Lebanon simmers by Syria’s side

This article was published by the Independent on Sunday on 2 February, 2014

The arched façade of the shopping centre is still blackened with soot and piles of debris, and building material marks the spot where a suicide bomber detonated his belt, and his car, two weeks ago.

The explosion killed five people; among the 40 more wounded was Ali Shaheen, a pharmacist, who was making coffee at the time of the blast. “Everything collapsed around us,” he recalls. The attack has made residents of Hermel, a “100 per cent Shia” town where Hezbollah reigns supreme, resigned and fearful of a new threat that seems impossible to stop. “When it comes to suicide bombers, neither Hezbollah nor the Lebanese army can prevent such an act,” said Shaheen, a father of three.

Although this is its first suicide bombing, it is not the first time the town has felt the consequences of Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war. Over 150 rockets have rained down on Hermal and its surroundings over the past two years. Last night, a second suicide bombing hit the town, killing three.

The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, formally announced that the group was fighting alongside the Syrian army last May, when his forces played a crucial role in expelling rebels from Qusayr, just across the Lebanese border. Since then, five suicide bombings have hit Dahiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Read the full article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/lebanon-simmers-by-syrias-side-terror-attacks-drag-lebanese-communities-into-neighbours-civil-war-9101654.html

Tensions in Lebanon: Bombs and bust-ups

IN THE evening of February 1st a car bomb killed three people in Hermel, a Shia town that is a Hizbullah stronghold in Lebanon’s east on the border with Syria. The bomb was the second to hit the town in two weeks—the first was on January 16th. Both attacks were claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate that is fighting against President Bashar Assad in Syria.

Jabhat al-Nusra announced its expansion into Lebanon in December. On January 24th, it declared Hizbullah areas legitimate targets, since the Lebanese Shia movement backs Mr Assad. The day after, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), another Al Qaeda affiliate active in Syria and Iraq, also announced it will start operations in Lebanon.

Hermel’s residents are distraught by the violence rocking their town. “They don’t know religion, they don’t know God,” said Amal Mourtada, a 30-year-old shop assistant of the attackers, as she nursed her bruised face and hand, injuries from the first explosion.

But the townspeople also blame those closer to home for the lot: their fellow Lebanese in the neighbouring town of Arsal.

Arsal, a nearby Sunni border town, has long been a smugglers den, formerly of cigarettes and petrol, now of ammunition, fighters and guns. An early supporter of the Syrian opposition, the town’s concrete buildings are crammed with Syrian refugees, among them rebel fighters who come to Arsal to recuperate. A dingy field hospital receives wounded combatants almost daily.

Arsal, too, has suffered for its role. Syria’s airforce regularly bombs the town’s outskirts.

Surrounded by Shia towns on all sides, Arsal’s only road is often blocked by their angry residents. Arsal’s inhabitants are fearful of these impromptu checkpoints.  “I will be killed or arrested just because I am Sunni and we are helping the Syrians,” says Abed Hassan Hmeil, a 24-year-old quarry worker.

Similarly, Hermel residents fear their Sunni neighbours and their Syrian guests. “I have many friends in Arsal, but they can’t guarantee my safety anymore,” says Muhammed Alaw, a teacher from the town. Mr Alaw says his students are “enraged” by the violence hitting their town, and have been leaving his classroom to fight with Hizbullah in “significant numbers”.

The Shia movement has long argued that it is only fighting in Syria to prevent Islamists targeting its base in Lebanon. With the violence increasing, that argument appears to be winning over former sceptics. Mr Alaw once criticised Hizbullah for fighting in Syria, but has changed his mind. “Can you imagine how many bombs we would have if Qusayr hadn’t fallen [to regime control]?” he says, referring to a border town that Hizbullah helped the Syrian army take back from rebels last June.

Another brewing battle could rock the fragile border towns yet further. Yabrud, a Syrian town that is the only remaining rebel stronghold along the border, is increasingly surrounded by the Syrian army. A fight there could force rebel fighters to retreat to Arsal, bringing a little more of the war with them.

