”[O]ur necks and Hezbollah’s neck are intertwined. If Hezbollah wins, we win, and if it is slaughtered we will be slaughtered with it.
It’s a few minutes before midday. Al-Qaa, east of the city of Hermel in the northernmost area of the Bekaa Valley, seems like a ghost town. The residents are hiding in their homes from the simmering heat. The shadow cast by the stone statue of Mar Elias and his large sword in the main town square begins to recede as the day passes. Only the intermittent bursts of machine guns fired by the Lebanese army and the noise made by military vehicles in the nearby eastern mountains shatter the silence from time to time.
Long before the most recent battle in Ersal and the developments of recent days, al-Qaa had experienced firsthand the spillover of the Syrian conflict. When the leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF) Samir Geagea and other March 14 pontificators were praising the “peaceful Syrian revolution,” al-Qaa was watching in silence as weapons and fighters were being smuggled from Lebanon to the nearby city of Qusair in Syria, and diesel, foodstuffs, feed, and stolen livestock in the opposite direction.
Smugglers had full cover from the Future Movement and its MPs, even as Lebanon’s policy of neutrality or so-called “self-dissociation” was at its peak. In the past two years, rockets fired by Syrian opposition militants did not spare the town’s surrounding area. A car rigged with explosives passed through the area before it was detonated in the Bekaa. And when the Syrian army built elevated sand barriers along the border between al-Qaa and Syria, in conjunction with the battle for the liberation of Qusair and surrounding villages nearly a year and a half ago, the residents’ main concern became the terrorists controlling the nearby hills to the east.
Mayor Milad Rizk seems reassured by the situation in his town, despite the daily dangers it faces since battles erupted between the Lebanese army and terrorists affiliated to the Syrian opposition in the hills surrounding Ersal and al-Qaa’s eastern and southern approaches. The conversation with Rizk started off from the status of al-Qaa as a traditional border town suffering from underdevelopment and neglect, over coffee in a house in the Ras al-Kroum neighborhood. The man was almost grateful for the war for having shed light on this forgotten part of the country of the cedars.
The original population of al-Qaa is more than 13,000, according to Mayor Rizk and Elias al-Tom, a resident of the town and leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in the northern Bekaa, who was also present. But usually, by the end of summer, no more than 4,000 of its people who live in Greater Beirut and abroad are in the town, added to 2,000 to 3,000 people who live here all year long.
This year, the town had a harsh summer, and only half of the usual number returned to the town, especially after terrorists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front raided nearby Ersal and attacked Lebanese army checkpoints in the area. Were it not for the most recent “headache,” al-Qaa would have remained relatively untroubled and tranquil, after the Syrian army and Hezbollah retook Qusair, just like the villages of the countryside and Joussieh, and the Christian town of Rableh, directly behind the precarious border.
Eyes for the army
It is not easy to sleep at night, even in the cool nights of al-Qaa at a home like the one mukhtar Mansour al-Saad lives in, knowing that thousands of homicidal maniacs roam the hills overlooking his town, a few kilometers away. Anxiety and fear in al-Qaa are “natural and ordinary due to the situation,” Rizk had said, before al-Tom added, “Anxiety here is also felt in Ras Baalbek, Labweh, al-Fakiha, al-Ain, and Nabi Osman.”
Mukhtar Saad served in the army for 23 years. Today, he is the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) representative in the town. These days, he dons black military trousers at all times. What is the state of their morale? We ask. “The beheadings pursued by ISIS and those behind it and other forms of terrorism do not scare us; no one can remove [my] head except He who had put it there,” Saad says.
At night, the man and other army veterans in the town, including from the SSNP, the FPM, and the LF, as well as non-partisans, carry arms to assist the municipal police in patrolling the town’s streets. Saad stresses they are acting as “eyes for the army.”
“They accused us of being militias… the majority of young people here do not want to bear arms, but no one wants to leave.” – Al-Qaa Mayor Milad Rizk
All those we spoke to had not forgotten to mention the incident that took place a few weeks ago when the Lebanese army intercepted a group of militants trying to slip in from the nearby Wadi Rafeq. “Al-Qaa is like any other town. Some fled following the Wadi Rafeq incident, others returned from Beirut to defend it,” Rizk said.
From the home of the mayor to the home of the mukhtar, to engineer Matanius Wehbe and his guest Nicolas Nehme, as well as SSNP member George Saad, another retired military man, no one calls bearing arms as part of the municipality’s task force “vigilantism.”
