For my latest piece for VICE I traveled to the town of Tripoli to follow up on the sectarian battles between two neighbouring districts. The whole experience was a bit of a headfuck in all honesty, sectarian violence often makes so little sense. The photos were taken by my good friend and colleague Alex Potter who accompanied me to Tripoli and introduced me to Nour el-Eid.
Fighters in the Firuq Brigade of Souq al-Qamar, who said the war was never going to end and they were proud to fight for Tabbaneh.
Lebanon’s second largest city of Tripoli is mainly known for its rich history and architecture, sweet food, the fact that it’s not the Tripoli in Libya and—in more recent times—flare-ups in sectarian fighting. The ideal holiday destination for anyone who wants to escape their desk job for a week of routine violence and baklava. Since the start of the Syrian revolution, violent battles have taken place in various parts of the city. Most of the fighting has been done between the city’s bands of pro-revolution Sunni militias and forces in the pro-Assad district of Jabal Mohsen.
Since Syria lies only a few miles north of Tripoli, thousands of Syrian refugees belonging to various ethno-religious groups have streamed across the border into Lebanon looking for refuge, which has begun to destabilize the situation there even more. It’s a country already constantly teetering on the knife-edge of sectarian conflict, and after 15 years of civil war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, Lebanon knows Syria’s problems far too well.
On the outside, Lebanon may appear to be a functioning and stable country. But in reality, the confessionalist state is deeply divided and the hastily bandaged scars following the chaos of civil war have again become open wounds in the Lebanese psyche. Former warlords—many of whom still harbor racist and inflammatory views—are now politicians and religious leaders, and there’s still a deep distrust between many of the country’s 18 recognized religious sects. Gun battles breaking out between different communities have been commonplace over the last decade, and the brutal assassinations of public figures have incinerated any notion that Lebanon adheres to the principles of a functioning democracy.
A Sunni funeral for one of the fighters killed in Syria takes place in Tripoli.
The neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen lie side by side. Their communities have been fighting for generations, stretching as far back as the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen are staunch supporters of Bashar al-Assad, the man they see as the leader of their community. Their mainly Sunni neighbors in Bab al-Tabbaneh and most of Tripoli don’t share the same enthusiasm.
In the most recent round of clashes, 17 people were killed, including women, children and the elderly. The violence erupted after news came through that 20 Sunni fighters from northern Lebanon had crossed the border to fight Assad’s forces only to be killed by them in an ambush.
Videos were also released that purportedly showed the bodies of those men being stabbed by regime forces, triggering a violent reaction from Tripoli’s Sunni community. Clashes broke out between the Alawites in Jabal Mohsen and the Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh, leading to barrages of rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire across the region as militiamen from both sides squared off.
A destroyed house in Jabal Mohsen.
Walking around the area, one of the Tabbaneh fighters introduced himself as Sheikh Shadi and said he had been fighting against the Alawite population of Jabal Mohsen for years. Each area of Tabbaneh is controlled by separate militias who generally fight alongside each other but don’t share a common leadership. Most of the fighters in Shadi’s battalion said the fighting had been going on for years and that they saw no signs of the conflict ending. Many of them also said that the fighters who’d recently been killed across the border in Syria were “like our brothers” and that “their conflict is our conflict also.”
Something that’s important to note about both of these areas is that they are incredibly impoverished. The majority of families live below the poverty line with poor access to education and the men engaged in the fighting are young—often as young as 16—with many not fully comprehending the implications of their actions. Boys on mopeds slalom in between machine gun fire and past ceremonial posters of young men “martyred” during the fighting to deliver plastic bags full of ammunition and food to their older brothers and friends on the front lines.
Dr Abdullatif Saidi.
We met a doctor from the governmental hospital in Tripoli named Dr Abdullatif Saidi, who lives in Riva—smack bang in the middle of the fighting. Dr Saifi showed me the bullet-holes that pepper the apartment he shares with his wife and two infant children.
“Every month we have a battle here, every month a new problem,” he said. “The war between the Sunni and Alawite, the war between Jabal Mohsen and Tabbaneh.”
He said he saw the situation getting worse: “We have many injuries, many deaths and many bleeding wounds; 15 dead this month and 100 injuries. The fighters are young and don’t know why they’re fighting. They see it as self-protection. They each see it as their neighbors shooting at them, so they shoot back. There’s nothing else to it.”
Arriving in Jabal Mohsen was an almost otherworldly experience. There wasn’t much to distinguish between the rival neighborhoods—they’re both deeply deprived and both bear the scars of intense fighting—however, in Mohsen, there are posters and murals of Bashar al-Assad everywhere, hanging in between makeshift barriers set up for the fighting. It was like walking through a mini-Syria, isolated from the increasingly anti-regime Tripoli that it lies deep in the heart of. Another difference was that the people of Jabal Mohsen were more eager to talk to us and have their photos taken next to posters of al-Assad, the man they called “al-Ra’ees”, or “the President”.
The Square in between Riva and Jabal Mohsen, which has become a battleground of machine gun and rocket fire between the two districts.