 Read the full post here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2014/02/tensions-lebanon

Lebanon and the Hariri assassination: no time for justice

The article was published on the Pomegranate blog of The Economist on 16 January, 2014

WHEN the Special Tribunal for Lebanon finally opens its trial today, January 16th, prosecutors in The Hague will address an empty dock. The four suspects who stand accused of carrying out the February 14th 2005 bombing that killed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others in Beirut will be absent. Equally absent is any sense of excitement about the trial in Lebanon.

Media interest has been largely restricted to outlets owned by the Hariri family, such as Future TV and the Daily Star, a newspaper. Politicians have remained largely silent, wary of causing fights in a country riven by political and sectarian divides. “Is that this week?” a worker at a non-governmental organisation replied when asked about the trial.

The Lebanese have plenty more pressing problems to focus on. There is growing insecurity, including a raft of bombings that have taken on a dangerous tit-for-tat rhythm, reflecting tensions between Sunnis and Shia that have been worsened by the war next door in Syria. The most recent explosion, on December 27th in central Beirut, killed Muhammad Shatah, a former finance minister and ambassador in America. New rumours circulate daily of which areas to avoid. 

Read the whole post here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2014/01/lebanon-and-hariri-assassination

The Art of Civil War

This article was published by Foreign Policy on 8 May, 2013

BEIRUT — “What period it’s from is not important. I just care how much it’s worth,” says Abu Khader, a smuggler in Majdal Anjar, a small Lebanese town on the Lebanon-Syria border. Smuggling everything from cigarettes to arms has long been a family business. But Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters low on cash have started offering alternative payment for the guns they crave — stolen Syrian antiquities.

Cuneiform tablets, Roman friezes and statues, and Byzantine coins are particularly popular. “They give me antiquities, and I give them guns,” Abu Khader puts it simply.

An AK-47 can set you back $1,200 on the black market today, and the more desirable M4 carbine can cost around $4,500. Selling antiquities can help finance these purchases. “I have moved at least 100 objects,” Abu Khader says.

In addition to the Syrian civil war’s horrible human and economic costs, the conflict has also devastated Syria’s cultural heritage. At a February UNESCO conference, the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) called the looting more damaging than the fighting that is ravaging mosques, old houses, and Crusader castles.

Only 3 percent of Syria’s heritage sites remain outside areas of conflict, according to a map released by the U.S. State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit. A 2012 Global Heritage Fund report also makes for grim reading: All UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been affected by the war, from the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus to the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers to the Roman city of Bosra.

Syria is an archaeological treasure trove, featuring antiquities from the Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, and Ottoman periods. The country hosted up to 100 foreign archeological expeditions annually before the war started. The destruction of the millennia-old minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo on April 24 is just the latest casualty of the violence.

Looting has become more commonplace as the conflict has dragged on. “There wasn’t that much evidence of looting this time last year. Now there is,” says Durham University doctoral student Emma Cunliffe, author of the Global Heritage report.

Similar pillaging followed the invasion of Iraq, the war in Libya, and even the uprising in Egypt. According to Maamoun Abdel-Karim, director of the DGAM, the antiquities directorate received at least 4,000 confiscated objects over the course of 2012, most of which were recovered on their way out of the country.

Read the full article here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/05/08/syrian_rebels_stolen_treasures_art_theft_guns

Lebanese Abstract Artist Opens At Tate Modern

This article was published by Al-Monitor on 17 April, 2013

The apartment in which Raouda Choucair lives is a testament to her life. Her abstract paintings line the walls, and the cabinets are filled with maquettes for abstract public works she intended to have built. The drawers are crammed with notes, drawings and ideas documenting a career that now, with Choucair aged 97, seems to be finally taking off.

Until today, these objects seemed destined to be the preserve of a few people in the know. Often misunderstood by her Lebanese contemporaries, Choucair lived a solitary life, rueing the lack of recognition that her attempt to rhyme modernism with Arab art garnered. But now, over 120 pieces, many of them never seen outside her studio, have been shipped off to the Tate Modern in London, for the first major museum show of Lebanon’s first abstract artist. The show opens on April 17 and will run for six months [until Oct. 20].


