AIN ATA, Lebanon: The narrow winding road climbs between pine trees and fruit orchids up to the scenic village of Ain Ata, nestled on the slope of a hill adjacent to Mount Hermon, in the Bekaa Valley’s district of Rashaya. A laid-back atmosphere of peace and tranquility prevails in the narrow streets of this community of 2,900 people, located just across the mountain from Syria’s Golan Heights.
However, the impression of peace is deceptive, according to Ain Ata’s Mayor Talih Khodor, who told The Daily Star about public concerns that violence would spill over from the other side of the border.
“Worry [of spillover] grips all of Lebanon, but the fear is even more real in border areas such as Rashaya, due to the proximity of the Syrian conflict,” Khodor said.
“The Golan Heights is a mere 16 kilometers away, and as we know, Lebanon is always a recipient and gets affected by what is going on around it,” he said.
Ain Ata attracts smugglers and their clients due to its proximity to the Syrian border and the “secure access” of illegal crossings that lead to its outskirts.
“It takes up to six hours of walking through the rugged terrain to get to the village. It is a favorite passageway for fugitives because there is a way of evading the Army’s surveillance posts,” Khodor explained.
Illegal human trafficking is becoming a lucrative business in the underprivileged area, which has been suffering from economic recession. Once people have reached the Lebanese side of the border, they are led to safety by local smugglers.
“In the past, they [smugglers] used to smuggle goods and arms in both directions. Today, they are smuggling humans as well, but in one direction, charging up to $300 for each person that they bring safely across the border,” Khodor said.
Recent clashes, which pitted the Lebanese Army against militants from Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and ISIS in the border town of Arsal last month, further aggravated fears among other border communities that violence in adjacent Syrian territory would spread into their area.
Residents of Ain Ata want the Army to block all illegal passages in the outskirts of the town, often used by Syrians to infiltrate this part of the Bekaa Valley. “We had been calling for quite some time for a reinforcement of Army presence on the slopes overlooking the village, which are strategic spots to monitor any illegal movement across the border,” Khodor said.
He said the Army’s 3rd ground battalion had eventually deployed larger numbers of troops in the area in the past few days.
The deployment was fast-tracked after the interception of several Syrian gunmen trying to sneak into Lebanon through the border village.
“It was the first incident of this caliber. It triggered deep concerns among the population, who want to see a tighter control of the border to curb infiltrations,” Khodor said.
Seven Syrian gunmen and three Lebanese smugglers were arrested in Ain Ata after being intercepted in a van last week.
One Syrian was killed and another injured in an exchange of fire that erupted when the van failed to stop at a military checkpoint.
Volunteer guards from the village residents had spotted the suspicious movement of the van, driven by a Lebanese smuggler and two of his accomplices, and alerted the municipal police, who summoned the Army, Khodor said.
A local guard force of 10 people, including three municipality police and seven volunteers, carry out night watches aimed at detecting any unusual activity in the normally quiet village.
“They are the watchful eye of the municipality and a support for the security forces, as they would immediately report any suspected activity. In Ain Ata, like in most villages in the area, the people usually know each other and it is easy to detect any foreign face or foreign vehicle,” Khodor said, though he refused to describe this activity of the village residents as an attempt to “take security into their hands.”
Rashaya MP Amin Wehbi played down fears of a replication of Arsal’s incident in the border district, or any serious spillover of the raging battles in the adjacent Golan Heights, where Syrian regime forces are battling to root out Nusra Front rebels from the strategic plateau.
He argued that a comparison with Arsal was irrelevant. “To start with, there are no large Syrian refugee gatherings in Rashaya to shelter the militants, and also the other side of the border is not very populated, hence if there is an influx of refugees toward Lebanon, whether they are armed or civilians, the Army and security forces are capable of dealing with such a development and preventing security breaches,” he told the Daily Star.
Wehbi, a member of the Future Bloc, refuted allegations that the security measures implemented by municipalities with the help of the villagers signified that local communities were gradually moving toward assuming their own security.
“The country is going through an extremely difficult phase and everyone should be alert, especially in areas prone to witnessing security incidents. Each citizen should be an informer and assistant for the security forces,” he said.
“Communities in Rashaya owe total allegiance to state institutions, the Army and security forces and would entrust no other party with their security and safety. Claims of self-security are not accurate.”
Khodor echoed Wehbi’s comments, expressing satisfaction with recent Army reinforcements.
“Following last week’s incident, the Army increased the number of troops, deploying them in new spots to tighten the noose on potential infiltrators,” Khodor said.
“We can sleep more tranquil and secure now.”