‘We do the police’s job’: Protecting Lebanon’s most lawless towns

With the Lebanese state in crisis, some unlikely characters are imposing law and order in one of the country’s most neglected regions.

Walid, Maher and Abdullah are proud to be part of Halba's town protectors [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

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Akkar, Lebanon – At 11pm on a mild October night, headlights from five SUVs pierce through the darkness in Halba, the capital of Akkar – Lebanon’s rugged, northernmost governorate.

More than a dozen young men mill about, trading jokes and smoking cigarettes in matching camouflage hunting jackets. Some are municipal police, but most are volunteers with Halba’s haras al-baladiyeh”, or town protectors. Together, they keep a nightly vigil over the slumbering provincial town, on the lookout for trouble.

“Jump in boys,” says Maher Khaled el-Ali, a chatty 38-year-old town protector, motioning to a black SUV marked “Halba Municipality”. Also joining Maher are two 20-something colleagues: Walid, a stocky local mechanic, and the imposing, powerfully built Abdullah Abdelwahab Hammoud.

The vehicle springs to life and takes off into Halba’s deserted urban sprawl. After two minutes, it abruptly stops. Maher and his two fellow town protectors go to the boot without explanation.

The trio reappears with white plastic chairs, which they neatly line up on the sidewalk. The chosen spot lies on the main road through town, surrounded by drab, low-rise apartment buildings – with barely a light on inside. Only cicadas and the occasional passing car break the silence.

The Saturday night “doriyyeh” or security patrol has begun.

Abdullah, Maher and Walid on patrol at one of Halba’s eastern entrances [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

For many years, town protectors have operated in communities across Lebanon. While each group’s precise structure varies, town protectors are typically young, local men charged with being the municipality’s “eyes and ears”. Under this mandate, they are meant to spot potential crimes and alert the authorities, who can then make arrests.

Often, town protectors are seen as a necessary, grassroots stopgap for the state’s faltering security services. Just recently, the Lebanese army struggled for hours to quell violent clashes in Tayouneh, a residential neighbourhood of Beirut, as rival sectarian groups traded fire with sniper rifles and rocket launchers.

Nationwide policing duties officially fall to the Internal Security Forces (ISF), or “darak”, which operate from stations dotted around the country. Municipalities also deploy their own municipal police, who must seek the local darak’s support before intervening in a disturbance or suspected crime.

While the darak are primarily responsible for maintaining law and order, public opinion polling suggests that they have failed dismally to win over local communities.

Many Lebanese distrust the country’s different security institutions, but they reserve their deepest contempt for the darak. A 2013 survey by peacebuilding organisation, International Alert, found that fewer than half of Lebanese respondents trusted the darak; by comparison, more than 80 percent had faith in the Lebanese army.

No region has a more fractured relationship with state security services than Akkar, where even the widely popular army’s approval rates dip below 50 percent, the survey found. Halba sits 110km (68 miles) away from Beirut, the national government’s seat of power. In tiny Lebanon, this distance feels like a world away.

An agricultural field in the northern village of Akroum in Lebanon’s Akkar district [File: Anwar Amro/FAO/AFP]

The region’s sense of isolation goes beyond geography. For centuries, Akkar has endured marginalisation and widespread poverty, usually dismissed by its various, distant rulers as an unimportant, sparsely populated agricultural area. In Halba, locals say that this longstanding neglect extends to policing.

“We are doing the darak’s job,” Maher fumes. “If you see the darak around town, they are either buying themselves a coffee or a cocktail [juice] – that’s it.”

Halba vs Hosniyyeh

Across Lebanon, professional police have been caught off-guard by the country’s crushing economic crisis, which the World Bank considers one of the world’s worst financial collapses since the mid-1800s.

National crime rates have skyrocketed since October 2019, when the crisis began in earnest. A recent report found that from January to October 2021, thefts and murders have grown by 265 percent and 101 percent respectively, compared with the same months in 2019.

Inevitably, the spate of thefts made its way to Akkar. “People steal anything: motorcycles, electricity wires, metal from the road,” explains Ahmed Hamad, a 27-year-old officer in Halba’s municipal police. The darak do not have statistics for criminal activity in Akkar itself.

Ahmed and his seven fellow officers started receiving help from concerned friends, many of whom have since become town protectors.

Frustrated by the escalating crime spree, local Halban shop owners agreed to pay the municipality small monthly fees to fund the town protectors, in exchange for a modicum of security. The arrangement works for everyone, according to Maher. The community is protected while the protectors – many of whom are unemployed – receive a modest wage.