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And still they come

This article was published by the Economist Pomegranate blog on 27th March 2012

WHEN Zaharith left the fighting of Damascus for the safety of Lebanon, she did not expect to find herself in jail. But the young Syrian is living in an abandoned prison in Souawiri, a town in the Bekaa valley.  Damp walls stretch up to a tiny barred window and heavy locks dangle from the iron door which seals the cell she shares with five other families.

Zaharith is one of over 1m refugees who have fled Syria. With fighting intensifying the flow shows no sign of abating. Lebanon has accepted the largest number. The Lebanese government now estimates that there are 1m Syrians in the country, which has a population of 4m, including workers and refugees who have not registered.

Read the full article here http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2013/03/syrian-refugees-lebanon

The Plight of Syria’s Palestinian Refugees

This article was published  by the Interdependent on February 15, 2013

“There is no comparison to this life and our life in Syria,” says Bilal, 42, shivering. “We live with seven people in one room where we don’t see the sun, the rain drips through the roof, and we feel the humidity.” Bilal and his family fled the outskirts of Yarmouk camp last November with one suitcase each, after being stuck in the middle of rebel and regime forces.

syria-refugees-1Ain el Hilweh is poor and already bursting at the seams with 54,000 residents. Another 4,000 Syrian Palestinians have recently moved here. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

The United Nations estimates that approximately 400,000 of Syria’s half a million Palestinian refugees require immediate humanitarian assistance. These refugees currently live both inside and outside the war-torn country, yet their situation appears uniquely bleak.

While most Syrian refugees can register with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Palestinians are the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is struggling to meet the dire needs of refugees pouring into neighboring countries. 

As Palestinians, Bilal and his family were not allowed into Jordan. The family had no option but to flee to Lebanon, and they are not alone. Some 24,000 Palestinian Syrians have crossed into Lebanon since last summer, the majority of whom have spread out over various sites in the Bekaa Valley. But almost a quarter of them have come to the Palestinian camp of Ain el-Hilweh, an enormous informal camp in Lebanon where UNRWA’s resources have been limited.

Despite having no family or links to the Ain El Hilweh camp, Adnan Saleh, 38, says it was an easy choice: “They are Palestinians like me,” Saleh says. He heads one of the 38 families that have crowded into the camp’s abandoned Al-Kifah school. Most are recent arrivals following the bombing of the Yarmouk camp near Damascus two months ago; others arrived last summer after the armies’ attack on Saida Zeinab.

“Yarmouk is nothing compared to Saida Zeinab,” says Saleh. He fled during Ramadan, when his area was completely destroyed. He previously lived in a three-story house with 10 rooms; now he lives in a single room with his parents, wife and four children. Formerly the proprietor of a detergent shop, Saleh can now barely afford diapers for his 3-month-old son. “I am running out of money,” he says.

syria-refugees-4The room in this refugee camp sleeps a family of five. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

UNRWA does not have a mandate or budget to provide assistance to Syria’s Palestinians. “We give what we have available,” says Fadi Ahmed al-Saleh, the Ain el Hilweh camp services officer for UNRWA. “It depends on donors; if they provide, then we distribute.”

UNRWA has received $6.6 million—almost half of the $13.3 million funding it requested in December to cover the first six months of 2013. But assisting the refugees and coping with their increasing numbers remains “one of UNRWA’s main challenges in Lebanon,” according to UNRWA public information officer Houda Samra.

Mounting Humanitarian Issues

Currently, UNRWA is laboring to provide adequate shelter. “The people who live in Ain El Hilweh camp have very small rooms and can’t share,” says al-Saleh, echoing UNRWA’s concern. The camp houses 53,000 Palestinians on a strip of land. When 4,000 Syrian Palestinians arrived recently, over 90 percent of them had to be housed by relatives.

