant of the house.

But he squeezed it out in the end with a defensive laugh: Rustum Ghazzali, Syria's head of intelligence in Lebanon and a man who has made the country's political elite quail before his threats.

Deserted checkpoints

Driving around the town with a young student from Anjar and his friend, I asked to take a photo of the house. They kept promising that I could, but by the time they felt it was safe, the intelligence HQ was just a dot in the distance. Anywhere closer, they were scared the Syrians might spot us.

Syrian workers in Anjar pack up to leave
Like the Syrian soldiers, large numbers of Syrian workers in Anjar have been packing up

But they did show me the Syrian troop positions speckled around Anjar, even hard up against the Omayyad ruins.

They pointed out various houses that the Syrian top brass had requisitioned from locals - usually without payment or compensation.

Outside one, a removal truck was loading up. The Syrian military presence in the Bekaa has already become desultory.

Most of the checkpoints they used to man - aimed, most Lebanese believe, simply at bullying the locals - are now deserted.

But the mukhabarat were still operating on the streets of Anjar, watching and waiting.

The people of Anjar are ambiguous about the Syrians leaving.

At their height, there were about 2,000 Syrian troops there - about half the town's population.

The soldiers are poorly paid, so they have not been the greatest of customers for the more upscale local businesses, but they have been essential for the hundreds of small shops that line the road towards the Syrian border. Many of those are now closing down.

Syrian labourers

Even more important for the local economy have been the thousands of Syrian labourers, who have worked the fields and built the houses of Anjar for a fraction of what Lebanese workers would be paid.

Many are now leaving with the troops, fearful of their future in Lebanon.

This was brought home to me while I sat in the office of the chief official in the town, community leader Haroutian Lakissian.

One of his Syrian workers came in to share his troubles. A friend of his had just gone back to Syria after receiving threats, and he was thinking about doing the same.

But in the end, he told Mr Lakissian he would rather be beaten in Lebanon than be penniless in Syria.

Just then there was a phone call for Mr Lakissian. A Syrian acquaintance wanted to know if it was safe to drive into Lebanon with Damascus number plates.

Lebanese forces in Anjar
Lebanese forces are starting to deploy in the town

The Mr Lakissian reassured him, then expressed his anger that Syrians ready to spend good money in Lebanon should be scared off.

Later, in the dark, cramped room of one of his Syrian workers, plastered with pin-ups of Lebanese female pop singers, a garage owner told me his workforce was leaving too.

The numbers are vague, but several people in Anjar told me that about 40% of the Syrian workers had now gone. The effect, they told me, was likely to be devastating on this year's harvest.

The people in Anjar have one other big concern about the Syrian troops' departure.

Loyal as they maintain they are to Lebanese nationhood, some still feel that the Syrians have given them an important measure of protection over the years.

I asked the jewellery maker in al-Shams restaurant what the locals were afraid of.

Of Anjar's Muslim neighbours was his answer - though he delivered it in more colourful terms.

Others told me the same story. Their almost crime-free little paradise of pristine streets and civic pride was now at risk.

'Need for protection'

Mr Lakissian, the community leader, conceded to me that some of the people in the surrounding countryside accused them of being collaborators.

He said there was also a rising tide of rhetoric questioning the right of the Armenians of Anjar to be in Lebanon at all.

"The town needs protection," he said.

The Lebanese army was meant to move in the day after the Syrians left, he told me.

I'd seen some Lebanese soldiers driving through Anjar earlier. Apparently, they were scouting out the Syrian positions in preparation for taking them over.

As I was leaving Anjar, one of the locals who had been showing me around - a twentysomething with a computer shop on the road to the border and a sideline as a DJ - told me that I should come back after the Syrians had left, as people would feel much freer to talk then.

And he echoed what others in Anjar had said to me, that they were glad to see the Syrian troops go, but equally anxious to see the Syrian workers return.

"Perhaps in a month or two when things have calmed down," he told me as we both looked down the now darkened road to Damascus, lighted up sporadically by one or two of the little shops that had stayed open late.




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