One man with two teardrops tattooed under his left eye limped over to us and recounted the story of how he’d been shot in the leg during the fighting, proudly bearing his battle wound. Despite the fact that the district’s residents sleep huddled together in rooms praying an RPG doesn’t hit their house, the young men involved in the fighting seem completely oblivious to the damage they’re doing to their own communities.
We arrived in a small clinic in the centre of town, which we were told is the only medical facility in Jabal Mohsen and single-handedly has to care for the 60,000 residents of the district. Inside we met Mohammed, who was working as the clinic’s assistant manager.
“I haven’t slept in three days,” he sighed. “The battles started mainly when we got news of the people killed in Syria in Tal Kalakh. There was shooting, and even though they may not have meant to shoot at us, we got hit because we’re on higher ground. We notified the army that we were being attacked and the army did nothing substantial. Six of our people died in the last few days – three adults and three children, including a three-month-old child.
“We went on TV and declared that we have nothing to do with the Lebanese casualties in Syria and that we were not the ones who killed them. No one listened. No one can control this, not even Bashar al-Assad. If my brother is harmed, I would definitely get angry and start shooting.”
Wreckage in Riva, Tripoli.
Unlike the fragmented groups of Bab al-Tabbaneh and its surrounding areas, Jabal Mohsen is a tight-knit community, with all the fighters stem from a central leadership. Rifaat Eid, head of the Arab Democratic Party, is their representative and one of the staunchest allies of Bashar al-Assad within Lebanon.
“Rifaat gave the orders to become more aggressive with the Tabbaneh. The army realized this, so it mobilized, and whenever the army mobilizes, everyone goes home,” Mohammed told me. “This is why we believe that the army is the one to protect us, because we are a drop and they are an ocean.”
Despite the fact I was talking to the assistant manager of a hospital who also appeared to be heavily involved in the fighting, indirectly supplying himself with more patients, I sympathised with Mohammed. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen hold deeply disturbing views regarding the Syrian regime and the revolution, however, they are also a tiny community boxed into an area that is nothing but hostile towards them.
“We are proud and we know Bashar al-Assad will win, because we know what they are doing,” he said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Syrian regime has been growing increasingly isolated and desperate since the start of the revolution. “If you want a scoop, go to the Friday prayers around the area and listen to what they say about Alawites. They said you can rape Alawite women and children.”
I tried to press him on the reports of massacres perpetrated by Assad’s men, which he instantly dismissed as actions of foreign aggressors or fundamentalists targeting the regime. I then asked him about the mass bombing raids targeting civilian populations and finally got a brief break from 100 percent support for Assad. “We don’t agree with this”, he said. “But we stick with the regime because people are also fighting us with rockets and mortars. Turkey is fighting inside Syria with the FSA and Iran fighting with the regime. It’s like the Lebanese war. It’s a world war.”
More fighters from Tabbaneh.
Later on I met Nour Eid, the brother of Rifaat, a highly important figure in the community and the general manager of Mohammed’s clinic. Our conversation was to be even more troubling than my conversation with Mohammed. Again, he was a pleasant man who insisted that the majority of Alawites in Jabal Mohsen wanted to live in peace with their neighbors and that they were the victims in the situation (which, shockingly, was not dissimilar to what the people in Tabbaneh had told us).
Nour and I agreed on many points—he said to me that religion was a “drug of the people”, attributing this statement to an old Arab proverb and not Karl Marx, and he blamed fundamentalism for many of the problems in the Arab world: “Arab leaders are still living in the dinosaur ages, what’s important to them is only sex and wine!”
Youths running from gun fire in Tripoli.
I didn’t want to leave without pushing him for a greater truth about what was happening in Syria. His support for Assad was unflinching and he refused to accept any of the stories of massacres. However, after pressing him about the abject destruction caused by Assad’s air force, he finally gave more of an insight into his mentality.
“Do you know the story of Lot?” he asked me. “Lot asked God why he had killed the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, including the women and children who were innocent. God pushed him to the ground and made an army of ants crawl over his body. On his command, God made one of the ants bite Lot’s arm. Lot slapped his hand down and killed many ants and God asked him why he had killed so many ants when only one had bitten him.”
I told him that was a deeply disturbing view to hold—that it was the same justification the Israelis use for killing Palestinian civilians. He agreed, and the morality of what he had just said didn’t seem to trouble him, despite the fact he was writing off the lives of thousands of innocent civilians simply as collateral damage. What struck me most about Nour and Mohammed wasn’t their profoundly misguided and deeply delusional views of the regime, their refusal to accept reality or their reticence towards the death of innocents, but their apparent kindness and warmth. It’s hard to understand words of violence uttered from the mouths of seemingly kind men.
The madness of the whole situation became glaringly apparent when we arrived at the border of Jabal Mohsen and Tabbaneh. Only a narrow staircase separated the communities, and at the bottom of the staircase was a primary school deep in the heart of the crossfire. The school was on the Tabbaneh side and was laden with flags and political posters; indoctrination starts very young in Lebanon. Children on both sides are taught to hate people that live a matter of meters away from each other, but the real tragedy of it all is that the perpetual cycle of hatred shows absolutely no sign of abating.