International committee of the red cross

Presents

Syria Street

I was too young to understand. “Why would anyone shoot at someone else’s home?” my 8-year-old self would ask.

Malak Jaafar

Communications Officer - ICRC - Lebanon

I was too young to understand. As my parents drank their afternoon coffee on our balcony in Beirut, I would point to the three bullet holes in the wall and ask my Dad where they had come from. “Why would anyone shoot at someone else’s home?” my 8-year-old self would ask.

His answer was always the same: “Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.” But I was born after the war. I didn’t understand what civil war even meant or, more importantly, that the war had done more damage than those three bullet holes over our balcony door.

The older I got the more I realized that being born after the ceasefire didn’t matter: the war was the background theme to everyone’s life – young or old – in Lebanon.

You saw it in the bullet-riddled buildings across the country, and in the people who bore its physical and mental scars. You heard about it in your parent’s childhood stories and in most descriptions of Lebanon, which too often start with “Before the war …”

With the onset of the Syrian crisis next door, I joined the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a communications officer. I wanted to be part of the organization that alleviated some of the burdens that my parents had experienced during times of conflict. I wanted to visit some of the affected locations in Lebanon and help in some way.

Two such places were Tripoli’s notorious neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tebbaneh. When I visited those adjacent communities for the first time what I saw felt like a slap in the face. I thought the Lebanese war was over. Why did these two areas look like they were stuck in the past? Civilians were caught in the crossfire and their homes, businesses and even schools were all turned into battlefields. The people, who more than anything just wanted to live a dignified, secure life, found themselves targets in the urban violence that took hold of that area.

Armed groups from both areas have been clashing for decades. Though the fighting quieted down after the end of the civil war, sporadic clashes erupted again in 2008, only to intensify and become deadlier with the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011. Although a ceasefire was agreed upon in 2015, small clashes here and there still plague the residents.

The more time I spent there, the more I realized that Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen represented a small-scale Lebanon. Despite the differences between the two neighborhoods, they were mirror images of one another. Tragedy was around every corner, but people from both neighborhoods lived side by side and depended on one another for everything, including business, school and even love.

Like my parents and most people who had lived through the civil war, residents struggled to explain how they could live peacefully during the day then target one another at night. Syria Street simultaneously separates and brings together the two neighborhoods. It was once a bustling road full of business; but now it’s a former front line trying to recover.

In one of the homes on Syria Street, as we were filming with a family who was part of an ICRC project that aimed to help locals bolster their livelihoods, a mother was showing us her daughter’s bedroom. The pink and purple furniture was riddled with bullets. As she was telling us her story, her 11-year-old daughter interrupted her: “Why would anyone shoot at someone else’s home?”


The country of Lebanon lays claim to being the most religiously diverse society within the entire Middle East, housing 18 different religious denominations all held together in fragile harmony.

As Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli has long been the scene of recurrent outbursts of armed violence between the marginalized neighbourhoods of Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

Over the past ten years, more than 20 rounds of violent clashes between the Sunni Muslim residents of Bab el-Tebbaneh and the Alawite Muslim residents of Jabal Mohsen have left over 200 people dead.

As Syria’s civil war rages just 40 minutes away, these two adjacent communities remain divided among political lines in their conflicting opposition or support of the Syrian government.

The physical partition that both separates and connects these two neighborhoods is the city’s main thoroughfare, bearing the uncanny name of Syria Street.

As Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli has long been the scene of recurrent outbursts of armed violence between the marginalized neighborhoods of Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

The physical partition that both separates and connects these two neighborhoods is the city’s main thoroughfare, bearing the name of Syria Street.

These are the accounts of those living along both sides of this street...

Syria Street has the potential to shine again, but we are all suffering from the same circumstances: no electricity, dirty water, poor sanitation. I hope that when my children run this shop they can live here in an atmosphere of tolerance.

Abbas, Shopkeeper { Bab al-Tabbaneh }

{ Bab al-Tabbaneh }

Abbas, Shopkeeper

I am originally from Akkar, which is close to Syria in the north of Lebanon. What happens in Syria has always impacted Lebanon's politics. This was particularly the case during the civil war. In 1986 men from Jabal Mohsen attacked Bab al-Tabbaneh. Ever since then there has been fighting between both neighborhoods. The fighting here has been used by politicians to cause conflict and chaos, and the poor are the ones who pay the price. We lose our livelihoods, our families and our homes.

Syria Street is the mother street of Tripoli. In fact it used to be called the “Golden Gate” because it connects all areas of this region with each other: Akkar, Dennieh, Minieh, Koura, Zgharta. But after the clashes and fighting here, each area is self-sufficient and the life and business of Syria Street has declined.

The people of both Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are kind. It is a melting pot of people from different Islamic sects and Syria and Lebanon. But many young men who cannot find a job carry weapons and fight in militias.

When the youth have jobs, either here or abroad, they will not have to fight. Syrian refugees have taken away some of the work opportunities here, but we need to reconstruct this area and employ the youth. It feels peaceful here now, but the clashes will spur back up if the politicians rekindle them. Syria Street has the potential to shine again, but we are all suffering from the same circumstances: no electricity, dirty water, poor sanitation. I hope that when my children run this shop they can live here in an atmosphere of tolerance.


What happens in Syria has always impacted the politics of Lebanon.

My bedroom is pink, but bullets have come through my wall so now I’m afraid to sleep in it. I don’t even know why people here are fighting here.

Zaynab { Jabal Mohsen }

The terrible economic conditions here force people like me to carry weapons for money and fight in the streets. It’s a political and economic conflict, not sectarian as some people like to label it.

