RAS BAALBEK — Stepping out of his four-wheel drive, parked on a hill overlooking this Lebanese village near the Syrian border, Tufik lights a cigarette, momentarily illuminating the pitch-black night.
Armed with a Kalashnikov, his overnight watch will be complete at the crack of dawn. As one of his companions directs a light, Tufik gestures towards the flanks of the mountain to the east of this small Christian town. “Danger is everywhere behind those crests.”
Syria is just a few kilometers away, and the invisible border is more porous than ever.
A former police officer, the 43-year-old Tufik joined the self-defense group established here in Ras Baalbek. It was founded by Rifaat Nasrallah, a Christian entrepreneur and a sworn supporter of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, which is supported by the Syrian government. Nasrallah’s dual allegiances are but one indication of Lebanon’s famously bizarre alliances.
The villagers, dressed in paramilitary uniforms, have one mission: to prevent any infiltration by the Syrian rebels, even as on the other side of the mountain the battle for Qalamoun has resumed recently with greater intensity around the town of Yabrud.
For these Lebanese, the rebels and especially the extremist jihadists are a much bigger threat than the Syrian army, and shells have already hit several times here along the Bekaa plain. “The armed groups fired rockets against Ras Baalbek in mid-January,” says Nasrallah. “They targeted our farmlands. Nobody dares go there anymore. Are we supposed to just let the village suffer the same fate?”
These patrols are not exceptional in this region. Faced with increasing violence spilling over from the chaotic Syrian conflict, in which rebels are fighting among themselves, several villages that considered national security forces to be insufficient have formed similar paramilitary groups. Patrols are now regular in the neighboring Sunni-Christian village of Fakiha, while in the Shia town of Laboue, Hezbollah erects barriers each night.
Here in Ras Baalbek, Nasrallah’s men always keep their walkie-talkies close at hand. One of them lifts up a canvas sheet and uncovers a mutilated bronze statue. “These are the legs of a Christ. It’s from a statue stolen by the rebels in Maaloula and transported to Arsal,” a militiaman claims. “Takfirists sack and kill wherever they can. What does your president, French President François Hollande, want to achieve by supporting the rebels? Put the Christians of the Middle East in danger?”
Enemy of your enemy
According to several people in Ras Baalbek, some of Nasrallah’s men belong to Hezbollah’s “saraya,” a paramilitary group linked to the Shia party. But the 49-year-old entrepreneur claims to be acting on his own initiative, and that he alone is equipping the 40 or so militiamen with the rifles that can cost up to $6,000 each. He says the patrols have become essential since the battle of Qalamoun started in November 2013.
“We’re only protecting our families," he says. "If we see suspicious movements, we report them to the army.”
There were no such incidents during Tufik’s overnight watch, but rebels have been intercepted over the past weeks.
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Lebanese army helps secure the northern city of Tripoli in 2012 (James Brooke)
In front of an army barrack near Ras Baalbek, Lebanese soldiers are on the alert. They have received reports of gunshots. But the four-wheel-drive vehicle speeds onward along the road, driving through each of the villages near the border. It passes only one Hezbollah convoy, and passes all army stations without difficulty until it reached Qaa, the last Lebanese village before the plain that expands towards Al Qusayr, in Syria.
In that Christian village, other men are preparing for the militia’s next shift. But in Qaa, the 30-strong self-defense committee is overseen by the local authority. “Syrian problems must remain in Syria,” says Miled Rizk, Qaa’s mayor, who is affiliated with the Ba'ath party, the same as Bashar al-Assad’s.
From the top of the mountain where a large statue of Virgin Mary watches over Qaa, spotters spend the whole night with their eyes fixed eastward, toward those same borderland mountains.
Marouan Nasrallah, who takes part in these patrols, is also wary of shepherds who spend the day striding across the dry mountain flanks, as he suspects they might be informers to the rebels and their Lebanese allies.
He says the patrols are as much about stopping “the terrorists” as they are about controlling “the thousands of Syrian refugees who have reached Qaa, whose allegiances still are not clear.”
In the morning, the same man takes us to stony fields, west of the village. “From here, anybody can enter the village with a car bomb, without being noticed by the military.” For a brief moment, just a short time later, the sound of an explosion can be heard in the distance.