RAS BAALBEK, Lebanon
Tucked away in the rocky hills that divide Lebanon and Syria, a gunman ordered Makhoul Mrad out of his truck.
Despite his age — getting up toward 70 — and his infirm heart, Mrad was a quarry worker and regularly made the long trip with a handful of men from his village to this quarry, the farthest-flung site his employer owned. Out here, it’s remote. Exposed. That morning, he was swiping dust off his dashboard when a silhouette in his doorway startled him.
“Get out of the truck and get on the ground,” instructed a bearded man, dressed in an ankle-length thawb and pointing an automatic rifle.
Mrad, an ex-soldier, hails from an area in eastern Lebanon known for producing fearless ruffians unafraid of engaging the police in shootouts, and not given to taking orders from anyone. But in this case, Mrad dropped to the floor without argument. It wasn’t just the rifle directed at him. The man behind the gun was from a radical jihadi movement that had enslaved minorities, raped women, crucified and beheaded. Everyone was talking about them, not just in Mrad’s Christian town of Ras Baalbek, but throughout the entire Middle East. The man was from the Islamic State.
He blindfolded Mrad and left him on the floor as jihadis gathered up the other seven quarry workers — Syrians and one other Lebanese from a neighboring town. The gunmen removed Mrad’s blindfold and ordered him back into his seat. Drive, they said.
The militant leader instructed him to follow their convoy. Two black-clad fighters mounted a motorcycle, and 10 others rode in a pickup truck and a Jeep. They arrived at a secluded house in the lifeless, craggy mountains outside of Arsal, a neighboring Lebanese border town of mostly Sunni Muslims, where scores of Islamist militants had taken refuge in recent months.
They left him without a blindfold but threw him into a bathroom, where the jihadis showered. They confined Mrad there for the next 23 days, beating him regularly and keeping him alive with water tainted with diesel fuel and moldy bread.
The Greek Catholic people of Ras Baalbek knew battle-hardened jihadis were lurking in the mountain range that towers over their sleepy town. Around 3,000 people, mostly retired, live here year round. The lack of employment opportunities has forced many of the 15,000 natives to move to the capital, Beirut. But the place comes to life on weekends when many return home.
Ras Baalbek is one of the few Christian villages in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Geographically closer to Syria than Beirut, for years many villagers would regularly cross the border into Syria to shop for goods or run other errands. Some tribes are even split between the countries.
Disputes in this area of the Bekaa are historically handled using tribal codes. If a member of a certain tribe, or family, is killed or kidnapped, then revenge is enacted — an eye for an eye, a body for a body. Feuds are sometimes inter-sectarian and sometimes against a family from another sect. But tribal allegiance trumps sect and state; elders from each tribe meet to negotiate over clashes and find a fair solution. Lebanese law has no place here.
For these reasons, towns like Ras Baalbek remained relatively unscathed during the 1975–1990 Lebanese Civil War, while on the other side of the country Beirut had descended into a sectarian killing ground. Even in subsequent years, when Lebanon looked like it might boil over into sectarian war again and gunmen marked every Beirut street corner, the Bekaa villages lived in the peace of their ancient accords.
Then in 2011, the trouble began. Caught up in Arab Spring excitement, protesters took to streets in cities across Syria. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reacted brutally by dispersing demonstrators with violence. The opposition took up arms to oppose Assad’s forces, and Syria was soon embroiled in a vicious civil war.
As the fighting wore on past its first year, Syria was in chaos. Refugees streamed across the porous and poorly demarcated border, long monitored by Syrian forces that had since been repositioned to fight on other fronts. Most flooded into neighboring Arsal, but Ras Baalbek welcomed its share.
Reports began to emerge that a number of Islamist militants from around the world, including some from al-Qaida, were traveling to Syria to fight the regime. Just across the border, residents of Ras Baalbek would drift to sleep with the faint sound of bombs dropped by Syrian air force planes erupting in the distance.Another year passed and things in Syria grew worse. Jihadis had hijacked the opposition cause and twisted it. A national uprising was now part religious crusade.
In November 2013, jihadis associated with the Syrian opposition to Assad invaded Maaloula, an ancient Greek Catholic town in Syria where many residents still spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Assad’s forces attacked the town’s invaders, forcing the native population to flee as their churches and religious icons were reduced to rubble in the ensuing battle.
