George, a resident of the town of al-Fakha in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, takes out a rifle he inherited from his father 20 years after he acquired it. "I oiled it, then inspected its bullets," he said. He only had nine bullets, but he bought 200 additional ones and placed them with the rifle in a cupboard near his bed. "Whoever doesn't look out for himself is stupid and naive," he added. For the first time in nearly 25 years of marriage, his wife appreciates his passion for hunting.
"At least if he shoots, he’ll hit his target," she said, laughing sarcastically.
George's behavior is new, in light of the situation in the northern Bekaa Valley, specifically with the presence of thousands of militants in the barren plains of Arsal and the eastern Lebanese mountain range on the border with Syria. The statement released by the Ahrar al-Sunnah Brigades, in which they threatened to attack churches and Christians in the region, has had a deep impact on many residents. There are also many reports and scenarios being shared on social media about the possibility of villages inhabited by Christians being raided.
George noted that some of the families from al-Fakha have now avoided coming to the town, or at least decreased their outings. He, however, will not leave, saying, "I was born and raised here, and I want to die here."
The people of al-Fakha, whether Christians or Sunnis, are not known for taking up arms, "but everyone is inspecting his weapon. And those who did not own [a gun] have now bought one, even if just a pistol," according to George. He believes that the residents of the region do not pose a danger to one another. Rather, the danger comes from the militants.
But trend toward arming does not control everyday life. Ras Baalbek, al-Fakha, al-Qaa and al-Jdeideh celebrated the Saint Elias and Saint Charbel holidays that are in full swing. Naji Nasrallah, a resident of Ras Baalbek, said that while armament is present, "It is sparse and on an individual basis, for self-defense. But the threats directed at Christians in the region have had an opposite effect."
"The town square was teeming with residents [of Ras Baalbek] and neighboring regions to celebrate the cultural festival and religious holidays. These are acts that we will not give up on," he added.
However, concern prevails in the villages of al-Qaa, Ras Baalbek, al-Fakha and al-Jdeideh, especially since the barren plains of Arsal — which contain militants — overlook their towns. The plains of Arsal contain a large part of their agricultural land, stone quarries, mills and orchards, and more importantly, are just around the corner from their homes.
This concern was not previously present in the region, even at the height of the Lebanese civil war. Throughout the nearly 20 years of sectarian infighting in the country, the region's Christians were not subjected to any harassment, according to Albert Mansour, a former minister who is a resident of Ras Baalbek.
Mansour said that the region's Shiites have "pledged their vows" to the Church of Our Lady in the town. "The Ras Monastery, which provided refuge for the captives from the prophet's family, holds a place of high esteem and respect in their hearts," he said.
Mansour noted the historical nationalism and pan-Arabism among the people of Arsal. "Thus, the atmosphere of [the region] has remained far removed from any sectarian or confessional conflict, preventing any confrontation of a sectarian nature between the people of the region," he added.
On the other hand, Mansour asserted, "After 50 years of mixing with the region and its people, it is the first time I've felt this amount of sectarianism." According to Mansour, this sectarianism was exacerbated by the political rhetoric that followed the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the events that followed it, leading to the war in Syria.
In the midst of this sectarian insanity, Mansour notes that there is some solidarity in the region with the suffering faced by the people of Arsal from the attacks carried out by militants on them. "It's good that the residents understand that the people of Arsal are suffering from the militants, too, and that those who support the latter constitute only a small percentage of the town's residents," he said.
For his part, Nasrallah lists some of the incidents that have contributed to sowing anxiety in the hearts of the people of Ras Baalbek and the region. In addition to the rockets coming from the barren plains that have fallen in the town and nearby, the past seven months have seen a number of events that were resolved via Arsal residents and their mediations. A woman in her 80s was killed during a home robbery, a resident of the town named George Yashia was kidnapped, a sawmill owned by the Nasrallah family was attacked and three workers were abducted, and a herd of goats was confiscated from the Shaaban family. Later, mill machinery belonging to residents of the region was stolen and the assailants asked for $50,000 or the release of detainees from Roumieh Prison [in exchange for the return of the stolen goods]. Recently, a young man named Mukhawal Mrad was kidnapped and later released in exchange for a ransom ranging between $30,000 and $50,000. However, the impact of what is happening has been limited to fear, anxiety and caution, and "did not reach the point that people left their villages," according to Nasrallah.
Former Minister Mansour attributes the declining number of Christians in their villages to developmental and economic reasons. "Just like the other residents of the region, they leave and head to the cities seeking education, work and a better life. However, everyone returns to build a house in the town," he said.
The number of Christians in Ras Baalbek, al-Qaa and al-Fakha reaches about 22,000-25,000. About 1,000 people, particularly those from al-Qaa, transferred their records to other regions during the war, given the connections many of them had to right-wing parties that were at odds with their surroundings.
Today, against the backdrop of what is happening with Christians in Syria — and especially those in Iraq — Mansour has noted a growing concern among the people regarding extremist militants. In contrast, there is a "reassurance regarding the Shiite atmosphere," he said, adding, "If Hezbollah did not exist, it would have been necessary to create it. [The party's] existence makes the people — including Sunnis, Shiites and Christians of the region — feel safe in the face of this strange formation."