Halba’s town protectors pose for a photo during a doriyyeh (patrol) [Courtesy of Ziad al-Ferri]

Maher and the other town protectors tend to trace Halba’s recent spike in thefts to one source: Hosniyyeh, a small roadside village in the same area. The trip to Halba would only take Hosniyyeh’s alleged thieves 10 minutes by car or motorcycle – a short, flat drive, with scarcely a break between the outermost buildings of Hosniyyeh and Halba.

“The parents push their children to come [to Halba] and steal, then deny that they have done anything wrong when we confront them,” Maher explains.

“They think that they are strong,” he adds. “But they are not.”

Traffic heading from Tripoli to Halba must pass through Hosniyyeh. From beside the highway, Hosniyyeh’s vegetable vendors and auto mechanics look on as cars, vans and trucks rumble past, transporting goods or people across Akkar. Unlike Halba, Hosniyyeh lacks even a crossroads that it could call a saheh (square), or central meeting point.

Hosniyyeh locals dispute the dark reputation their community has gained among Halbans. “People from other areas see us as an area of robbers, but we think that Hosniyyeh is a lovely place,” says Majed, 28, a Hosniyyeh resident and former bank employee.

In fact, Hosniyyeh has set up its own squad of town protectors, and blames yet another village for rising crime rates. “Most of the thieves come from Wadi Jammous – they are famous for theft,” says Majed, who is not a town protector himself, but supports the initiative. As ever in Akkar, the alleged den of iniquity lies just around the corner: a 15-minute drive separates Wadi Jammous from Hosniyyeh.

In Majed’s view, partisan allegiances help to explain Halba’s hostility towards Hosniyyeh. Many Lebanese communities, especially in rural areas, are dominated by one political party or another. For Hosniyyeh, that political behemoth is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a party with self-evident ties to Lebanon’s eastern neighbour.

The main street in Halba is a thoroughfare for people on their way into Akkar and beyond to Syria [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

Several parties struggle for control in Halba, reflecting a community divided uneasily between Sunni, Christians, and some Alawite. The Future Movement has captured many Sunni votes in Halba, but does not hold sway like the SSNP does in Hosniyyeh. So fractured are Halban politics that the town has failed to elect a local municipality for several years.

“Other parties [in the region] don’t like the fact that [the SSNP] is secular,” explains Majed, who alleges that Halba residents have stopped cars at random and beaten SSNP members from Hosniyyeh. Majed believes that the latest spats between the towns reflect attempts to discredit the SSNP ahead of the upcoming elections.

“The same thing happens with our boys,” he admits. “They used to stop people from Halba and beat them up.”

In Hosniyyeh, the town protectors each receive a small monthly salary for their services. The funding comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from none other than the SSNP.

The night patrol

Back at the Saturday night security patrol, Halba town protector Maher continues chatting away in his incongruous, broad Australian accent – a legacy of his decade spent living down under.

Since the early 19th century, generations of Lebanese have scattered across the globe, often seeking commercial opportunities. Emigration rates escalated with the onset of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-91), as people sought safe refuge abroad. Many stayed on. Today, government estimates place the Lebanese diaspora’s population at 15.4 million – almost triple the number of people living in Lebanon.

By Maher’s account, his life in Australia was anything but boring. At one point, he worked as a nightclub security guard in Sydney’s notorious Kings Cross district, which brought him into contact with local organised crime. Beyond a few personal anecdotes, Maher prefers not to share too much detail about this period of his life.

Yet he does explain his quest to meet John Ibrahim, an alleged leader of the Australian-Lebanese mafia known as Teflon John. “I really wanted to see him. It’s like, wow: John Ibrahim! But when I saw him – I swear to God – he’s like that tall,” Maher laughs, motioning to somewhere around shoulder height. “But his size doesn’t matter, because his brain is like a computer.”

Walid, Maher and Abdullah wait at their regular noktaor checkpoint [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

Maher believes that his background in nightclub security has prepared him to be a town protector. “Every single day, [there was a] shooting, a stabbing,” he recalls, casting his mind back to Kings Cross.

In his current role, Maher acts as a leader for Walid and Abdullah at their assigned nokta (position). “I’m a bit older than the other boys, so I know how to talk to people and calm down situations,” Maher explains. Beside him, Walid happily plays a first-person shooter game on his mobile phone.

