Lebanese rivals work at reconciliation in Tripoli

Friday 01/04/2016
Souk al-Kamh on the former front line between Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh was rehabilitated by volunteers including ex-rival gunmen.

Tripoli, Lebanon - The voice of fabric vendor Ali Ramadan is ringing out once again after the end of six years of fighting which turned Souq al-Kamh, the old grain market in Lebanon’s sec­ond largest city, into a front line be­tween Sunni and Alawite militias.

The rivalry between Tripoli’s mainly Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen and the mainly Sunni Bab Tabbaneh, divided by the souq and adjacent Syria Street, was exac­erbated by Syria’s civil war, with the former supporting the Damascus re­gime and the latter the opposition.

Calm was restored two years ago, with the deployment of the Leba­nese Army under a stringent secu­rity plan. Since then, private peace-building initiatives, supported by international organisations, have helped rehabilitate the area and brought former enemies together on reconstruction and development projects.

Ramadan, an Alawite from Jabal Mohsen, stood outside his shop chatting with Adel Samidi, a Sunni from Bab Tabbaneh, who owns a store next to his in Souq al-Kamh. “I have worked in this shop for more than 45 years and most of my neigh­bours were from the Sunni sect, but fighting and decades of instabil­ity forced many to leave the souq,” Ramadan said.

“With security re-established, we hope the souq will be revived again, especially after its restoration by as­sociations and institutions of civil society.”

The Council of Tabbaneh Youth and the Association of Azm and Saada (Arabic for “Determination and Happiness”) are among groups that have been involved in restora­tion and development projects un­dertaken by residents of the rival quarters, including former fighters.

“We are a group of young people who have suffered a lot from vio­lence and decided to use our energy and capacities to serve the region that reels under tremendous pov­erty and deprivation. We do our utmost for development and work on reinforcing reconciliation among the inhabitants,” said Council of Tabbaneh Youth Director Khaled Shakhshir.

“We did many projects and oth­ers are under way, but the most important thing is that most works are being done voluntarily by young people from the two [warring] neighbourhoods. This is an achieve­ment by itself.”

In addition to removing the trac­es of fighting, the civil society’s initiatives sought to reinstate an ambience of joy and happiness. “A celebration to mark the completion of the souq’s restoration included entertainment and a music night in which amateurs from Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh teamed up to sing for peace and love,” Shakhshir said.

Souq al-Kamh hosts 1,000 shops and is connected to Syria Street, an infamous landmark of Tripoli vio­lence. Fighters, who traded gunfire across the street just two years ago, are now running a joint venture there.

Our Café, a cultural coffee shop opened in early March, is housed in a building that, just a few months ago, was pockmarked with bullet holes, with all the windows blown out. Today, its smooth walls are painted yellow, green, purple and pink. The café includes a profes­sional sound system and a small stage where concerts, plays, stand-up comedy shows and rap will be staged twice weekly.

Baal al-Darawish, near Syria Street, was also devastated by the fighting. Alawite and Sunni volun­teers started restoration work there, including the replacement of 300 windows and doors.

“I have never expected that one day I would be standing next to those I was fighting… working and sitting together every day after we had been communicating with weapons,” said Mohammad Sam­rout, a 37-year-old former fighter from Bab Tabbaneh.

“Today we are rebuilding what we have destroyed at the behest of political leaders who made us ene­mies, only to let us down to face our fate by ourselves,” he said. “That is why we have decided to join civil society groups to help alleviate pov­erty in our areas and to turn the page on the sufferings of war.”

His comments were backed by Ali Zaza who fought on behalf of his Alawite community. “I used to open up with my automatic rifle from a position overlooking Syria Street,” he said. “I never imagined that one day I will return to this street and sit in a café with those who were firing back at me.

“I will never carry weapons again but I fear for the younger generation whose difficult economic and social conditions might be exploited to woo them into fighting.”

Residents of Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tabbaneh discovered they have a lot in common. They live in im­poverished quarters, suffer from marginalisation, neglect and high unemployment that pushed many to resort to violence.

“For six years, I volunteered in ar­bitrary fighting. I am ready to volun­teer in doing good for much longer,” said Zaza.