When news spread of the horror in Maaloula, a fear of existential proportions gripped Ras Baalbek. Survivors’ accounts of jihadi attacks flooded the village: Christians were not spared, they said. Locals gathered at unofficial town meetings to discuss the developments. If they were to survive a similar invasion, they would need to defend themselves.
On a dark night in October, Rifaat Nasrallah walked into a dewaniya — a sort of town hall in the Arab world, traditionally used for greeting business associates — and laid an AK-47 on a table. These days, this particular dewaniya is the base for a different sort of business.
Nasrallah is stocky, pairing military fatigues with his pepper-colored hair and a matching five-o-clock shadow. He joined about a dozen of his comrades on a couch stretching along the dewaniya’s inner perimeter.
Located near the highest point in Ras Baalbek, this group of about 15 men uses the building as its headquarters for the town patrol. They range from teenagers to men in their late 40s. Most are former soldiers, including a general. But there are civilians, too; one is an engineer who speaks three languages and lived for a while in Canada.
Nasrallah is the leader of the town’s Resistance Brigades. The 50-year-old, whose last name means “victory of God,” is a former soldier in the Lebanese Army, owns a stone contracting business and is a son of Ras Baalbek.
Hezbollah, the Shia political and military movement, founded the Resistance Brigades in 1997 for members of other sects and non-religious Shia who agreed with its cause of liberating Lebanon from Israeli occupation. Nasrallah promptly joined and rose through the ranks.
Now, as Ras Baalbek’s local leader, the task of protecting the town has at least partially fallen to him. “There is a threat to our existence, our property and our presence as Christians in the region,” he said.
After the fall of Syria’s Qalamoun region to the Syrian Army and Hezbollah, militants retreated into the mountains above Ras Baalbek. Many also took cover among the 1 million Syrian refugees filing into eastern Lebanon and settled in refugee camps where they became deadly sleeper cells, waiting for the right time to strike from within.
Nasrallah said there were kidnappings, armed robberies and death threats directed at the people in Ras Baalbek. “The village was even shelled.” Nasrallah was wounded by shrapnel in the attack. “Ever since then, we’ve been ready.”
They each carry their own Kalashnikov, and one of them sports a Belgian FAL sniper rifle and peers through its scope into the distant mountains. At night, they patrol the slopes in camouflage, carrying military-grade flashlights and headlamps.
“We can’t act like ostriches and bury our heads in the sand,” Nasrallah said.
Yet the group hasn’t seen much action. They report any suspicious activity to the Lebanese Army, which lately has increased its presence in and around the village.
In June 2014, the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to an Islamic State blitz. Mosul’s ancient Christian population fled in terror, and many sought refuge in Lebanon. The residents of Ras Baalbek didn’t need to check a map. They could be next.
“We all saw what happened in Mosul,” Nasrallah said. “Mosul’s church bells rang for 1,500 years, but today you don’t hear them anymore.”
Kidnapping and ransoming hostages is a central fundraising strategy among Islamic State cells. Around the time Mosul fell, one of the cells — mostly of Syrians unhinged from the central leadership — decided to hit an easy target: a quarry in the Lebanese hills, unguarded and isolated, and staffed by only a few people. One of them was Makhoul Mrad.
Nidal Mechref was at the office of his family’s quarry business when the phone rang. Upon answering, Mechref was surprised. Not many people come in direct contact with members of the Islamic State.
“He said his name was Abu Hassan al-Filistini and he was Daesh,” Mechref said bullishly, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State that its supporters consider derogatory.
Jihadis often adopt a nom de guerre when they head for the battlefield. Abu Hassan al-Filistini translates to “Hassan’s father the Palestinian.” Filistini, who spoke with a vague Syrian accent, may have been a Palestinian refugee raised in Syria or in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
He said he had kidnapped Mrad and the seven other employees and stolen the trucks and equipment used to mine the quarry. The other employees were quickly released with special instructions about how to pray and dress according to Islamic code.
Mrad, the sole Christian, was kept for ransom.
“They demanded $150,000,” Mechref said. They’d designated a middle man and gave Mechref an ultimatum. “He told me to give it to Arsal’s mayor or he’d kill Makhoul.”
Mrad’s family was in disbelief. “We went to the quarry to see for ourselves if he’d actually been taken,” Laura, Mrad’s daughter in her late 30s, said. “Imagine the risk we took going up there.” When they reached the quarry, it was stripped of its machinery. The area was abandoned. Her father was gone. She said, “It was as if we were living a nightmare.”