In total, up to 40 town protectors operate each night at noktas scattered around Halba. The five or six men stationed at each nokta maintain direct contact with Halba’s municipal police via walkie-talkie, while also scanning a shared WhatsApp group for breaking security updates.

Most town protectors work from 11pm until 5am the following day, several times per week. Despite the tough hours and meagre pay – each month, town protectors receive about 500,000 Lebanese pounds (approximately $20-25, depending on the unofficial exchange rate) – Maher appreciates the income.

“In Lebanon, if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” he remarks grimly. Even Walid, who holds down a day job as a mechanic, relies on the town protectors’ stipend to help pay rent and support his infant son.

Legally speaking, Halba’s town protectors do not have the power to arrest. Instead, they are required to turn over suspected criminals to the municipal police, who can then transfer them to the darak. Both town protectors and the municipal police are vague on how this process works in practice, but claim that volunteers do not use force and never carry weapons – even though gun ownership is a given for most households in Akkar.

Lebanese Internal Security Forces, or darak, on the streets of Beirut in a photo from 2013 [File:Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

For almost two hours, Maher’s raconteuring carries the evening. Walid switches between his first-person shooter games and online poker, while Abdullah largely stays quiet. A fourth town protector, summoned by walkie-talkie, comes past with cups of tea and cigarettes.

Then, suddenly, Maher, Walid and Abdullah all spring up from their chairs. Striding onto the road, they stop a lone motorcycle climbing slowly up the hill. After a brief conversation, the town protectors send the rider on his way.

Maher explains that another nokta had radioed in an all-points bulletin about the suspicious motorcycle. “We didn’t know why he ran from the boys,” says Maher. “But he said that he didn’t think that they were police – he just thought they were road workers.”

Not all security checks play out so smoothly. Maher remembers that, on one occasion, he and his colleagues needed to disarm a criminal suspect carrying a gun. “When we caught those people, where were the darak?” he asks indignantly. “They should protect us.”

In these dangerous situations, perception apparently trumps reality, protecting the protectors themselves. According to Maher: “[Suspects] get scared because they think that we have guns.”

Working together

For their part, Halba’s municipal police are grateful for all the help they can get. Without the protectors, the force would be unable to cover the whole town, explains Ahmed, from behind the wheel of the night patrol car.

Frustrations with the state’s crumbling security pushed Ahmed to support Lebanon’s 2019 revolution – a wave of protests hoping to remove the country’s entrenched ruling class. Ahmed’s defiant stance against the status quo is shared by his fellow municipal police officers, most of whom he has known since childhood.

“We are all with the thawra [revolution]. The municipal police and town protectors guarantee discipline and respect in Halba. We would prefer the state to do this for us, but it doesn’t exist.”

Halba municipal police officers Ziad, Ahmed and two town protectors keep one eye on the fire and another on the road, looking out for trouble-makers [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

Halba’s municipal police try to make life more comfortable for the town protectors. Along with his colleague Ziad al-Ferri, Ahmed has started building small huts at the noktas, preparing shelter for the watchmen before the winter carpets Akkar with snow.

One hut is slightly outside Halba, in a stony clearing nestled among some fields. As equals, Ahmed and Ziad chat with several town protectors under starlight – rarely noticed in Lebanon’s large, infinitely more polluted cities – while someone stokes a fire, housed inside a disused metal can. It could be a camping trip.

According to Ahmed, the darak never supported the town protectors initiative as the municipal police do. “They didn’t want us to set up our volunteer group. We had to do it by force … We got permission from the governorate, [who allowed us] to protect the town.”

Neither the darak nor the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the town protectors initiative.

Beyond denying volunteers the right to make arrests, the governorate has taken a remarkably hands-off attitude towards the town protectors. There are no entry requirements or vetting processes to speak of and training is almost non-existent; volunteers are unleashed into the streets with a few words of wisdom from Ahmed.

“We tell the volunteers how to deal with people; what to do if they see something, you know?” he explains.

For nokta leader Maher, the lack of formal police training is no cause for concern. “We know what we are doing,” he says, brimming with confidence.

Municipal police officer and self-described “drifting” fanatic Ahmed poses next to his beloved BMW [Courtesy of Ahmed Hamad]

Unexpectedly, Ahmed breaks off the conversation and pulls into a silent lay-by. Without a trace of a smile, he leans over and asks suddenly: “Do you love drift?”