“They accused us of being militias,” the mayor said. “The municipality is protecting civilians and assisting the army, bearing in mind that the majority of young people here do not want to bear arms, but no one wants to leave,” he added.
The new and extensive deployment by the army has brought some reassurance to the villages. Officials are not in favor of locals bearing arms, because, they say, “security is the responsibility of the army, which is now strongly present. The militants cannot infiltrate any town and the army has the equivalent of a battalion in the area.
Stopping a Christian exodus
Community leaders here are convinced that the terrorists are no longer able to overrun entire villages as was feared would happen at the start of the battles, all the way to Akkar and Tripoli. The locals believe al-Qaa now faces two main threats: car bombs that could make their way to the town, and armed groups kidnapping locals or carrying out a massacre. However, the prospect of a full-scale attack is “behind us,” according to George Saad.
For his part, the mukhtar stressed that the army and the Resistance would not leave the militants to do as they please. Recently, two town meetings were held to assess the risks. It was agreed that the government and the army had to bear the main responsibility, while the municipality and the residents were required to assist the army in monitoring and surveillance.
The mukhtar and the SSNP member criticized the LF figures in the town, citing the long absence of the local LF official Bashir Matar from al-Qaa, but praised quite a few members of the LF in the town who now share the same views as the FPM and the SSNP.
The mukhtar said, “In the past, they saw the relationship with Hezbollah as humiliating. Now, while they still ostensibly support the revolution, they acknowledge that were it not for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, ISIS would have come to them a long time ago.”
”This is our village and we will die and be buried here in the northern Bekaa. We will not give it up to ISIS and the like.” – Lebanese Forces veteran Matanius Nehme
In turn, the LF veteran Matanius Nehme said, “ISIS will spare no one, be it a member of the SSNP, the LF, or a Muslim or a Christian. This is our village and we will die and be buried here in the northern Bekaa. We will not give it up to ISIS and the like.”
On a different note, al-Tom said, “The lies of the West no longer deceive Christians. They want to displace them from the east through ISIS, and destroy the social fabric in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.” Echoing al-Tom, the mukhtar said, “The Christians now understand the American-Zionist plan. We do not want to go to France. The guarantee for the survival of Christians in the Middle is the axis of the Resistance and the Lebanese army.”
Asking about the relationship between al-Qaa and Ersal means getting a similar answer from almost everyone, about “similar concerns in the northern Bekaa even at the peak of the civil war.” Al-Tom and the mukhtar jokingly say that the relationship with Ersal is even better than the relationship with Ras Baalbek. It is no secret that the relationship with Ersal was tense in the 1970s because of disputes over lands and commons. But the two men say, with a laugh, that the relationship is ultimately one of good neighborliness while the relationship with Ras Baalbek is one of jealousy and bickering.
Between the portraits of Che Guevara and the late George Hawi, the two old communists Mtawei Murad and Boutros Rizk spend most of their time here at the Communist Party office. Murad asked, “Why does Geagea not come here? Or does he just want to tell us to antagonize Hezbollah all the way from Maarab? Our relationship with Hezbollah is excellent. There is a camp for the terrorists close to here in Khorkhona.”
The situation in the town is not that different from the situation in al-Qaa. The sound of clashes and Syrian bombardment of the militants can be heard here even more clearly. Anxiety is almost palpable, but weddings and celebrations continue. Some young men now bear arms as part of the municipal police to assist in guard and protection.
The SSNP official in the town, teacher Toufiq Mansour, and his friend Salman Samaan, say, “The army now supervises all crossings and the terrorists can no longer infiltrate into Ras Baalbek. But some are concerned about plans to carry out massacres in the villages, which is understandable.” For his part, the Resistance Brigades official in the town Rifaat Nasrallah said, “The people of Ras Baalbek will not abandon their town to ISIS.”
”[O]ur necks and Hezbollah’s neck are intertwined. If Hezbollah wins, we win, and if it is slaughtered we will be slaughtered with it.” – Mtawei Murad
No more than 2,000 people call Ras Baalbek home in the winter, and around 4,000 in the summer. The LF does not maintain any presence in the town. Rizk said, “The town has been affiliated to the National Movement for a long time. The general climate after the incidents is closer to the Resistance.”
Shortly before we go, Murad gives us the conclusion of our tour of al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek. He said, “In short, Christians in Mosul did not do anything. They just wanted to displace them. We in this region have never had even a ‘slap to the face.’ Of course, the army and the government are important, but now, our necks and Hezbollah’s neck are intertwined. If Hezbollah wins, we win, and if it is slaughtered we will be slaughtered with it.”this