Al-Qaa and potential infiltration
A stone's throw from the Syrian border, opposite the town of Jousia, Eid Matar sits in his hometown of al-Qaa and speaks about the link between the fears of the residents of the village and the situation in the region as a whole. "Certainly there is apprehension among the residents of the region who are aware. This has led to our youth living their lives constantly monitoring what will happen," he said. Matar notes that the men of al-Qaa are keen to ensure the security of the village in cooperation with the Lebanese army and the "resistance [Hezbollah] brigades." "The same is true for Baalbek," he added. Yet the atmosphere, which Matar describes as "pressured," has not led to the departure of the residents who came to the town to spend the summer. However, "there are some who abstained from coming as they do every year, and only come for holidays," he said.
Matar noted that some of al-Qaa's residents have asked some of the parties to give them weapons for self-defense, "while others have purchased [weapons] with their own money."
As the Syrian regime regained control of the Jousia region and its surroundings in the Qusair countryside, extending to the border with the barren plains of Arsal, al-Qaa regained calm. Moreover, the Masharia al-Qaa region "relaxed," as did the town's farmers, given that this region is their primary source of income, in addition to government and military jobs.
The concern among al-Qaa's residents led to them identifying three places from which they fear militants will infiltrate their town, namely Wadi Rafiq, Wadi al-Damina and Wadi Biayoun, also known as Naamat. However, the residents were reassured by the army's spread and reinforcement in Biayoun and al-Damina. It carried out ambushes in areas that posed a risk, and concentrated itself in the Biayoun region. Some fear the concentration of militants at the edges of al-Damina, in Wadi al-Kaf, where there is a large cave. As the plains of al-Qaa merge with those of Arsal, Matar believes that the greatest fear is from [the militants linking] Ras Baalbek and al-Fakha to the barren plains of Arsal, because of the militants stationed there, not because of Arsal natives themselves.
And, in fact, the people of al-Fakha and al-Jdeideh have the same fears. Hassan Sukria noted that rumors aggravate the already tense security situation. He talked, for example, about his anxious daughter, who is 17 years old. "Everyday she receives a message on WhatsApp that worries her and prevents her from sleeping," he said. The most recent such message spoke about the outbreak of a battle in the region, beginning in al-Fakha itself, and making this town the center of their "Islamic Emirate," given that it constitutes a sensitive point to cut the ties between Hermel, Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa from the rest of the villages in the northern Bekaa Valley.
For his part, Fouad Sukria refers to the tension that exists among the people of al-Fakha themselves. "Some of them are sympathetic to Hezbollah and some of them support the other party, but of course not the extremist militants," he noted.
Sukria speaks of a scenario regarding a desire to link the region of al-Zabadani to Masharia al-Qaa. "They said that al-Fakha is the weakest region where they can penetrate [the border], given that it is unarmed," he added.
Fouad Mohieddine spoke about information received by the people of al-Fakha and al-Jdeideh regarding the infiltration of members of the Islamic State to the region of Kharkhana in the plains of al-Fakha. "At that time, some of the residents from both sides left their homes, until the army came and stepped up its patrols and reassured the people." He said that the solution lies in a strong state, as "it alone is capable of reassuring the people regarding their lives and continuity."
Ahmed Mohieddine, a resident of al-Fakha who is close to the Future Movement, confirmed the existence of fanatics from both sides in the region. "But the majority of the people reject extremism and security breaches," he said. After stressing that residents are fearful of the situation, he noted that differences of opinions in the region — including concerning what is happening in Syria — should remain on a basis of mutual respect and non-confrontation. He said that the people of the region — including Sunnis, Shiites and Christians — are worried about the militants. The latter do not distinguish among these sects and operate on the idea that "anyone who is not with me is against me."
While emphasizing the [strong] relationship between al-Fakha and its residents on the one hand, and neighboring regions on the other, Mohieddine noted the necessity of regulating some of the armed manifestations that some have resorted to. "If there are movements by Hezbollah to maintain security in the region, this should be done in coordination with the army and residents, and according to a clear security plan that reassures the residents. This is so that we can distinguish between them [Hezbollah] and the Shabiha, so as not to fall into their trap," he added.
However, the most pessimistic picture is painted by the mayor of al-Jdeideh, Faris al-Khoury. "Yes, I am very pessimistic, despite the presence of Hezbollah and resistance brigades and their cooperation with residents, especially the Christians," he said. Khoury fears for "the Christian presence, as we saw what happened to Mosul and its Christians." Khoury demanded a halt to the funding of militants, "especially from the Gulf states and Turkey."
"It seems that the militants and their funders have not heard about what is happening in Gaza. Let them go fight there, not here," he added.
He said that the problem of Christian concerns can only be solved when the Islamist leaders and states of the region come out and say "the Christian presence is a red line that cannot be violated." In the same pessimistic language, Khoury expressed his fears that the Christians of the region will be targeted, thus leading to their displacement: "We will not leave our lands, our homes, our livelihoods or our people. We were here before the others, and we will remain."
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