Originally published in The Daily Star
RAS BAALBEK, Lebanon
In the dark of night a group of around 10 armed men donning military fatigues and carrying Kalashnikovs gathered at a house near the edge of Ras Baalbek, close to where Islamist militants have tried to infiltrate the town on a few occasions.
“We have welcomed many Syrian refugees and I believe they are like our family,” said Rifaat Nasrallah, the group’s leader. “However, some are using the refugee status to enter Lebanon and in reality they are members of terrorist groups.”
Ras Baalbek is a Greek Catholic town in Lebanon’s northeast with a population of 15,000 people. A set of mountains is all that separates the town from Arsal, where the Lebanese Army has been at battle with Islamist militants from the Nusra Front and ISIS. Unlike in Syria where Nusra and IS have regularly clashed, the two groups are thought to be coordinating in the region along the Lebanese border.
And while the town has warmly welcomed 1,300 Syrian refugees, the local population fears the presence of terrorist sleeper cells hiding among the throngs of refugees.
“These terrorists are taking advantage of refugees by having sleeper cells in camps,” a military intelligence source told The Daily Star in Ras Baalbek. While expressing sympathy for the hardship faced by so many refugees, he emphasized the all-too-real existential threat the town faces from these alleged sleeper cells.
“There are many rumors,” the intelligence officer said. Military intelligence monitors social media and regularly intercepts communications between militants lurking in the mountains straddling the town. But the militants are aware they are being listened in on and therefore send out plenty of misinformation and false intel. “There are people from all the Arab countries and other foreigners,” the source said. “We hear all sorts of accents, but they mostly speak in Arabic and no real names are used.”
He added that while the Army feels it is in a strong position at the moment, military intelligence must look into each and every threat.
“An attack could come at any minute so we have to take every threat seriously,” he stressed.
Fear of infiltration by the militants hangs low over this town. Two locals have already been kidnapped while working along the town’s periphery. Both were later freed, one of which cost a ransom of $30,000. Sleiman Semaan, a local culture aficionado and former writer for An-Nahar newspaper, told The Daily Star about the time he watched a suspicious car descend from the mountains behind town by navigating unpaved dirt roads.
Semaan made a call and the Army quickly moved to intercept the vehicle, which turned out to be loaded with explosives.
These accounts have been woven into the fabric of the town’s psyche. Looking for a way to protect their homes, residents settled on forming armed patrol units that monitor activity in and around Ras Baalbek.
“It wasn’t the idea of anyone in particular,” Nasrallah said. “The whole village felt in danger so we all agreed it was necessary.”
While the majority of these men have military experience, they are not currently enlisted. This particular group, led by Nasrallah, is made up of the Hezbollah-affiliated Resistance Brigades and other civilians who have volunteered to defend their town.
“We don’t shoot if we see someone or something moving in the mountains,” said one of the watchmen, most of whom requested anonymity for security reasons. “We just call the Army and they investigate.”
Contrary to rumors, the group said they do not receive training from Hezbollah or any other outfit.
“Everyone in town owns a gun and we’ve all been shooting since we were small,” said another member of the patrol.
This development has also allegedly taken place in other Christian areas like Koura, Batroun, Jezzine and neighboring Christian villages in the Bekaa Valley such as Al-Qaa.
Other groups, including rival political parties like the Kataeb and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, also perform similar patrols in other parts of town. In fact the outside threat has united rival political factions in the name of protecting the town’s Christian population.
“He who doesn’t have a gun is buying a gun,” said retired school teacher Hikmat Semaan, 68. “The whole [Bekaa] area, but especially Ras Baalbek, is a danger zone.”
Semaan said that the mountains behind Ras Baalbek are currently inhabited by thousands of gunmen. “They see us as enemies and if we cannot deal with it we have to fight them ourselves. People here are scared and the boys guard us at night.”
While the armed patrol puts residents like Semaan slightly more at ease, a palpable worry still hangs over the town. “I went to bed [Friday night] and at 2 a.m. shooting started,” he said. “I jumped out of bed and couldn’t fall back asleep.”
Semaan said he was living under a state of heavy anxiety but such a burden would never lead him to even consider abandoning his home. “We are living our normal life, not in a 5-star hotel,” he said. “I live here all the time. I don’t like Beirut and I don’t want to go stay there.”
Echoing a mantra often articulated by the defiant residents of Ras Baalbek, Semaan said: “We may die here but we will not leave our home.”