Rami { Bab al-Tabbaneh }

{ Bab al-Tabbaneh }

Rami

Syria Street means so much to me. It’s really the lifeline for both Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. But the street will never return to its previous status when it comes to commerce and its role as a place to unite Sunnis and Alawites together. It has been the dividing line for the clashes and now carries many bad memories.

The clashes here have personally affected me from the very beginning. During the fighting in 2008, my house was burned down while my siblings were still inside of it. Since then, we no longer fear anything, feel anything or care about anything. We are alive simply because we haven’t died yet. We have no jobs and we even struggle just to get water.

The truth is that both of these neighborhoods have been neglected and deprived by the government, which then makes it easier to manipulate the youth here. I first began hanging in the street with the fighters when I was only 17. When boys grow up seeing their fathers running after what little income they can find, they too will not end up on a good track. I know men here that can get paid $100 to pick up a gun and open fire, then take that money to feed their family. If someone has seven or eight children, he will do anything to get $100.

After the clashes began to die down last year, we began to realize there were many misconceptions that each neighborhood had about the other. We discovered that we weren’t all that different from one another. The Alawites even pray like us, fast like us, and now I even have some friends over in Jabal Mohsen. We all just want to live in our home with dignity and without needing other people’s help. To take care of ourselves, just to work like normal, nothing more.


We are trying to coexist and live together in peace. It makes me sad that we’re all muslims and yet we fight each other.

Lebanon is my home, although I am Syrian. Before selling vegetables, I used to sell coffee by the mosque in Bab al-Tabbaneh. That was when people didn’t care about my background. Now I must sell goods on this side of Syria Street.

Ahmad Ibrahim Ali { Jabal Mohsen }

{ Jabal Mohsen }

Ahmad Ibrahim Ali

I am Syrian but I was born here in Jabal Mohsen and my wife is from Tabbaneh, so we are all mixed. Before the clashes began, I practically lived in Tabbaneh. I would consider it my home. But after the clashes I don’t have the courage to be there like that. I used to sell coffee by the mosque in Tabbaneh. That was when people didn’t care about my background. Now I must sell goods on this side of Syria Street.

Before this all erupted I came up with a proverb: “The seeds are planted there, the fruits ripen here,” meaning that the conflict erupts in Syria but the consequences spillover here in Lebanon. It became true. I just wish we could get rid of sectarian thinking and all unite.


My family has to flee during the clashes but we return when it’s safe. Even though it’s quiet right now this is not real peace as anything can erupt the clashes. It’s as if we’re living inside a time bomb. However this is my home and I am proud.

Hana Awad { Bab al-Tabbaneh }

{ Bab al-Tabbaneh }

Hana Awad

Syria Street used to be called the “Golden Street” because it was buzzing with business. But due to violence all the major stores moved to other parts of Tripoli. You can still see the old signs, but the shops are empty and there is no life.

My husband used to have a nice car showroom on Syria Street. As the clashes worsened, customers who used to come from Beirut stopped coming out of fear. He eventually had to close down the shop, but we have seven children and quickly spent all our savings. My husband fell into depression and stayed at home, so I decided to leave the house and earn an income for the first time.

I began volunteering in the kitchen of a local NGO that provides education for kids from both Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen together. I passed the training course and was hired as a chef in their kitchen full-time. I work there now with many other ladies from both sides of Syria Street, which is so inspiring. Ten years ago, a woman working was considered taboo, the husband was the breadwinner. Now women in Bab al-Tabbaneh work more than men as we overcome taboos. I work hard and at the end of the week I get paid. That is my life now! Thank God.


Jobs are rare because of the war and life is difficult. However when I go outside I am optimistic.

For my girls, I want to make up for all the things I was deprived of in my childhood – to give them a future in peace.

Nisrine { Jabal Mohsen }

{ Bab al-Tabbaneh }

Nisrine

I am raising four daughters here. Zaynab is the oldest. Then there’s Diana, Mariam and Reem.

When I was the same age as my youngest, there were other wars. My mother would tell me that the violence and destruction were worse than now. She told me how they used to flee the home and come back to find nothing but destruction. But I was too young to remember and didn’t really believe these stories.

It’s very strange how in Lebanon, you can have a war zone here while people in the next town lead a normal life. Once I had to flee to my sister’s house in Chekka, just 20 minutes from here. It was so peaceful I felt like I was in another country. I came back to my home and found it a shell, windows broken, everything destroyed. And at that moment I believed those stories that were told to me by my family. History seems to be repeating itself 20 years on.

For my girls, I want to make up for all the things I was deprived of in my childhood – to give them a future in peace. I’m doing my best for them to lead a good life as if their father was still alive. I hope things will calm down for good.


Since I was 12 years old when the clashes started, I’ve never known peace between Jabal and Tabbaneh. However, when I go outside I am optimistic. I feel that Syria Street is getting better, slowly coming back to life.

Alaa Mohanna { Bab al-Tabbaneh }

{ Bab al-Tabbaneh }

Alaa Mohanna

Since I was 12 years old, I’ve never known peace between Jabal and Tabbaneh. My mother tells me about a time of peace here but I only vaguely remember going to Jabal as a kid and nothing more. Now I’m 20 years old and unfortunately I had to drop out of school because there was no bus and it was too dangerous to walk or even take a taxi.

I feel like Syria Street separates us from them. It may bring faces together, but not hearts. There is a kind of truce now that the Lebanese Army is here, but many people are still afraid that the clashes might erupt when they're not in the right area.

Jobs are rare because of the war and life is difficult, however when I go outside I am optimistic. I feel that Syria Street is getting better, slowly coming back to life.