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Poverty and Syrian war fuel violence, despair in Tripoli

The Lebanese army has been deployed to Tripoli in an effort to halt violence between militias in the Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods.
A Lebanese Sunni gunman (R) is injured by gunfire while trying to fire a rocket towards the Jabal Mohsen district, home to the minority Alawite sect, during clashes in Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli, June 2, 2012. Clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli on Saturday, killing eight people and wounding 40, residents and a doctor said. REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim   (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IM

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Under a six-month security plan to bring calm to Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, the Lebanese army has been given full authority to deploy and arrest fighters responsible for the deadly violence between militias in the opposing neighborhoods of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds have been injured in 18 episodes of violence-related to the Syrian conflict between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. The Tebbaneh-Mohsen area, the site of nearly all the clashes in the city, is one of the most deprived in the country, with 76% of residents living below the poverty line. 

The two neighborhoods are separated by Syria Street, and all the buildings along this divide wear the scars of violence. The walls are pocked from thousands of impacts from bullets, shrapnel and various other projectiles, and large iron gates protect store windows. Mohsen sits on a hill, which lends dominance to its fighters and snipers aiming at Tebbaneh.

Outside a mobile phone shop on Syria Street in Tebbaneh, Mohammad chats with a couple of his friends. He is a teenager who has no “expectations of finding an occupation.” He earns a bit of money helping his friend in the shop and has taken part in the clashes. While explaining his situation and complaining about the lack of opportunities available, his friends see two people moving debris from an abandoned building on the other side of the street, in Mohsen. In less than five minutes, some 20 suspicious residents have gathered to confirm what exactly they are doing.

While the residents of Tripoli are now accustomed to regular outbursts of violence, some criticize their peers for their apparent predisposition to resort to weapons. “In Tebbaneh, people sleep, fight and go back to sleep,” complains Ahmad, a man in his 20s, angrily, while pointing in the air after hearing a couple of shots being fired. He would later qualify this assertion. “If you are a taxi driver, maybe you will [take home] $10 a day after paying for costs. With this amount of money, it's difficult to feed your family,” says Ahmad, visiting his hometown from Dubai, where he works as a makeup artist.

According to a UN study title "Urban Poverty in Tripoli," obtained by Al-Monitor, nearly half of Tebbaneh's residents live under conditions of extreme poverty; only 4% of homes have access to clean drinking water. The overall situation in Tripoli, whose residents believe they have been forgotten by the state, is not much better. The city is located in the poorest of the six regions that make up Lebanon.

“Lebanon has been built around the idea of a centralized state,” said Nahla Chahal, a journalist for As-Safir and founder of the Organization of Communist Action in Lebanon. Chahal was born in Tripoli and lived for 20 years in France. She points to two key moments in the decline of the country's second largest city: when the state “refused to renew the port and when their traditional social and economic ties to Syria via Homs and Hama were disrupted after the arrival of [Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad.” The conflict between Tebbaneh and Moshen, she asserted, began with the arrival of the Syrian army in the city during the civil war.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and various other groups are the primary institutions providing relief for Tebbaneh's inhabitants. Amal Masri is the head of studies at an extracurricular school on Syria Street. The school was established by the Hand in Hand Assocation, and 300 students come to the school in the afternoon to do their homework. Each student is suffering from the regular outbreaks of violence. The school has to close on occasion due to the clashes.

“In this space, the kids can breath, shout, sing, smile without worries,” said Masri, walking among the classes. Her charisma, and its effect on the students, who range in age from 7 to 20, is beyond question. They all stand when she enters a classroom and even approach her to say goodbye when they are leaving. “Many of them live in dysfunctional families, where the father is absent, no member in the family has an income and they hardly have anything to eat. In some cases, [they] even suffer abuse,” explained Masri, while showing a room filled with clothes for the kids.

“The first reason they come here is not for studies, but to receive aid,” Masri told Al-Monitor. “But we push them not to leave school, and we even help them to pursue technical courses once they graduate.” In Tebbaneh, only 1% of residents attend university. The younger generations have grown up amid poverty and clashes. Most children know someone who is a fighter.

Economic disparities are, in part, at the root of the clashes. Even if the regional situation and the conflict in Syria have fueled violence, everyone interviewed by Al-Monitor also pointed to poverty as an inextricable link to the violence. “If there was no poverty,” offered Chadi Nehabi of the NGO Utopia, “it would be much more difficult to incite people to fight.” Sectarian issues, he added, have not been dominant, but are growing in importance.

Powerful local political leaders fund the militias, paying for weapons and ammunition. A night of clashes can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Brand-new sniper rifles and RPGs can be seen in hands of fighters, not just old Kalashnikovs. Mouin Merhebi, a parliamentarian for the Future Movement, advocates the funding of militias to “protect the city,” as the political rhetoric among parties and communities has become increasingly contentious since the start of the Syrian conflict.

In Tebbaneh, big banners with photos of martyrs holding machine guns hang from walls. Next to them are discolored posters of smiling local politicians wearing ties and with the Lebanese flag in the background. “To survive, Tripoli politicians need their own influence, by controlling a militia,” said Chahal, the journalist. “That is how they can be present at meetings, how they can be taken seriously and so on. … It is a vicious circle.”

Salafism. Sectarianism. Syria. Politics. These are the words newspapers and politicians and other Lebanese use when trying to explain what has been happening in Tripoli. “This way we unburden ourselves of responsibility,” concluded Chahal.

“Probably, yes,” Mohammad said outside the mobile phone shop. “If I had a job, and Tebbaneh was in proper order, I would oppose conflict.”

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