HERMEL, Lebanon: The village of Brital has become notorious, boasting a reputation as the home of stolen cars, murderers, drug dealers and forgers.
Whenever someone is kidnapped, regardless where it happens, all eyes turn to Brital, and it is one of the first stops on the lists of Interpol and other security apparatuses from Lebanon and abroad, with all residents on their radar.
Yet the road leading to the village is no different than other routes in the Bekaa Valley.
Visitors are welcomed by posters of Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and the party’s former head Sheikh Sobhi Toufeili. The scene is completed by pictures of martyrs who fell while fighting the Israeli occupation and during the 2006 war.
Simple one-floor houses built in a humble manner line the road, interspersed with a few red-tiled villas constructed from more expensive stone.
But Brital’s reputation for car theft, with which it has been associated since the ’90s, didn’t come out of nowhere: There is a reason for it.
“Stolen cars would be bought by gang leaders after small groups of wanted people stole new cars from the capital and other areas,” said a resident, asking to remain anonymous.
“They [the gang leaders] would then call the owners and discuss the price to pay to get their cars back,” the resident explained.
This dark scheming has developed over the years, and it is no longer about just stolen cars.
Drug dealing, kidnapping and other associated vices have been added to the job description of local gangs. And it’s all for the money.
Brital, with a population of more than 20,000, has long been an impoverished village, and the historical negligence it has been subjected to has proved an incentive for gangs to continue with their illicit activities.
“There are no developmental projects and no jobs for the residents,” said local political activist Hasan Mazloum. “The maximum you can get is enrolling in the Army, but that’s after resorting to finding people with influence and paying them.”
But he also pointed to another reason why Brital is such a hub for wanted criminals in the Bekaa Valley: geography.
“There are no barriers or any kind of control on the route leading to Syria through the eastern mountain range dividing Lebanon and Syria, something that has encouraged smuggling,” Mazloum said.
Brital Mayor Abbas Ismail added that the town’s inhabitants had lost hope in the government, believing that it doesn’t symbolize anything for them. He said political and official parties benefited from maintaining a loose relationship between Brital and the government.
“The village’s town has been distorted because politicians have been purposefully expelling residents from being part of government institutions,” he said. “This distorted the relationship between the government, residents and the area of Baalbek-Hermel.”
“We aren’t against the government,” added Brital Mukhtar Ahmad Tlais. “This is reflected in the fact that 90 percent of families here are trying to enroll their children in military institutions, but they’re not being given any kind of positions there.”
Abandonment by the governments has united residents against its authority, with most considering it shameful to support the security apparatus when they come to arrest those wanted from the town, choosing instead to protect and shelter the criminals.
Although Brital is always being scrutinized, residents also tend to turn the microscope on any unfamiliar faces in town.
Some residents warned that interviewing locals might lead to some sort of a dispute, especially if the interviewee happened to be someone wanted by the authorities, as it might provoke suspicion of being involved with the security apparatus.
The residents of Brital have come to see security raids as a daily routine. This is associated with Army presence in the village outskirts since 1997, after Hezbollah’s former Secretary-General Sheikh Sobhi Toufeili waged the “Revolution of the Hungry” against the government.
Toufeili, whose hails from Brital, exercises great influence in the village although the citizens are now divided among themselves over the Syrian crisis and between support for Toufeili and Hezbollah.
“Toufeili’s power in the town has decreased due to his opposition toward Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis,” a resident, who requested anonymity, said.
Mazloum points out that the government lost interest in the Bekaa village because the town was the heart of many revolutionary and rebel movements since the Ottoman period and the French mandate.
He believes that powerful political factions in the town play an important role in weakening the village.
“The politics of Shiite factions such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and Toufeili’s movement have also exacerbated poverty,” Mazloum said. “The town has sacrificed martyrs but they didn’t give us anything in return, compared to other villages whose residents now hold parliamentary, ministerial, and other positions in the government.”
“ Brital established its first official institution in 1998 and telephone lines in 2000,” Ismail said. Although in 1973 the municipality requested that the government build a school after providing it with the land, according to the mayor it wasn’t until 2008 that the South Korean government took the initiative to build a school.
Fifteen men from the area have fallen in Syria fighting among Hezbollah’s ranks, and a further 60 died fighting the Israelis.
They support each other against government actions, and refrain from driving their fancy cars in areas with checkpoints.
With around 33,000 warrants against people from villages in Baalbek-Hermel, “there are now 400 judicial warrants for Britalis, this number includes those wanted for familial disputes or simple misdemeanors, however, those wanted for drug dealing and kidnapping don’t exceed 100,” said Ismail.
For years now, the residents of Brital have been tolerating their reputation for crime. However, families have done their best to get past this and build a real community. Despite the poverty, mistreatment and lack of services, hundreds of young adults from the area have enrolled in universities and are passing official exams with high grades.
“How can residents believe in the legitimacy of the government when for them their presence is defined by security raids and bullets?” Ismail asked.