Lebanese rivals work at reconciliation in Tripoli
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.