Hundreds of tough-looking men with weather-beaten faces and thick beards filed into the smoke-filled Shiite meeting hall. They had come to pay respects to the family of Mohammed Hamiyah, a Lebanese soldier executed more than a year ago by Syrian militants.
Sitting at the front of the hall, known as a Husseiniyah, were several religious representatives – a Catholic bishop, the Shiite mufti of the Bekaa Valley, and the local Sunni mufti. They were here to preach tolerance as a balm for the ever-present specter of sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites that has been inflamed by more than four years of war in nearby Syria.
But for the assembled mourners, in accordance with time-honored tribal traditions in the Bekaa Valley, communal harmony was secondary in their thoughts to exacting revenge against Hamiyah's killers.
Hamiyah’s very funeral had been made possible under a prisoner swap between the Lebanese government and Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al Qaeda franchise. The deal led to the return of 16 Lebanese soldiers – and Hamiyeh’s body – in return for 11 Islamist militants. But it seems only to have deepened anger in Taraya and across the country against the militants who roam freely in the rugged mountains in northeast Lebanon.
As Hamiyah’s coffin arrived outside the Husseiniyah, the crackle of automatic gunfire broke out across the village, drowning out the Lebanese Army’s brass band. (Watch video of the funeral procession here.)
“Please, do not shoot in the air,” a local official with the militant Shiite Hezbollah organization, who led the funeral proceedings, said over a loudspeaker. “Save your bullets so they can be used against the killers of the martyr Mohammed Hamiyah.”
Hamiyah was one of 36 Lebanese soldiers and policemen captured in August 2014 when militants from Jabhat al-Nusra and the extremist Islamic State (IS) overran the northeast Sunni town of Arsal, which lies close to the border with Syria. Seven of the captives were subsequently released; four were executed, including Hamiyah; and the remaining 25 were split between IS, which had nine, and Jabhat al-Nusra, who took 16.
Protracted negotiations with Jabhat al-Nusra, brokered by Qatar, finally secured last week's deal. The fate of the other nine Lebanese captives is unknown as IS is refusing to negotiate.
Mourners with pistols
The swap occurred on the outskirts of Arsal, where Jabhat al-Nusra and IS hold sway. Television cameras showed the masked Islamic militants arriving in pick-up trucks and waving flags and brandishing rifles while chanting “God is greater.” The sight of the gunmen parading openly on Lebanese soil marred the celebrations at the release of the hostages.
“The footage of the gunmen on the outskirts of Arsal is a scandal against Lebanon’s sovereignty,” said Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker.
The Jabhat al-Nusra militant suspected of executing Hamiyah was arrested two weeks ago while trying to flee Lebanon. But the Hamiyah clan specifically blames Sheikh Mustafa Hujairy, a militant cleric from Arsal, who is accused of handing over the servicemen to militants during the August 2014 fighting. He was sentenced in absentia last month by a Lebanese military court to life imprisonment for his ties to Jabhat al-Nusra, although he remains at large in Arsal.
The calls for revenge are not to be taken lightly given that the Hamiyah clan is renowned for its hardheadedness.
At the funeral, several mourners openly carried pistols thrust into waistbands despite the presence of a cabinet minister, lawmakers, and senior army officers. One prominent resident of Taraya, standing in a line to shake the hands of arriving mourners, was involved in a handful of airplane hijackings in the early 1980s in an attempt to determine the fate of a revered Shiite cleric who went missing in Libya in 1978.
Praise for restraint
On the wall behind the Husseiniyah’s podium were pictures of Mohammed Hamiyah alongside several Hezbollah men killed fighting in Syria. Posters and banners carried references to Ashura, the most significant date on the Shiite calendar, which was marked this year at the end of October.
If the local Sunni mufti, Sheikh Bakr al-Rifai, felt any unease at his surroundings, he gave no sign as he climbed the podium to address the mourners.
He praised Maarouf Hamiyah, Mohammed’s father, saying that his calls against vengeful Shiites attacking Syrian refugees or Sunnis following the death of his son had helped prevent a “civil war” in the Bekaa. The sheikh’s voice rose and he wagged his finger in emphasis as he spoke out against extremists whom he said have nothing to do with Sunnis.
“The Sunnis and Shiites are all Muslims together, and Lebanon is an example of our coexistence,” he said, to nods of approval from some in the audience.
'We will have our revenge'
When Sheikh Rifai was finished, the Hezbollah man leading the funeral whipped up the crowd with thunderous vows that the “Takfiris” would be destroyed and driven from Lebanon, culminating in his fist punching the air as he led chants of “Labaykh ya Hussein,” a cry of support for an early Shiite Imam.
The mourners stepped out into the chilly late afternoon air and followed Hamiyah’s coffin, draped in the red and white Lebanese flag, up a winding lane to the hilltop cemetery. Women lined the street and threw rice and confetti over the mourners in a traditional gesture for a “martyr.”
The setting sun turned the limestone mountains flanking the Bekaa Valley a rich coppery gold as the coffin arrived at the cemetery. It was accompanied by the clatter of machine-gun fire and the thump of exploding rocket-propelled grenades against a distant hillside – tradition trumping the earlier pleas of the Hezbollah official.
“It doesn’t matter how long it takes, we will have our revenge,” said Ali Hamiyah, walking behind the coffin. “We always avenge out martyrs. It is our way.”