x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Britel: Lebanon's forgotten town

Written off by the Lebanese government and neglected by Hizbollah, crime is all that is left for the people of Britel.

Written off by the Lebanese government and neglected by Hizbollah despite its role in creating the movement, crime is all that is left for the people of Britel. Mitchell Prothero, foreign correspondent, reports. Hajj Zaki Abbas Ahmad sits in the large reception room of his home, sipping a cup of coffee in front of a kerosene stove as a brisk winter wind comes off the Anti-Syrian Mountain range located not far from his front door. He is reminiscing about the first time he ever left the tiny mountain village of Britel in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley as a child.

"When I was a small child in the 1940s, my brother and I once travelled by ourselves to visit Beirut and what we saw there changed our lives," he said. "We saw the most amazing things: cars, electric lights, paved roads and even, I swear, a toilet inside a house. For years we talked about these marvels that the people of Beirut enjoyed." These innovations seemed like they were from another world to a farmboy raised in one of the most isolated corners of Lebanon. But even today, the people of Britel talk about Beirut and its central government as an alien world far removed from their reality.

"The government has never paid any attention to this part of the world," said Mr Ahmad, Britel's only municipal official. As the town's muktar, Mr Ahmad's duties include signing birth and death certificates and notarising property sales and rental contracts. "There has never been any social work by the government in Britel, no government offices, no police station, no schools and no medical facilities or hospitals run by the government.

"They've never done anything for us, which is the reason you hear too much about Britel." He was alluding to the town's reputation as a haven for carjacking gangs, drug trafficking and the counterfeiting of identity cards, passports and currency. Although the Beqaa Valley's reputation for semi-lawlessness and criminal activity extends to a variety of villages both Christian and Muslim throughout the area, Britel is the most infamous in the eyes of many Lebanese.

"It's controlled by the gangs and tribes," said a Lebanese police official, who cannot speak on the record to the media. "There's about 2,000 guys with warrants out for them that live there but our situation with the tribes is bad right now, so we only enter to arrest major figures. And we do it with the backing of the army only." This reputation is even enough to scare off Beirut taxi drivers, who scoff at requests for a ride there.

"I'm not going to Britel," laughs Abu Tony, who says he values his 2002 Mercedes sedan too much to even quote a price. "The only way to go to Britel is to steal a car and drive it home. Foreigners can't go there, don't even think about it." Mr Ahmad understands how Beirut sees his community and as the only municipal official in the village, it is his job to try and keep it running despite the lack of infrastructure.

He is not exaggerating when he describes the dearth of services in the village of about 20,000 people. There is no police station, hospital or clinic, and only one functioning school - operated by Hizbollah for the children of party members. There is another modern school building under construction, but locals say it is being built and funded by the village without outside assistance, a claim that could not be verified.

It is this government neglect that has created an intractable criminal problem in Britel, said Mr Ahmad. "There's nothing for the young people in this village. One-third of our children join the army, one-third join Hizbollah, and for the other third, there's only one option: to become gangsters." The strong local support for Hizbollah and its programme of resistance against Israel can be seen in the corner of the local cemetery. Hidden inside the martyrs section, located on a hillside with a sweeping view of the Beqaa Valley, eight neat graves honour the group's fallen. But the names and pictures on the headstones are not Lebanese youth killed fighting Israel - they belong to members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who were dispatched to Lebanon in 1982 to help fight the Israeli invasion.

Adorned with the logo of both Hizbollah and Iran, the graves are a strong reminder of the genesis of the group and its close relationship to the Iranian Revolution. Britel, according to residents, was the village that first took these Farsi-speaking foreigners into their homes and gave them shelter and support while they trained the men who would later become Hizbollah. "We took them into our homes and treated them as brothers," said Umm Ali, a local resident. "There would be no Hizbollah if not for our sacrifices."

One Hizbollah official in the area confirms the village's role in the group's birth. "They have lost more martyrs than any village in Lebanon," he said. "If they told you there were 80, I think they're wrong. It's probably higher." And if youngsters do not engage in militancy, they often turn to crime. A trip through the village reveals block after block of dilapidated cinderblock houses connected by illegal power lines to the Syrian electricity grid. But among these is the occasional well-built, modern and expensive-looking home with luxury cars parked out front. Even some of the poorer houses have luxury cars. In any case, in Beqaa, signs of wealth tend to mark the home of a gangster.

Inside one of these houses sits a young man, his gold watch shining from under the cuff of an expensive wool sweater. His sitting room is the height of luxury, with an off-brand flatscreen television on the wall tuned to Hizbollah's Al Manar news channel, while a Filipino maid brings him and his guests a steady stream of coffee, tea and biscuits. He asks to be described as "Mr X" because the Lebanese government has issued several warrants for his arrest over what he calls "diesel fuel" smuggling. Other sources in the area say he is actually the area's top counterfeiter of passports and US$100 (Dh367) bills. The Beqaa Valley is legendary for producing some of the best fake currency in the world, according to alerts from the US department of treasury.

"It's true we have car thieves in Britel, of course we do," he said. "But we've also had 80 martyrs for Hizbollah fighting to liberate Lebanon from the Israelis. So we have 10 car thieves and 80 martyrs. Guess which one everyone always mentions when they talk about our village?" Mr X claims to have quit the life of crime, but insists that "the government makes war on us". The Christians, he added, are the biggest criminals in Beqaa. "They have more than 20 gangsters just next door in Nabi Sheet - I know them, they are my friends - where they control Lebanon's cocaine trade and also steal cars. But the Christian [leaders] protect them from the police."

Mr X said that while each of Lebanon's major religious groups all have problems with criminality, the sectarian nature of the country's political system in many cases encourages the leaders to protect their political base. But Britel's poverty and an absence of powerful political figures from the Beqaa Valley's Shiite population - with the exception of Hizbollah, which currently has tense relations with many of the families in the area - leaves them vulnerable to getting singled out as criminals.

He also points out that Israel heavily targeted the village in the 2006 war for its reputation of support for Hizbollah, leaving much of the area in ruins. But when Hizbollah came to repair the damage, the militant group rebuilt only the homes of its members, a fact confirmed by a member of the group's security wing in Beqaa. "He's right. We only helped our people in Britel and it cost us a lot of respect in this area," the man said. "Our leadership has a problem with the leadership of the tribes here and this led them to make a mistake."

Hizbollah's rivalry with several major tribes in the area has left Britel without anywhere to turn for support or services. Mr X repeats a common mantra in the area: If the government wants to enter Britel, they need to bring something with the police beyond just handcuffs. "If the government wants to come here and provide economic development, security and services for us, then they are most welcome. But they never do. So what are we supposed to do to make a living? Steal each other's cars? Of course not. We go to Beirut and other places and take from the people who do nothing but oppress us."

Mr Ahmad agreed, describing the Lebanese army and police more as violent occupiers than protectors of the community, a role that has even further alienated the young people of the region. "The people feel like there's no government. They were born with no law and no rules. To these people, when someone says 'government', they think of arrests, traffic stops and punishment. This is the meaning of 'government' to them, so they see it as an enemy that can only hurt them."

"Whatever these people do to survive is understandable and it's the government's fault." mprothero@thenational.ae