Nestled between Mount Lebanon to the west and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains to the east, the lush green fields and quaint rustic shacks of the Bekaa Valley look remarkably idyllic from a distance. Famous for its wheat and wine, this vale on the Syrian-Lebanese border has been a breadbasket in the Levant region since the time of the Romans. When I visited in the summer of 2016, however, amid the rich orchards and sweet vineyards were nearly one million shell-shocked and hollow-eyed refugees, huddled together in crowded and underserviced settlements.
Syria’s raging civil war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and turned the country’s formerly shining cities to rubble. The resulting anarchy has given birth to a multitude of new jihadist groups, each more violent than the last. In the chaos, Bekaa has become a magnet for terrorized civilians fleeing violence, extremism, and persecution.
Among these refugees was Nazih al-Lahej (a pseudonym), a father of three, who had sent his two teenage sons across the Mediterranean to Germany and then smuggled his wife and daughter into Lebanon. His family had spent their last cent securing safe passage along the risky human trafficking networks, escaping with only the clothes on their backs. They had just barely managed to flee Raqqa, the self-declared capital city of the Islamic State (ISIS), a group that locals across Iraq and Syria derisively call by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.
Notorious for its savagery and sadism, ISIS was known to forcibly recruit and indoctrinate young children. “There was no other solution!” Nazih said mournfully, his wife nodding in agreement, “because if [our sons] had stayed, they would have been brainwashed.” ISIS, he said “offers games and toys to the kids so that they start appreciating them, and then they start giving them [extremist] classes.” Despite their terrible fear of sending their sons on the dangerous journey across the sea, the parents would not risk losing their teenaged boys to the psychotic tyranny of the extremists.
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