Mrad, meanwhile, was holed up in the jihadis’ shower room, poorly nourished, practically poisoned.
He was fed two loaves of bread and dates each day. “I would break the bread into crumbs to remove the pieces of mold,” he said. They spiked his water with diesel fuel. Without his heart medicine, which thinned his blood, he risked having a heart attack.
“We won’t give you your medication,” the kidnappers told him. “We are going to let you die here.”
They tortured him daily. They blindfolded him and drove to a secluded location where they could get phone reception unavailable at their base. There they would bludgeon him with switches, with the butts of their guns, with their bare hands.
“They’d point guns at my chest and yell that they were going to kill me,” he said. “They’d make me call my family crying and in pain and yell ‘shoot him!’ while I was on the phone with my daughter. She’d hear them and start crying and going crazy.”
Back in Ras Baalbek, the townspeople gathered to discuss Mrad’s case. Rather than go to the state for help, the people relied on their tribal methods. They decided to send Abdallah Mrad, Makhoul’s cousin, to Arsal as a negotiator. There he told leaders what Filistini demanded.
Arsal, a Sunni town 20 kilometers to the south, has little sympathy for the Islamic State, but its residents’ long history with various Syrian and Lebanese contacts allowed them to deliver messages to the kidnappers. Abdallah met with a group from Arsal that included the town’s mayor and longtime friends of the Mrad family. Despite their religious differences with Ras Baalbek, Arsal’s leaders were committed to the tribal ways of the Bekaa.
“We told them Makhoul needs his medicine, and they passed them on,” Abdallah said. Over the next three weeks he traveled the 20 kilometers between Ras Baalbek and Arsal more than a dozen times.
The negotiations dragged on, and Makhoul Mrad lived in constant fear of death. “Each day they would tell me, ‘Tomorrow we will kill you’.”
At one point, the kidnappers saw on television that an Islamic State battalion had been beaten back somewhere in Iraq. One of the kidnappers went to see Mrad.
“Did you hear what happened?” the kidnapper asked.
Mrad had been living incommunicado in a bathroom. “How would I know what happened?” he replied.
He received a particularly brutal beating that day. “What does this have to do with me?” he pleaded, but the beating didn’t stop.
The jihadis’ demands were becoming increasingly absurd. In addition to the ransom, the kidnappers now wanted all Islamist captives released from Lebanese prisons. Abdallah Mrad tried to convince them he had no power to do that. But they wouldn’t give up.
Abdallah grew tired of the calls. His cousin’s life hung in the balance, but the persistent, dramatic threats tugged at his nerves and he stopped answering his phone. “After some time I just said, khalas,” he said, using a term in Arabic that means he’d had enough. To hell with them.
So they began calling Makhoul’s daughter Samar, 36.
“Pay by tomorrow or we’ll kill him,” they told her, then shoved the phone to her father. Sobbing, he pleaded, “Go beg for money from the church or from people around town so they let me go.”
As weeks passed, the Filistini was losing patience. “You have until 6 p.m. to pay us,” a kidnapper told Samar.
Around the same time, an intermediary from Arsal who had been involved in the negotiations came to Abdallah.
“Look,” he said. “We’re going to have to pay them money.”
Until now, many in the village had opposed paying the ransom for fear the kidnappers would come back for more. Now after three weeks, recognizing their elderly neighbor was in peril, they rallied. Though not particularly wealthy, the Mrad clan is numerous in Ras Baalbek. They pooled what money they could to raise $30,000 — a year’s wage for many locals.
Abdallah took it to a Syrian man who lived on the outskirts of Arsal, knew the kidnappers and agreed to act as an intermediary. The Syrian was then to deliver the ransom to the Islamic State cell and come back with Makhoul.
One day in the middle of his captivity, two men in their 20s stumbled upon Makhoul Mrad’s location while wandering among the nearby cherry trees. They were from Arsal, and when Filistini spotted them, he gave his men orders to bring them.
“Get down on your knees!” one of the kidnappers yelled.
But one of the young men bellowed back, “I don’t want to!”
“The kids didn’t want to listen. The Daesh guys shot one of them in the chest. When he fell down, they shot him twice more in the head,” Mrad said. The other ran away. “After I saw that scene, I did not dare to sleep anymore. At all.”