Many Syrian Palestinians are appalled by the conditions in the Lebanese Palestinian camp. Myriad electricity wires cross through the streets, poverty is rife, and perpetual security issues mean the camp can only be entered with clearance from Lebanon’s military intelligence. For years, Lebanese Palestinian camps have been ranked as the worst in the world. 

syria-refugees-2Adnan Saleh, 38, arrived in the summer of 2012 with his parents, wife, and four children. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

“When we first came, we were hoping to be received and helped,” says Maryam Hassan, 50, who came from Yarmouk two months ago. “But people in the camps need help themselves.”

Lebanese Palestinians also enjoy far fewer rights than their Syrian neighbors. “There is a big difference,” explains Mustapha Ahhmed, 39, who fled the Yarmouk camp two months ago. “In Syria, you can work in the government. Here in Lebanon, Palestinians are not allowed to work, so how are we to work? We have no rights.”

The lack of work is especially troubling because the influx of refugees means the cost of living is rising, with single rooms in the Ain El Hilweh camp being rented for $100-150 per month. A few months ago, they cost $70.

“Some people are taking advantage; they are increasing rent. Some people have no mercy, while they should be showing solidarity because we are all Palestinians,” says Nasser Madad, who is trying to find housing for his 29-year-old cousin Wssim Abdallah. “I have no room for him,” he adds. But Ain el Hilweh is still cheap compared to renting outside the camp, where rooms can cost up to three times as much.

Ali Tuheibish, the head of As Sabil, a local NGO that provides assistance to the Al- Kifah school’s residents, says, “UNRWA gave more aid in Syria. A lot of them are used to living in large houses, having to adapt to sharing a bathroom is especially hard.” According to Tuheibish, the school lacks capacity, especially in terms of hygiene. Residents can only do laundry every 10 days; there are only two machines for more than 150 residents.

More Aid in Sight?

Lebanon requested $380 million at the donor conference in Kuwait at the end of January. Part of these funds will be used to cover the needs of Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria, according to Derek Plumbly, UN special coordinator for Lebanon.

syria-refugees-3This baby girl was born in the camp just two months ago. (Photo Credit: Fernande van Tets)

Meanwhile, the political implications of more Palestinian refugees are looming. Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance was disturbed by the last influx of Palestinian refugees in the 1970s. With UNRWA now estimating that there are 455,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, some ministers have warned of the risks of another influx.

Neighboring Jordan has closed its borders to Palestinians, citing concerns for the security implications of the influx. “Jordan is not obligated to pay a political price for the Syrian crisis,” government spokesperson Samih Maaytih told al-Jazeera, adding that the number of Palestinians could reach tens of thousands, something the country cannot bear. Over half the kingdom’s population is originally Palestinian; a large influx could upset the political balance with the East Bank Jordanians.

Like Palestinians in Lebanon, those who are inside Jordan have severe restrictions on their movements. One site housing Syrian Palestinians is Cybercity, a camp an hour north of Amman. Officially, Palestinians are not allowed to leave, although residents admit that it is occasionally possible to leave the camp for a few hours.

“The guards close their eyes,” says Ansef Youssef, who has been at the site for a year. Youssef enjoys such outings to supplement the limited offerings of the site’s only shop, where she spends the $34 worth of food vouchers the World Food Programme (WFP) provides her each month.

Although registered Syrians in Lebanon receive food vouchers through the WFP and UNHCR, the Syrian Palestinians in Lebanon do not. “All we ask is that we be treated like the other Syrians,” says Nidal, 37.

Meanwhile, UNRWA is straining to find money and means to accommodate new arrivals. “I have seen the difficult conditions in Ain El Hilweh. The plight of refugees arriving from Syria is truly distressing,” UN Special Coordinator Derek Plumbly said after a visit to the camp at the end of January. “UNRWA has been helping, within available resources.”

According to al-Saleh, the UNRWA camp services officer, Palestinians protest daily against their conditions by holding silent protests, marches and writing letters.

“We are double refugees,” says Nidal glumly. “It is like it is our destiny to move from one tent to another.”

- See more at: http://www.theinterdependent.com/human-rights/article/the-plight-of-syrias-palestinian-refugees#sthash.2hhVWuom.dpuf


How National is the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra?

