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Le léger craquement du gravier devant moi était le seul sentiment de quiconque à proximité.
It was not long after 2 a.m. on a hot night in the eastern mountains on the border of Syria with Lebanon, but the thin crescent moon gave no light.
I was blind but not alone.
Someone cleared their throat next to me. General Joe Haddad may have cut his cigar habit with the bite of the currency crisis, but his smoker’s cough continues.
He handed me night vision goggles. A world of green tunnels has opened up around me.
Western-trained soldiers crouched on either side, peering through rifle sights; a long line of vehicles, including Land Rovers supplied by the British, stretched out on the road.
It is, in many ways, one of the front lines of Europe and the nocturnal game of cat and mouse, between smuggler and soldier, was underway.
The eastern mountain valleys, on Lebanon’s border with Syria, are a profitable route for gangs transporting fuel, drugs and people between the two countries.
Fuel, expensive and scarce in Lebanon, is even more so in Syria.
Already that night, the soldiers had captured seventy gallons of diesel – the smugglers had dropped it and fled, free to try another night.
As fuel flows in one direction, desperate migrants arrive in the other.
Lebanon is home to more than two million Syrian refugees, many of whom live in tent camps in the valley below.
This is only a temporary sanctuary, however, and with their home country still too dangerous to return to, the biggest cost of living in Europe is only a small but dangerous journey away.
Hours later, we are in one of these camps at dawn, watching soldiers go from tent to tent in search of weapons and IS sleeper cells as wide-eyed children follow behind. dawn intrusion.
This group is increasingly blamed for Lebanon’s problems, accused of being a drain on scarce resources.
It is unwarranted. The United Nations funds the refugee program in Lebanon and until the recent currency collapse many bartenders and waiters in the country were Syrians, contributing to the economy and paying their way despite widespread exploitation and abuse.
Nevertheless, they remain vulnerable, to local anger and extremist exploitation.
As the economy and government crumble around them, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are a rare pillar of stability in a country that is collapsing day by day.
A coup is out of the question – the difficult dynamics with influential Hezbollah in the south and the complex sectarian power-sharing relations at the national level preclude any attempt at military power.
Not only that, but the military just doesn’t want to go.
“If we had to take over, we would have done it a long time ago,” one officer told me.
Over a simple homemade breakfast of labneh, mint, radish and bread, another general, Johny Akl, tells us that we have arrived too late.
“A year ago, someone came up with the idea of growing our own food. We laughed at them. Now that is exactly what we are doing. “
Two sheds on the basic house chickens, one batch for eggs, the other for eating, and it doesn’t stop with food production – they make their own face masks, hand sanitizer, riot shields , shielding and more.
Contraband wagons are impounded and militarized; the captured fuel is used for anti-narcotic missions.
If it weren’t so bad, the sight of trained soldiers tending to tomatoes would be almost endearing.
But it’s not a good life.
A year ago the average salary for a young officer was $ 1,300 (£ 944), today it is only $ 100 (£ 73).
The LAF are desperate for the soldiers to abandon their posts to return home to take care of their families or to accept bribes from local gang leaders to supplement their meager income.
If the operational tempo allows, soldiers can take extended leave to earn other income, but some have already become AWOL and this could be the thinnest point around.
I asked Haddad: How much time do you have?
“Two, three months. Maybe less, ”was his grim prediction.
Such is the distrust of Lebanese politicians, both at home and abroad, the LAF have gone directly to the Western allies, begging bowl in hand.
The Defense Department has donated food, equipment to Americans – money for wages is what they need, however.
If the Lebanese Armed Forces collapse, the effect will be felt far beyond the Beirut Corniche.
Saad Hariri, Prime Minister designate of Lebanon, who refuses to form a government, is not a particularly popular politician.
Even among his own supporters, his popularity is fading.
The billionaire son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has a playboy image that does not suit much of the country.
In 2018, during a previous economic crisis, he was accused of giving $ 13 million to a South African escort he met in the Seychelles.
He is hardly considered a man of the people.
But for better or for worse, he is the preferred candidate for Washington, Paris and Riyadh, and for Lebanon, a government led by Hariri was the best hope of unlocking international financial aid.
A video circulating on social media showed Lebanese political correspondents gathered at the presidential palace, stunned and lost to follow-up when news of his decision to step down leaked Thursday afternoon.
Whether it is another political game ahead of next May’s elections or a genuine exasperation towards his rivals, Hariri’s decision this week to step down from government could have dire consequences for the country.
Within minutes of its announcement, the pound had fallen to an all-time high; 24 hours later it was even lower.
In less than a day, staples like food, medicine and fuel were nearly 30% more expensive than a week earlier, and the currency has yet to bottom out.
One can guess how long the Lebanese will put up with this, but their patience has held up longer than one might expect.
For years, they have supported self-serving politicians who squandered money and showed weak leadership.
The last twelve months following Explosion of the port of Beirut were particularly trying.
Basic necessities are now too expensive for many.
The long queues for fuel that crisscross the districts of Beirut contain all strata of life.
I saw Porsches next to buses, Range Rovers behind cracked firecrackers.
This crisis affects all Lebanese society, except for the elite themselves.
In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, Majida opened her refrigerator door and showed me the food she had to feed her family of eight: a small dish of diced tomatoes and herbs.
The freezer above was completely bare.
A herniated disc prevented her husband from working, and financial depression made him unable to afford treatment.
Only her teenage son can make any money, and it is desperately pitiful: two dollars for a night shift at the port.
It didn’t buy them much when I met Majida last week; he will buy them even less now.
Across town, another wife is breastfeeding a husband unable to pay for professional care.
When we see him in his cramped first floor apartment, Walid is unconscious and breathing through an oxygen machine.
He had cancer a year ago and it might be back, but without a diagnosis they have no idea.
” He is hurt. He can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t drink. It fades in front of me, ”Alia told me, blinking tears.
“Is it difficult to see him in this state in front of your eyes?” There is no money, no medicine, no treatment. “
She is not exaggerating. Not only is paracetamol nearly impossible to find in drugstores now, but Alia couldn’t afford more than a few pills even though it was available.
Burning tires and smoking wheelie bins are now a nighttime protest in the capital.
Some evenings they are the only light as the city suffers from blackouts.
It’s a long and hot summer ahead and patience will run out soon, surely?
No government, no leadership, no money and maybe soon, no army.
Lebanon is on the verge of becoming another failed state on the borders of Europe.