ALEY, Lebanon: With approximately 5,000 Syrian refugee families now in the area, Aley’s villagers have grown uneasy – so uneasy that municipally enforced curfews on Syrian citizens have in some places been deemed insufficient to ensure security, and townspeople are forming their own patrols. “Some of the people from the region have formed night watches,” a storeowner in the village of Qabr-Shmoun told The Daily Star. “They have a center point in Qabr Shmoun where they meet. They drive around and when they find someone [a Syrian], if he is going to see someone and they know him, it’s fine. But if they don’t know what he’s doing then it’s not OK.”
Asked what happens if it’s “not OK,” the storeowner, who declined to give his name, said: “If they don’t know where he’s going, they beat him up.”
Claiming that he himself is not a participant in the night watch, the storeowner acknowledged that those who patrol, most aged between 20 and 35, carry pistols.
The storeowner also added that although the Progressive Social Party – the dominant political party in the region – has not officially sanctioned the night watches, most of those participating are members. Some, he alleges, are concerned with the community’s safety; others “just enjoy being there ... they just want to find someone and beat him up.”
A resident of another village in the region, who wanted neither his name nor his hometown mentioned in the media, told The Daily Star that a curfew has been in place there for three or four months now – since the time “a great amount of refugees came to the village.”
“We as young people in our villages are trying to implement this [curfew] because there has been more theft, more problems since the Syrians came,” he said, explaining that after dark he and his fellow residents, a “not very organized” group of “50 or 60,” drive around in their cars. When they encounter a Syrian, they either call the police or tell him to go home, although, he added, “sometimes teenagers hit the Syrian.”
Despite the fact that caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel has previously told the media that local municipalities do not have the legal right to pass resolutions that infringe on the authority of the Internal Security Forces, Rawad Shemsedeen, a council member of Benih municipality in Aley, confirmed to The Daily Star Sunday that a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. has been imposed by his and other municipalities in the area.
He described it as applying “mostly to Syrians.”
Questioned about its legality, Shemsedeen said: “I don’t know. The municipality always takes security measures, of course they work in coordination with the Interior Ministry, but if the ministry rejected [the curfew] the municipalities should adhere.”
But unlike the Baabda town of Betshai-Mardasheh, which made headlines in February when photographs of its banners announcing a curfew for “foreigners” were disseminated across social media, the villages surrounding Aley have little signage publicizing restrictions on Syrians’ movement.
The Daily Star saw only one such notice, printed on an A4 sheet of paper and posted on a refrigerator door in a small convenience store in Abey. It specifies that the curfew applies to “all Syrian citizens” between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. It is clearly stamped by the local municipality.
Yet, several locals The Daily Star spoke to differentiatedbetween Syrian workers and Syrian refugees, saying the curfew was aimed at the former and describing them as troublemakers and responsible for thefts in the area.
While there are currently more than 400,000 Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon, it is estimated that there are between 400,000 and 600,000 Syrian laborers in the country.
Few of the refugees in the Aley region are registered with the U.N.; most receive aid from the Aley Relief Committee, a body made up of representatives of the city’s municipality and non-governmental organizations.
Taking a break from packing boxes of food aid, Nadim Shehayeb, a member of the committee, says that within the city a curfew is only imposed in the Ain Hala area “because it is very special for the Druze.” He estimates 60 Syrian families live in the area.
“We did this because there are hundreds and hundreds of Syrian workers and these workers are troublemakers,” Shehayeb explained.
Asked what kind of trouble they make, Shehayeb answered: “Stealing, all kinds of things they do.”
The storeowner in Qaber Shmoun likewise identifies such theft as a problem: “I caught two Syrian workers stealing from my shop,” he said.
Again, in Benih, an elderly man said “theft” was the main motivation for the curfew.
Yet when contacted, an ISF source reported that there had been “nothing abnormal” in Aley or around Aley in terms of crime of late. “There have been many rumors in Lebanon about the Syrians and in some areas there is a small increase [in crime] but not in Aley,” the source told The Daily Star.
Some residents, however, have other complaints.
In Abey a pair of women, sipping from a shared cup of maté, complained about Syrians drinking, riding loud motorcycles late at night and being impolite. When questioned about the issue of theft, one of the women said: “Even before there were a lot of Syrians here there were a lot of thefts going on ... so now it might have been one of us but the Syrians are being blamed.”
Shemsedeen, the municipal council member, also does not mention theft among the reasons for the curfew.
It has been put in place “so there won’t be any problems,” he said, elaborating: “If they [Syrians] go out at night, they get drunk, someone says something to someone else and there’s a fight, so we put the curfew in place so that everyone stays home and there are no problems.”
Shemsedeen said that fights and problems are more likely to happen with “outsiders” or “another village” because “there are the deep social ties between the people here.”
He added that the police deal with curfew breakers by giving them an initial warning, and if there are more violations, by punishing them. He did not specify the form such punishment would take.
But back in Abey, the maté sippers lament that the curfew is not being enforced. “It started two months ago, and now we feel that no one is abiding by it anymore ... They are out at 11 and 12 p.m.,” one said.
According to the women, in Abey there is as yet no night watch, but the foundation of one might not be far off.
Joining the conversation, a young man was decisive: “If the municipality is not going to do anything, we’re going to have to form night watches.” – Additional reporting by Meris Lutz