Tyres screech as the patrol car lurches forward and begins pivoting on its front wheel. From the back seat, the other municipal policemen guffaw as the vehicle careers across the wide, empty street, leaving dark streaks of rubber on the tarmac.

‘No security, no stability’

Not everyone is convinced about the suitability of the town protectors for enhancing community security. Down the road from Halba, Kibon al-Warraq, a middle-aged father, admires the view from his hotel.

Al Sayad Hotel – a kind of revivalist Ottoman palace and Kibon’s pride and joy – is located in Beino, a 15-minute drive into the mountains from Halba’s plains. Historically, wealthy Lebanese expatriates flocked to Beino during summer, making the hamlet one of Akkar’s wealthier communities.

Kibon plays with his daughter Nada outside Al Sayad Hotel [Courtesy of Kibon al-Warraq]

“I don’t imagine [the protectors] are very well trained, if at all,” Kibon reflects, in between teaching the English alphabet to his five-year-old daughter, Nada. “I haven’t heard of the [protectors], but they probably just want jobs in the municipality because there is nothing else to do in Halba.”

Three decades of running a clothes shop in Brazil enabled Kibon to open Al Sayad Hotel in 2010, when Lebanon’s future looked brighter. For years, the sprawling venue hosted countless weddings, along with a steady stream of hunting tourists.

Now, the kitchen only opens for large private catering events, running on a skeleton staff of Kibon’s close family. The number of Lebanese hunters has dwindled during the economic crisis, and foreign tourists have shied away from the country’s deteriorating security situation.

While Kibon was away in Brazil, Halba and the surrounding areas underwent a transformation. Following the civil war, Halba became increasingly urbanised and shifted away from its traditional agricultural economy.

“Before I left, everybody raised livestock, cows and goats. Halba was an agricultural town. After I came back, nobody was farming,” recalls Kibon. “Back then it was a really small place, with few shops. There was no market or trade.”

One thing that has not changed is the region’s fondness for weapons. Even before the civil war, Kibon grew up among firearms – whether in the context of celebration or in lethal combat.

“We always used to say there is no house without weapons. We carry them everywhere, even at weddings.”

A portrait of Kibon’s late brother hangs above the bar in Al Sayad Hotel – his killers were never brought to justice [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

Unfortunately for Kibon and his family, not even their physical distance from Halba can entirely remove them from danger. Above the bar in Al Sayad Hotel hangs a photo of Kibon’s brother who, in 2015, was kidnapped and murdered.

Nobody was ever brought to justice, according to Kibon, which he traces to Lebanon’s deeply fractured society – where rival sectarian leaders and communities can act as laws unto themselves, with scant regard for the nation as a whole.

“In Lebanon, there is no security or stability,” Kibon says. “You feel yourself in 100 countries. When all the sects are all under one law, then you’re in a country.”

‘Not a new town’

A 20-minute drive from Beino, the ancient, ruined castle of Gibelacar straddles a rocky outcrop in Akkar El Atiqa, a town just 10km (6 miles) from the Syrian border. Built around AD 1000, over centuries the fortress fell into the hands of Syrians, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans, all with one goal – controlling the Homs Gap, known as “the gateway to Syria”, long an important trade route.

“This is not a new town,” explains Nasser Slaymen, a 31-year-old sociology graduate and Akkar El Atiqa resident. “It has a long history.”

He should know. Nasser is the son of Mahmoud Slaymen – a local poet and important cultural figurehead in northern Lebanon, who died earlier this year.

Akkar al-Atiqa locals are proud of Gibelacar Castle, once an essential outpost for invaders hoping to control the Homs Gap into Syria [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

Nasser moves with a leader’s assuredness as he walks Akkar El Atiqa’s streets, which flow mazily down the mountain, following the landscape’s contours between little shops and home vegetable gardens. He stops to greet passers-by warmly, even taking a moment to glance over one young jobseeker’s CV. Throughout the Lebanese revolution in 2019, Nasser was one of the Akkar region’s most prominent activists.

Like his father, Nasser is well aware of Akkar’s unique historical and cultural identity. Beyond geography, the Akkar region has always occupied a liminal place between Syria and Lebanon. Many Akkaris still share familial and business ties with Syria, while some traditional dishes resemble eastern Syrian cuisine more than typical Lebanese food.

In 1920, French Mandate authorities transformed the Ottoman territory of Mount Lebanon into “Greater Lebanon”, tacking on Akkar almost as an afterthought. The region’s agriculture offered a handy breadbasket, on top of the same strategic advantages identified since time immemorial – dominant, mountain-top positions on the trade corridor between Tripoli and Homs.

