Divided Village: Lebanon's Vigilantes and the Syrian Refugee Crisis 

________________________________________________



In the town of Ebrine, North Lebanon, Maronite Christian volunteers participate in armed vigilante patrols lead by the town's Chief - and only - police Jean, under the auspices of the municipality. After 8pm each night these volunteers patrol the streets, enforcing the curfews imposed on Syrian refugees since 2014. Jean calls them the "Shabab" - a word meaning "youth" in Arabic, and often also used in the names of Lebanese football clubs.


Meanwhile Elie, 53, an owner of the town's principal supermarket, welcomes the Syrian refugees warmly, even letting his houses to them. Elie and his blogger son, a young doctor, are called "traitors" by some of the town's Maronite Christian population due to their tolerance towards Muslims. 


Today the town of Ebrine is effectively divided in half, into those who support Elie, and those who support Jean. 


By the end of 2014, there were more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country with a population of only 4.5 million. Approximately 700, mostly Muslim Syrian refugees reside in this small Maronite town of 4000. The rise of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups across the border have caused the residents to view the refugees suspiciously.


"Three quarters of the Syrians in Ebrine are a member of a terrorist organization," says Jean. "The women, however, can hide it well.”


Lebanon's Maronite vigilantes

A young vigilante having a smoke and a beer during one of his shifts patrolling the curfew in the town of Ebrine.

info
×

Jean, the Chief Police of the Maronite Christian town of Ebrine in Northern Lebanon, runs a group of vigilantes who patrol the streets at night, enforcing the curfews that have been placed on Syrian refugees in over 45 municipalities in Lebanon.


According to the Human Rights Watch, the curfews violate international human rights law and appear to be illegal under Lebanese law, and are contributing to a "climate of discriminatory and retaliatory practices" against Syrian refugees.

Lebanon's Maronite vigilantes

Jean admits that since the establishment of the vigilante patrols, there has been no significant change in the number of offenses in the town.

info
×
Lebanon's Maronite vigilantes

An anonymous man followed our work from the sidelines, as we witnessed one of the night patrols of the vigilantes of Ebrine. The Lebanese vigilantes have received material and political support from municipalities, and are believed to be cooperating closely with the Lebanese State Security services.

info
×

The nights in Ebrine are nowadays generally quiet and boring for the vigilantes, who have been successful in disencouraging Syrians from leaving their homes after the curfew.

Lebanon's Maronite vigilantes
Lebanon's Maronite vigilantes

The group exchanges information directly with the Lebanese secret service of any possible presence of jihadist or criminal elements in the town.

 

info
×

The Ebrine vigilantes have benefitted from material support, such as radio phones, from the municipality. Although the group denies being armed, we witnessed arms inside the cars they use to patrol the streets. “Only for emergencies”, as one of the volunteers assured us when we stared at his hunting rifle, tucked in the back seat between cans of beer. “We hide it well."


The group conducts house raids of refugee dwellings, searching for weapons and explosives. According to the volunteer, so far no weapons have been found.

Lebanon's Maronite vigilantes

info
×
Lebanon's Maronite vigilantes

Asma's, 24, family keeping the curfew in the town of Ebrine, North Lebanon. In Asma's eyes, the Chief Police commanding the vigilantes is a "police animal". Her husband was beaten by both the vigilantes and the police, while on the way back home from work within the first half an hour of the curfew. 


Stories such as hers are many in the small town of Ebrine.


By the end of 2014, there were more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country with a population of only 4.5 million. With the growth of the Islamic State in Syria, Lebanese authorities have been increasingly concerned of jihadist elements operating from within the refugee population. This has lead to the establishment of curfews on "foreigners" - in reality generally only applied towards Muslims who appear as Syrian - in over 45 municipalities in Lebanon. 


Human rights organisations have criticised the curfews as racist and xenophobic, and concerns are raised over the curfews being enforced too strictly: families are reporting of not being able to cross the street to "buy milk or walk to the pharmacy even in cases of urgency"; and of living in fear of random house raids or arbitrary violence.

Lebanon's Maronite vigilantes

Half of the town's Christian population have begun to shun Elie's supermarket after his 24-year old son, a medical student and a blogger, wrote a critical article of the human rights situation in the municipality. He lost several of his customers, but does not mind. "I am proud of my son." 

info
×

 Elie remembers another period in the country's volatile history, when hate speech, vigilantes and eventually war emerged following the arrival of the Palestinian refugee population in 1948.

"We have to be very carefully to not repeat the history."



Text by Ann-Kathrin Seidel & Zara Jarvinen

Published in Chrismon 03/2015.

Using Format