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Lebanon’s truckers try to keep things moving

Marketplace Staff Aug 16, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Today’s Day 3 of the cease-fire in Lebanon. It seems to be holding. The Lebanese cabinet has approved a plan to send 15,000 soldiers south to the Israeli border tomorrow. Civilians are working on rebuilding their homes and businesses. They’re trying to get construction supplies. Or humanitarian aid. It’s no easy task with so many roads and bridges damaged or destroyed. And so few truckers. Ben Gilbert reports on the not-so-open road.

BEN GILBERT: Burned out skeletons of blown up trucks dot the road from Beirut to Damascus, and serve as a grim reminder of the dangers that truckers faced during the five-week war between Israel and Hezbollah. Driving trucks was truly a perilous occupation, but 70-year-old Naeem Shalito says just parking one wasn’t much safer.

NAEEM SHALITO [voice of interpreter]: I tried to park in front of my house, and all my neighbors came out. They wouldn’t let me park the truck there. They said, ‘Take the truck away. It’ll make us a target.

Another trucker, Christian Antollas, made the run to Syria two weeks ago. He and other truckers kept each other informed by mobile phone of any kind of attack. He’d stick his head out the window to listen for Israeli jets.

CHRISTIAN ANTOLLAS [interpreter]: No, I wasn’t afraid. I was MORE than afraid.

But the pay-off was big for some truckers. Before the war, truckers charged $100 for some runs. After bombs started dropping, the price tag quickly hit $2,000.

Rafic Kasis, head of the Lebanese Truckers Union, says hundreds of trucks were destroyed and damaged during the war. Fifty-five truckers were killed, and most of the country’s 155,000 drivers were put out of work. He says the war has had a devastating effect on the 20 percent of Lebanese businesses that rely on trucks for commerce.

RAFIC KASIS [voice of interpreter]: Trucks move everything from medical equipment to bread. You can’t transport anything without a truck.

Kasis says that now the cease-fire has taken affect, truckers are back in business. But they still have to contest with broken roads and bridges and hundreds of thousands of other travelers trying to head home.

At the United Nation’s World Food Program distribution center at the Beriut port, dozens of trucks are loaded with food, water and blankets. Two enormous tents serve as the clearing house for tons of aid supplies arriving by ship. Twenty-three-year-old Lebanese truck driver Bidal Areedee helps load his truck with sacks of lentils bound for Southern Lebanon.

As a driver for Doctors Without Borders, Areedee has nearly doubled his usual salary of $1,500 a month taking aid around the country. Although his pay is still higher than before the war, Areedee’s danger pay has dropped since the cease-fire. But he’s grateful the fighting has stopped:

BIDAL AREEDEE: Happy, very happy, and safe.

GILBERT: It’s a lot easier to drive, huh?

AREEDEE: Yeah, yeah.

Areedee’s truck and 15 to 20 others aren’t even driving the first leg of their trip to the port city of Tyre. To avoid the delays of bombed-out roads and snarled traffic from returning refugees, the trucks are loading onto a roll-on/roll-off aid ship, says Mike Wood, the U.N.’s director of logistics at the port.

MIKE WOOD: We’ll load these trucks that you see here, and they’ll go inside the vessel, and then when they’re there, they’ll just drive off and off they go.

Once the trucks are loaded on the vessel, it will take 16 hours for the ship to reach Tyre. The trucks are expected to be some of the first U.N. aid shipments to reach towns near the Israeli border, and hardest hit by the fighting, in nearly a week.

In Beirut, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.

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