Thousands flee Arsal, as the worst spillover of Syria-related violence in Lebanon pits rebel fighters against the army.
Arsal, Lebanon – There is one guesthouse in Arsal, but not many people stay these days. The border town has earned a reputation for being anything from a bit unstable to downright dangerous.
Just behind the guesthouse is a road leading to the last army checkpoint before the barren outskirts of town, an area full of armed men competing for control.
There are 40,000 Lebanese citizens and 70,000 Syrian refugees living in Arsal. Resources are stretched, with the refugees living in cold, drafty tents. Most walked from Syria over a mountain range three years ago; a few months later, hundreds of Syrian fighters followed. First the Free Syrian Army (FSA) arrived, and then al- Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) moved in.
They have been camping close to the porous border between Syria and Lebanon, where the Qalamoun Mountains tower over the valley.
This area has become the wild west of Arsal. ISIL has established a sharia court here, trying dozens of people for everything from personal disputes to stealing and insulting Islam.
The group has also established a field hospital, which residents of Arsal say is hidden in a cave, with clinics and surgery available for ISIL fighters wounded in battles with the Lebanese army.
There are 8,000 Syrian refugees living alongside the rebels. Some prefer to stay in this barren hinterland so they can cross in and out of Syria, while others are in Arsal for business.
Syria’s rebels need supplies such as food, fuel and medicine. Right now they are hemmed in: the Syrian army on one side and the Lebanese army on the other. Arsal is a major supply centre.
The last two months have been the most frightening. There have been army raids in the camps at dawn. They've detained 14- to 50-year-olds. It's like a big prison.
“Right after the last army checkpoint is an area called Wadi Hmeid. There are people from Arsal living there. They have grocery shops and a gas station,” Mohammed Ezzadine, who is from one of the largest clans in the area, told Al Jazeera. “Wadi Hmeid is under the control of armed rebels. They can come and buy anything they need.”
According to Ezzadine, the Lebanese residents doing business with ISIL are simply trying to make a living. Five months ago, ISIL and al-Nusra Front took over Arsal for five days, leaving after a battle with the Lebanese army. Since then, the army has surrounded it with checkpoints.
A Lebanese military spokesperson said no troops were placed on the streets inside Arsal because soldiers had been attacked there before. The army has closed 95% of the roads leading to the rebels, spokesperson Ali Qanso told Al Jazeera. The army has also tightened restrictions on Syrian refugees leaving Arsal, requiring special permission, which they rarely get.
As a consequence, refugees such as Abdelmajid Adeej cannot travel around Lebanon to find a job. In Syria, he was an education professor at Homs University; today, he is one of the best-dressed men in the camp, still appearing ready to go to work.
“The last two months have been the most frightening. There have been army raids in the camps at dawn. They’ve detained 14- to 50-year-olds,” Adeej told Al Jazeera. “It’s like a big prison.”
Lebanese citizens in Arsal are also having problems getting through the checkpoints. Former Mayor Yousef Hujeiri said they have been caught in the middle: “It’s the most difficult period we’ve faced in hundreds of years. If we dare complain about ISIL and armed rebels, ISIL will come to our houses and take us. If we complain about the army, they can detain us at checkpoints. We are left alone, afraid to be living in Arsal.”
The rebels, many of whom have large families living in Lebanon’s refugee camps, had previously agreed to stay outside Arsal and keep it quiet, as chaos would put all their families at risk. This arrangement was a tacit “understanding” between the fighters and the people of Arsal – one that is now crumbling.
The army has found cars packed with explosives. Last week, there was a gun battle inside the town between different armed groups. A day later, a sharia court set up in Arsal by al-Nusra Front was bombed. Ezzadine calls it a turf war.
“In time, we will see major battles between the two groups: the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra Front on one side, and ISIL on the other. They will start killing each other,” he said.
In late afternoon, Arsal looks golden in the winter light, with melted snow streaming down the streets. But although there are some wealthy people here who smuggle goods and weapons to the myriad of armed groups fighting in Syria, Arsal remains poor and neglected.
“If you leave over 100,000 people with no security, no police, no laws, they will get out of control,” Ezzadine said.
As a result, Arsal’s residents have been organising themselves. After last week’s power struggle between ISIL and al-Nusra Front, young men began forming groups and training to “protect” the town – even as some say the last thing needed right now is more men carrying guns.