The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, once consisting exclusively of Lebanese, now has 103 members, 60% of whom are foreign, mainly from Eastern Europe. Why do they come and in political Lebanon, is music affected?

A night with fighters in Bab al Tabbaneh, Tripoli

“This is a war” says Alfonso Moral, a seasoned war  photographer. The streets are deserted and sniper fire as well as the occasional RPG and mortar pierces the night. We are staying the night with Sheikh Chadi, who leads one of the many factions in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Tripoli. On Thursday, fighting was fierce throughout the night, on Friday night it was relatively calm, for Bab al Tabbaneh anyway.

The Sunni area has been in conflict with the neighbouring Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen since the 80s. “Since 2008, there have been clashes every three months” my host Sheikh Chadi tells me. “But since the Syrian revolution, it is every month.”

The latest round of clashes was provoked by the killing of 14 Lebanese fighters in Syria, just across the border in Talkalakh. Videos are circulating in the neighbourhood of their bodies being mutilated. Three different residents showed me a video of 6 corpses whose heads were being kicked while profanities against them, and God, were uttered. It is not the fact that they were killed which causes anger, but rather the disrespect for the dead, says the Sheikh, who commands 50 fighters. His words are echoed by Abou Mounir, a local area leader. He expected the return of the bodies, planned for Saturday, to bring further unrest.   Today, his prediction came true, when 3 bodies were returned. One, his parents said, was not their son. It is unclear when his, and the rest of the bodies, will be brought home.

But Friday night people seemed to be recovering from the heavy fighting the day before. Several people complained about a lack of sleep.  The streets were deserted during the day, with no women or children to be seen; most have moved their families out to their ancestral villages in the area.

There were groups of men huddling around on sidewalks, at places which they knew were secure from sniperfire. Street were crossed at a trot, but most movement happens through abandoned buildings and garages. Shots echoed throughout the neighbourhood every few minutes. By nighttime, the fighting picked up, undeterred by the Lebanese Army’s Armed Personnel Carriers which patrol Syria street, which seperates the rival areas. The army does nothing, complain residents.

At night, men huddled around makeshift fires waiting for the fighting to begin in earnest, their guns never far away. Syrian refugees, eager to perform for the photgraphers I was with, would burst into revolutionary songs, and one youngster took the liberty of firing four rounds. An older man rushed to the scene to admonish the group; “there are fighters in Jabal [mohsen],” he reminded them.

It is a fight in which not all shots are aimed to kill, although snipers have claimed 17 casualties since Tuesday, but rather to show that you are there, or what you are capable of. Keeping the threat of increased violence alive seems paramount.  Jabal Mohsen fires mortars, but aims them at areas without people. If they wouldn’t, Bab al Tabbaneh could employ mortars of their own, and the expected exchange would cause hundreds of casualties, Sheikh Chadi explained. Another local militia commander explained that although all the militias are fighting against the the leadership of Jabal Mohsen, they do not do so with one strategy because every faction is controlled by a different politician. Their fighting, therefore, is also less effective. News about all Salafi groups uniting under a single commander; Sheikh Hussam al-Sabbagh, a former Al-Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan who is wanted by the Lebanese government, thus seems less relevant than it would initially suggest. Several commanders I spoke to said they had tried to unite, but failed to under political pressure.

By Saturday morning, people were out and about a bit more, even though gunfire continued. A group of women, packed together in a single room, mourned the loss of 22 year old relative Ahmed, killed three days before. But they also lamented their situation; stuck inside without being able to leave, even to do a small bit of shopping, and the pointlesness of their children dying. It was only the sight of them that reminded me of the abnormality of an entire neighbourhood without women or children.

Today, the fighting continues, as it surely will over the next few days, until all the bodies are returned, and somebody decides it’s enough. Until the next round starts again.

I am hoping to publish something about this over the next few days, in the context of a longer story on the growing evidence of Syria’s fight in Lebanon. Below are some pictures, more for an impression of the atmosphere than for their quality.


Men huddled around, waiting.


Sheikh Chadi


A resident crossing the street at a run to avoid sniper fire

DSCN0455The army does nothing complain residents.