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Watchmen guard Ras Baalbek against attacks

If attacked, Ras Baalbek’s defenders can fight off rebels for a spell until help arrives. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

RAS BAALBEK, Lebanon: Hikmat Samhan remembers fondly the cave of St. Nicholas nestled in the rocky hills on the borders of his Christian village. Pregnant women trekked there to gain the blessings of its water, he said. However, Samhan no longer dares tread there.

“I haven’t gone up for three years,” he said. “There are no guarantees. Our east is occupied by Daesh.”

Samhan, a senior resident of Ras Baalbek, was using the Arabic acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda splinter group that has declared a “caliphate” last month in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Now the village, a few kilometers north of Arsal, has set up watch posts to track and guard against Syrian rebels hiding in the nearby hills on the border with Syria. If they attack, the village’s defenders can fight them off for a spell, Samhan said.

“Then the village will have woken and the Army would have woken, and maybe help would come from Hezbollah, because wherever they show up Hezbollah shows up,” he said.

Ras Baalbek is only a few kilometers from Syria, bordered by a lawless mountain range. Its 10,000 residents are overwhelmingly Christian.

But the village’s modest effort at self-defense and the anxieties of its residents shed light on the broader fears of Christians in the region, faced with ascendant extremism that threatens their ancestral homes.

It also offers a glimpse as to why many Christians in Lebanon are still allied with Hezbollah, despite, or because of, the party’s intervention in the Syrian civil war against radical Syrian rebel groups.

The defense of the village on a daily basis falls to men like Rifaat Nasrallah and other Ras Baalbek residents who have taken up meager arms to defend themselves against what they described as raids by ISIS.

Nasrallah, who was wounded in the first rocket attack to hit the village in January, is a member of the Resistance Brigades, an armed wing that was initially created by Hezbollah to incorporate non-Shiites who wished to join in the fight against Israel.

Perched in his home are photos of his namesake, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, and the party’s late military commander Imad Mughniyeh.

Nasrallah said his support for Hezbollah is based on two principles.

“Whoever is an enemy of Israel is close to me,” he said. “[And] what matters to me is what your God says about how you’re going to treat me as a Christian.”

It is unclear if Ras Baalbek’s tormenters are actual extremists who belong to ISIS or if they are simply highwaymen claiming to represent the group.

Those who were abducted say their captors claimed they belonged to ISIS, and residents say they have selectively targeted Christians.

In one instance, they stole a herd of sheep belonging to a Christian man from Ras Baalbek, while sparing the flock of his Muslim partners.

In addition to the rocket attack, which wounded three, militants near the village kidnapped a man for 20 days, robbed equipment and a toolshed on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek, and in their last raid a month ago stole three pick-up trucks, a tractor and abducted seven laborers, six of whom were Muslim.

They released the Muslims, and demanded a $50,000 ransom for the Christian worker.

Nasrallah said that the village had set up the surveillance posts to track any threatening movement by the militants.

“We want to defend our families, properties, and people,” he added.

He said the village watchmen had spotted the militiamen observing them from nearby hills in recent days, but the watch posts have served as a deterrent.

When asked if the watchmen coordinate with Hezbollah, Nasrallah said they were willing to coordinate with anyone who could defend the village. He also wants the Lebanese state to reinforce its security presence there.

He is evasive about the duties of the watchmen teams and any patrols they carry out. He also declines to divulge their numbers.

But Nasrallah insists that his affiliation is immaterial – the watchmen are just citizens defending themselves against an enemy that targets them for their faith. It is not a story of Hezbollah fighting against the revolution in Syria.

“We as Christians are a target in this village, whether you were with the Resistance Brigades or another side,” he said.

“Even if you were in the Lebanese Forces or the Future Movement, if you are a Christian who makes the cross sign on his face, you are a target with this takfiri ideology.”

“Call them whatever you want, they are all gangs to me,” Nasrallah said. “This religious person has nothing to do with religion, who slaughters and murders and violates the people and enters their homes, whatever his background, he is a gangster, not a revolutionary.”

Samhan, whose home was close to where the first rocket attack struck, decried the ascendance of both religious extremism and the interference of religious figures in state matters.

He is a Christian who fought alongside the Palestine Liberation Organization during the Civil War, a former member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and boasts of his friendship with the assassin of 1982 President-elect Bashir Gemayel.

“We went back to the Middle Ages, to the rule of the religious folk,” he said. “We are secularists and we call for the separation of religion and state, and we have one enemy – Israel.”

He said the Palestinian cause is the impetus for his sympathy toward Iran and Hezbollah.

But so was Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria – the party’s victory in the decisive battle for the bordertown of Qusayr, a key point on the rebel supply line, ended what residents described as a period of palpable fear of extremist ascendance.

“If they had not gone to Qusayr, Qusayr would have come here,” Samhan said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 21, 2014, on page 4.

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