Soon after the civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, the Syrian army marched across the border. The Syrians faced limited resistance in Akkar, where many locals felt no strong allegiance to the neglectful Lebanese state.

Lebanese and Syrian trucks, carrying commercial products, wait at the border between the two countries in the northern Lebanese region of Akkar [File: Nicholas Tohme/AFP]

By several measures, Akkar El Atiqa enjoys greater prosperity than its divided neighbour, Halba. “Akkar El Atiqa has this common feeling of being there, even before Lebanon was created,” explains Bissane el-Cheikh, a journalist who grew up on Halba’s outskirts.

During Bissane’s childhood in the late 1980s and early 90s, she recalls that Akkar El Atiqa would host celebratory, days-long banquets on special occasions, such as when Akkari children successfully recovered from surgery. No such community solidarity existed in Halba. “Halba is really like a corridor town – a sudfe [accidental] town,” she concludes sadly.

Yet social cohesion alone does not spare Akkar El Atiqa from danger. Nasser sometimes stays up late to keep an eye on his family’s property, as do other men in the community. Just like Maher, Nasser is sceptical about the state’s ability to keep the town safe, especially given the recent rise in crime rates.

“We’re talking about a very remote region in the mountains. Here we have no choice but to resort to protecting ourselves and our land [with weapons].”

‘We look after each other’

The threat of violence is never very far away. Just a few kilometres from the Gibelacar fortress lies the Sheikh Jnaid spring – an important meeting point and source of freshwater for the town. Only last month, a gunfight over access to the spring led to two deaths.

Nasser, left, and his friends often visit the Sheikh Jnaid spring, a water source at the centre of disputes over local building rights [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

“There is unregulated building going on up there [in the mountains],” explains Nasser, as he puffs on his shisha pipe. “It is drying up and polluting the water source for the town. It’s not a new dispute. It’s been going on since the sixties.”

Unlike in Halba, the municipal police play no role in organising Akkar El Atiqa’s informal neighbourhood watch system, although they are still responsible for arresting suspected criminals. Making the community safer is the volunteers’ key motivation to keep a vigil over the town; none of them receives any compensation for their efforts.

“We look after each other. People will share in the [WhatsApp] group if a car has come and stopped somewhere. Anything that happens, they will be in touch with me on the phone, they’ll say ‘Nasser, get moving!’”

Yet even the dedication of people like Nasser cannot overcome Akkar’s crueller realities. Crime rates have reportedly eased since the summer, but many Akkaris remain cut off from decent job opportunities and public services as basic as drinking water, electricity, and waste collection.

“Unfortunately, this region has always been marginalised and far from Beirut,” says Nasser. “You’ve seen the streets, the general situation. Our villages are nice but lack real infrastructure or development.”

Maher poses in front of Anawa’s Coffee Shop, a modern cafe in Halba [Jacob Boswall/Al Jazeera]

Back in Halba, Maher takes a seat at Anawa’s Coffee Shop. He and Abdullah have just completed a winding, silent drive into the mountains, showcasing the view stretching across Halba’s dull, brown plains towards the distant Mediterranean Sea.

Anawa’s feels strangely at odds with the rest of Halba, where most locals gather at makeshift roadside coffee carts, surrounded by shuttered stores. The place has the hipsterish gloss of a trendy Beirut cafe, adorning coffees with latte art and serving gourmet focaccias. Maher sticks to a traditional Lebanese coffee – he and his friends usually play cards at a less fancy place than Anawa’s.

After some more silence, Maher explains that he is proud of his work as a town protector. He would like an official position with Halba’s municipality, which would ideally provide him with a more stable income. In fact, any regular job would lead Maher to quit his town protector duties. “You can’t do both,” he asserts.

Maher holds out little hope for a better life in Halba, where Lebanon’s economic crisis has exacerbated the town’s deeply embedded, longstanding problems.

“There’s no medicine. No hospitals, No fuel. Food is so expensive,” says Maher. “If you don’t have someone from overseas sending you money … you can’t [live].”

A town protector for now, Maher dreams of returning to Australia, far away from Halba’s dusty streets. “You know, it’s a different life over there,” he reminisces, his voice growing softer. “It’s so beautiful: Australia is amazing.”

“Inshallah [God willing], the airport will open tomorrow so that I can go.”

Source: Al Jazeera