Perhaps a metaphor for Lebanon’s complex cultural mosaic, the fighter is married to a Christian woman, has fought in Syria for several years but says that what he and all other Shia men really want is jobs, healthcare and a decent education.
BAALBEK, Lebanon — About half a kilometre from the 2,000-year-old ruins of the temple of Bacchus, the god of wine, Venus, the goddess of love, and Jupiter, the god of Roman gods, stands a larger than life cut-out of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shia cleric who brought his idea of Islamic revolution to Iran and began to spread it in the region through its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
While diminutive in comparison to the ancient pillars jutting out in the distance lending Baalbek a historical appeal, it is Khomeini’s ideas that have gripped the imagination of the local Shia population in the recent past.
Hassan, a 1.7-metre tall portly young man, is one of his followers. A Hezbollah fighter, he agreed to drive me around and shared his story - and that of his group as he saw it - in a rare interview. He opted for Hassan as his nom de guerre because officially Hezbollah fighters are instructed against speaking to journalists.
He pointed to the temple and said: “It is beautiful but that was the time of Jahiliya [ignorance] of religion.”
A product of Khomeini’s ideology and a foot soldier of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan said that he chose to speak to me because he did not want the world to think that his fellow fighters or him were terrorists. The US listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation over two decades ago while Britain followed suit last month and banned the group in its entirety.
“Do I look like a terrorist to you?” he asked. “England just does what America says and they do not like us because we fight Israel, their ally.”
Hassan neither counted the 1983 Beirut barrack attack which killed 241 US marines nor the 1992 one against Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires as terrorist strikes and either outrightly denied the group’s responsibility or termed them as acts to defend Lebanon.
He was, however, affronted by the UK’s classification of him as a terrorist and in a bid to show Hezbollah’s “kindness”, decided to show me round the villages of Baalbek.
He said: “Take a look at these empty villages, the only work here is agriculture. It was the same when I was a child, it is the same now. But after Hezbollah came into being at least I could get some work.”
It is here, along the fertile fields with little to no employment and an impoverished Shia population, that it all began. In the 80s, as Israel invaded Lebanon, a few hundred Iranian revolutionary Guards [IRGC] made way through a smugglers route from Zabadani in Syria to Baalbek in Lebanon where they rented homes in villages around the temple.
At first, they began a religious and social programme to win over the popular support among the Shias, traditionally the poorer community compared to the Sunni elite, propped up by the Ottomans, and the Maronite Christians, backed by the French.
However, at the same time, among others, a group of Shia fighters were already engaged in ousting the Israelis. Many of the latter, with religious leanings, collaborated with the IRGC and formed Hezbollah, which emerged as an effective guerrilla force and claimed success in pushing the Israelis to a sliver of territory in the south of the country by 1985.
Hassan was born in 1987, a time ripe with Hezbollah’s rhetoric and military success against Israel. Hassan said it was a time to believe that the Shias could rise up and not only protect Lebanon from Israel’s invasions but also fight to reclaim the Palestinian lands. Moreover, he said, Hezbollah was in a position to provide jobs to a people who did nothing else but till the farms.
He was too young to fight in the 80s or even in the 2006 war against Israel, but he said he fought in Syria to aid Iran’s other ally, Bashar al Assad, and has returned war hardened.
“I fought in Al Qusayr and then provided logistical support in the battle for Aleppo. Until 2014-15 it was only us, only Hezbollah fighting in Syria. There were very few Syrian soldiers and most of them badly trained. I was paid $1,200 a month. It was not great but better than nothing. There are no jobs in Lebanon,” he said.
Hassan is grateful to Hezbollah for providing jobs even if it is as fighters. But he said that he primarily joined the group to defend his country and was inspired by the group which could take on the might of “America-backed Israel”.
He said: “If we did not fight ISIS [Daesh] in Syria they would in Baalbek, and if my predecessors did not fight Israel, they would be in Beirut.”
Hassan has no qualms about fighting for Hezbollah and bombing Syrian homes, however, as he grows older his priorities have changed. Hassan is soon to be a father.
In Beirut he lives with his pregnant wife. Perhaps a metaphor for Lebanon’s complex mosaic itself, he is married to a Christian woman.
For her comfort, Hassan lives in a Christian neighbourhood as opposed to the Shia-dominated southern suburbs of Dahiye, a stronghold of Hezbollah.
The living room in his house has a spartan look but for a Christmas tree tucked in a corner.
“It’s a girl,” he said. “My time for war has gone. Now I think about my child. How would I be able to give her a good education, a good future? If I got a job in the US, I would say bye-bye Hezbollah.”
After a whole day of criticising America, his sudden switch in tone and desire to move there was startling. He clarified and said that most Hezbollah fighters like America as a country and the Americans but disagree with their government’s regional policy.