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