Lebanon’s battle with the cable-snatchers to keep the internet alive

A wave of sabotage is forcing thousands offline for days, impeding businesses and livelihoods. But the fightback has begun

Standing on top of a white van parked on the side of a country road in north Lebanon, a bearded man in a black beanie deftly pulls at wires poking out of an electric cable.

A colleague holds over him a large purple parasol, the kind used in gardens in the summer, to protect them both from the cold winter rain.

“Imagine, just two weeks ago I fixed these cables and the next day they were stolen again,” said Riad Haydar, a maintenance technician for state telecoms company Ogero.

As he spoke, Mr Haydar was reassembling a 1.3 kilometre cable that had recently been stolen in the small town of Bkeftine. The copper inside has become a valuable commodity as Lebanon plunges deeper into its worst economic crisis.

Cable thefts were rare before the start of Lebanon’s economic meltdown in 2019, Wassim Bayda, Ogero’s head of maintenance for north Lebanon, told The National. But in the past two years, more than 80 cables in the region have been stolen. Asked if the police have arrested anyone, he shrugged. “We’ve lodged complaints, with no results,” he said.

Wassim Bayda, Ogero's head of maintenance for North Lebanon, speaks to 'The National'. Finbar Anderson / The National

The cable in Bkeftine will take three days to fix, leaving 70 homes without internet. Mr Haydar's colleagues estimated the thieves made off with up to $700 worth of copper.

“It costs the state a lot of time and effort,” said Mr Haydar, who blamed “unemployment, poverty and high costs of living” for the thefts.

The thefts have forced the cash-strapped state to spend around $2m more in the past two years, said Ogero head Imad Kreidieh. Thousands have been left without internet, sometimes for days, in the past months across the small Mediterranean country.

Late in January, in the capital Beirut, three large underground cables were stolen. They take longer to repair than the thinner aerial ones. This means 4,000 people had no internet access for ten days.

Working undisturbed inside tunnels, thieves cut the cables into small pieces and loaded them into a van for sale, said Mr Kreidieh. Responding to these thefts is consuming much of his time. The 62-year-old telecom specialist regularly posts updates on repair efforts on Twitter.

In pictures, employees crouch in dark tunnels with headlamps and seal underground tunnels shut to prevent future thefts. “It’s a real challenge for our technicians,” he said.

'It's really a nightmare'

Internet suspensions have a domino effect on people’s access to communication, including e-learning for schoolchildren, and business owners who sell products online. Many Lebanese are often cut off both from Wi-Fi at home and 3G on their phones. The latter is a direct result of the country’s electricity crisis.

Lebanon's state-run electricity company only produces a few hours of power a day. Finding enough diesel to power highly polluting individual generators is a headache for everybody in the country, from individuals to companies. Few can afford to keep lights on 24 hours a day.

In Bkeftine, Mr Bayda’s assistant Reem Khawleh, 31, started selling beauty products online for extra cash last summer as Lebanon's local currency continued its steep decline. Ms Khawleh's monthly salary at Ogero is currently worth less than $100, or 14 times less than it did pre-2019. It goes entirely towards paying for a generator.

Ogero chairman Imad Kreidieh says thieves are cutting cables into small pieces and then loading them into a van for sale. Finbar Anderson / The National

But with little internet connection, online sales are difficult. “The internet connection is always off because of stolen cables and the 3G is very expensive,” she said. Mrs Khawleh now thinks twice before playing YouTube videos for her four-year old son, Amer.

“We need internet. It’s like electricity or water. It’s not secondary,” she said.

Jamal Khodr, also from Bkeftine, told The National: “Sometimes even the 3G doesn’t work and bad weather makes it worse. It makes everyone’s life harder.”

The country’s economic collapse has pushed around one in 10 of Ogero’s staff, mostly young engineers, to emigrate. Those who stay take pride in keeping its services running as best as they can. “If Ogero stops, everything in the country stops. Security forces, banks and companies can’t work,” said Mr Bayda, 48.

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It makes everyone’s life harder
Bkeftine resident Jamal Khodr

But cable thefts are just the latest of Ogero’s problems, which are worsened by Lebanon's haphazard political leadership. Last month, the company ran out of cash to pay for fuel for private generators in Beirut on a Sunday, just one day before the state approved a transfer of 175 billion Lebanese pounds, or $8.3m at the market rate.

On January 16, the internet went down for the first time for 12 hours across a large area of the capital. Mr Kreidieh, who caused a stir at the time by threatening to resign, has since secured enough fuel to last until May or June. The state is then expected to allocate Ogero another 400 billion LBP. “We should be safe until the end of the year,” he said.

He paused. “Sort of,” he added, remembering the cable thefts. “They're even stealing manholes to sell the steel. We cannot have a policeman on every manhole. It's really a nightmare."

Updated: February 15, 2022, 9:11 AM
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