The men took the body down to Arsal and tossed it into the street.
Because the young man was from Arsal’s Ezzedine tribe, it would be a matter of time before their families performed the act ofta’r, a local term for revenge. But the Islamic State militants pre-empted them. They invaded the dead man’s home and, there in the house, killed his father.
The impulsive butchery left Makhoul Mrad broken. “I could feel death,” he said. “I did not know at what minute they were going to kill me.” They were also hoarding his medicine, and he grew weak and listless. When they sensed he was dying, they allowed him take it, 20 days since his last dose.
A few days after that, the kidnappers entered the shower room.
“Put on your shoes,” one told him.
“Am I going to talk on the phone again?”
“No. You’re going home.”
Mrad didn’t believe them. How could his family have raised so much money? They blindfolded him and loaded him into a car, just as they did each day for the last three weeks.
As they bounced along unpaved mountain roads, the kidnappers spoke to Mrad. “You’re not out of danger yet. You could still be kidnapped by another group on the road out here.”
When the vehicle stopped, they pulled Mrad out of the car, removed the blindfold and drove away. As they disappeared into the distance, he realized they weren’t coming back. He was free.
Since Mrad’s kidnapping, the Lebanese Army has deployed troops about 4 kilometers beyond the quarry in the direction of Arsal.
“We don’t go up to the quarry anymore. If we do, it’s only every two or three days and very quickly,” Mechref said. To date, there have been no other incidents there.
Mrad says he isn’t scared anymore. But sometimes, he has nightmares and waking flashbacks. In them, he sees the kidnappers, and he’s back inside the bathroom, waiting for a thrashing. The dreams, he said, “make your heart stop.”
“Now, when I go to the quarry, I remember the incident, and I don’t dare look at the mountains around me.”
Many locals say Mrad is fine, but Laura isn’t so sure. She knew her father as tough. When she saw him for the first time after his release, he was a shadow of himself. She expected the long hair and beard, but he had lost weight and couldn’t walk. He was hospitalized with a lung infection.
“The person who came back was not my father. He was like a stranger,” she said. “It was like they pulled him out of the grave.”
Mrad’s health continues to deteriorate. In early December, Laura took him to the hospital for stomach problems. The ongoing stress was affecting him.
“Before the incident, my father never knew fear,” she said. “He says he isn’t scared, but we feel he’s changed. He’s scared. Even hearing their name scares him now.”
Then, a month later, Mrad’s 27-year-old son was one of about 30 Lebanese Army soldiers and policemen captured by the Nusra Front during a battle in Arsal’s outskirts. While Mrad’s son, a police officer, was quickly released, 25 servicemen remain in captivity.
“Every day we live in terror because of this,” Laura said. “I hope they are destroyed.”
In August, the Islamic State flooded Arsal with fighters. The group briefly took control of the town, forcing the intervention of Lebanese security forces. The Lebanese Army hit back by shelling the outskirts. Rockets filled the sky over Ras Baalbek. The Islamic State and the Nusra Front lobbed erratic bombs back at the army — usually missing widely, cratering the valley.
The battle would carry on, varying in intensity, over the next couple of months. Abu Hassan al-Filistini was killed sometime during the battle’s first wave, according to people in Ras Baalbek. But for each militant who dies, scores of reinforcements have rushed in.
“When Mrad was kidnapped there were around 300 members of Daesh in the area,” said a Lebanese Army official from Ras Baalbek who monitors the Islamic State. By late November, there were as many as 4,000, including a few Westerners, he said.
On a recent night, looking out over the village, Nasrallah and his men stood outside the dewaniya as they prepared to set out on a patrol. Some of the guys joked around or chatted in small groups. A teenager sat inside, listening to a walkie-talkie. The staccato of gunfire and blast of rockets had kept the town up the night before, and hopeful rumors swirled among villagers that the final battle to eradicate the Islamic State from Lebanon would be coming soon.
But earlier this month, shadowy militants ambushed a Lebanese Army outpost, killing six soldiers. Nobody is sure whether the attackers were Islamic State or Nusra or something else. For the villagers, it doesn’t matter.
“We’re staying right here,” Nasrallah said with defiance. “We will keep our church bells ringing.”
Justin Salhani is a journalist, writer and producer living in Washington, D.C. He reported in Beirut from 2010 until 2015.
Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley, Colin Morris and Jon O’Neill.