Lebanon: Bekaa residents defiant in the face of the Islamic State’s attacks

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Men in Ersal sit in the shade. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Firas Choufi

Published Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The war in Ersal has cast a heavy shadow on surrounding villages, from Labweh and Nabi Othman to Jdeideh and Ras Baalbek. However, the northern Bekaa region of Lebanon, which has survived the civil war without any bloodletting, will no doubt survive the nightmare in Syria.

Labweh – Abu Ahmed rests his head on his fist and relaxes his furrowing brows. Having fled Ersal to Labweh with his young children as the first rays of dawn appeared, and amid relentless gunfire and shelling, he is exhausted and demoralized.

“Thank God for everything,” he told Al-Akhbar before adjusting his position on his chair to take a sip of the coffee “that cools the blood,” in the home of his old friend in Labweh, a village adjacent to Ersal. The majority of Labweh’s 10,000 inhabitants, to use the sectarian language currently in vogue, are “Shia.”

Abu Ahmed is one of hundreds of Ersal residents who have been displaced over the past two days to Labweh, Nabi Othman, al-Ayn, Jdeideh, and other neighboring towns and villages. So what happened in Ersal? The man suddenly rises up from his chair and kneels on the ground, crying, “God is great…boom boom boom!” mimicking the sound of gunshots.

Abu Ahmed has not gone crazy; he was reenacting the way a fifty-something Ersal resident from the Izz al-Din clan was killed nearly a month ago by takfiris, in the name of Islam, as he was praying.

Abu Ahmed has a lot to tell about the actions of the militants, who, he says, “drank from the well of Ersal before they threw their filth into it.” He also spoke at length about why he has chosen Labweh, and not anywhere else.

More than a hundred families from Ersal have been living in Labweh for 20 to 30 years at least. Moreover, there are over 500 marriages between people from Ersal and from Labweh. “Every home in Ersal has relatives in Labweh,” Abu Ahmed said.

“These shops belong to the Houjeiri family, this petrol station belongs to people from the town, and half of the customers at my shop in Ersal come from Labweh,” he explained.

“By the way, before the war in Syria, no one would speak in terms of who is Sunni and who is Shia,” Abu Ahmed proclaimed, saying that now the majority of people in Ersal think along those lines, though he stresses that there are people who do so malevolently while others simply do not know any better.

Here, his friend takes his turn to speak, and goes back to the outgoing period when several suicide bombings took place in the area as well as rocket attacks.

He said, “Some people from Ersal were afraid and wanted to flee from the town.”

“We told them you can leave your homes to ours…but they remained and thank God, no one hurt them,” he added.

Near the junction leading to Ersal along the main road in Labweh, mayor Ramez Amhaz stands with a crowd of people from the town.

None of them deny that people from their town have also fled for fear the battles in Ersal would spill over to Labweh. Many of them have sent their families outside the town preemptively, but stayed behind to defend their homes should the need arise.

“My wife did not want to go, so I told her should you be killed, I’ll marry another,” Ali quipped to Al-Akhbar, trying to break the tension caused by the sounds of shelling and ambulance sirens.

Yet none of the men consider leaving an option. The people standing in the street, like Hassan, who owns a sandwich shop near the petrol station at the Ersal juncture, say that they trust the Lebanese army, but have prepared their small arms to defend their town.

For his part, the mayor said, “The people are behind the army and are prepared to do everything it may ask of them, and to assist the refugees from Ersal and accommodate them in their homes in Labweh.”

One kilometer or less down the road stands the shop of Abu Khaled, a forty-something man who has been living in Labweh for 20 years.

Sadness and sorrow are visible on Abu Khaled’s face. Since Monday morning, anyone who could call him “uncle” has perished, without Abu Khaled being able to tell his nieces, his sister, and her husband Hassan Houjeiri goodbye before the militants killed them as they tried to flee Ersal.

Many relatives have since arrived in Abu Khaled’s home, to escape the fighting and attacks by the militants. Abdo Amhaz tries to console his friend, who is originally from Ersal. But Abu Khaled retorts, “Brother, if this is Islam then I don’t want to be part of it.”

Beyond Labweh, the same mood and same circumstances are palpable in Nabi Othman, a town inhabited by 8,000 people. Months ago, there was a suicide attack in the town, and rockets fired from the wilderness areas around Ersal have frequently landed there, the most recent ones striking on Monday afternoon.

Rida, a resident of the town, said that he and his brothers are “prepared to fight the militants in the mountains and assist the Lebanese army,” vowing never to leave his home.

“Neither beheadings nor the mutilation of corpses intimidate us,” he told Al-Akhbar.

Not far from Labweh and Nabi Othman, the sound of shelling and clashes could be heard between the houses of Ras Baalbek and its churches. In the main square, five elderly men donning traditional robes sat under a shed, sheltering from the sun.

Abu Wakim, refusing to heed his friends’ advice not to utter obscenities in front of the press, said, “We and the people of Ersal were one before these bastards came, and when they are gone, we will once again be one.”

He likened the situation in the country to “bad weather,” saying that the climate in the past few years was the result of the demise of wise people in favor of “decapitators and the followers of Desert Islam.”

In Ras Baalbek, it seems that no one is going to heed the call of Patriarch Bishara al-Rai for dialogue with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“How can we possibly talk to ISIS?” asked Toufiq Mansour. From Mansour’s home, it is possible to see large swaths of the wilderness shared between Ras Baalbek and Ersal, and also hear the bursts of heavy machine guns fired by the Lebanese army.

“What happened in Mosul will not be repeated here,” said Mansour’s friend Raymond Ghadban, a high school teacher. “The war is raging but people are still marrying and decorating their homes.”

High school headmaster Elias Nasrallah is equally incensed: “The only dialogue with ISIS should be through bullets.”

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, he added, “These people are against Islam, Christians, Druze, and everyone else, and their only medicine is the Lebanese army and the Resistance.”

Nasrallah is extremely resentful of the rumors circulating that the people of Ras Baalbek are fleeing the town. “Two days ago, there was a wedding,” he said sharply. “No one is leaving; we are going to stay in our homes.”

“These people are not Muslims. They are cavemen. Islam as we know it is the Islam of the good people of the northern Bekaa,” he asserted

This popular enthusiasm for defending the villages is not confined to Labweh and Nabi Othman. George, a young engineer from Ras Baalbek, said that he and his friends are prepared to bear arms and defend their homes too. He revealed that Syrian Nationalists (from the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party) and Aounists (from the Free Patriotic Movement) in the town, along with members of the Resistance Brigades, have taken up arms recently to guard the town from the side that overlooks the wilderness area, fearing infiltration by the terrorists after hearing reports that the latter were planning to kidnap locals or carry out massacres to drive them out.

The town is also concerned because one of the kidnapped Internal Security Forces officers happens to be the son of Mikhail Murad, a local who had been kidnapped by the militants nearly a month ago and was not released until his family paid a hefty ransom.

The villages surrounding Ersal have many questions, but they are clearly in favor of fighting back and are supportive of the army. Has the calamity in Syria finally crossed over to the northern Bekaa? What will help the area, which has not seen any fighting in the civil war, endure? Only time will tell.

Follow Firas Choufi on Twitter: @firasshoufi

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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