The battles for “Bab Tabbaneh” and “Jabal Mohsen”: Banter and Barter, and Bullets
Al Hayat newspaper – In Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, hardly a day goes by without clashes between “Bab al-Tabbaneh” and “Jabal Mohsen”. The fighting is not only drawn along sectarian lines between Sunnis and Alawites, but is also fed by widespread deprivation and economic hardship, that led many young men to take up arms in order to make a living.
The fighting taking place in the heart of Lebanon today is largely due to sectarian and political affiliations with Syria. Bab al-Tabbaneh is a largely Sunni neighborhood supporting the Syrian opposition, while Jabal Mohsen is dominated by Alawites supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime. The origins of this conflict, however, go back to Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990), and both communities are yet to bury their deep-rooted mistrust.
Today, 57% of Tripoli’s residents live under the poverty line, and most of them are concentrated in the two warring neighborhoods. Since 2008, local warlords have taken advantage of this situation to recruit young men for their battles, which have so far claimed 100 lives and led to 1,000 injuries.
The armed conflict in Tripoli has become a profitable business for many people acting as middlemen between militia leaders and young recruits. For the civilian population, the human cost has been very high.
Samir puts aside his walking cane and sits on a rusty metal chair in Abu Jamal café in Baal al-Darawish, the Sunni quarter intertwined with the Alawi Baal Mohsen. Sunni fighters of Bab Al-Tabbaneh, sitting nearby, smile at him. He jokes without flinching and mocks everyone. “We come to him because of his humor,” says one of the customers. “Samir is an Alawi man from Jabal Mohsen”.
In the same quarter of Baal al-Darawish, Umm Mohammed sits in her living room, a few steps away from ‘the enemy.’ She sees him, and he sees her every day from the opposite balcony. Her weary eyes are burdened by fear and anxiety.
She has no energy to put on her hijab, so she grabs a kitchen towel and places it nonchalantly on her hair. Lighting a cigarette with trembling hands, she begins to cry. Silence reigns in the house situated on the demarcation lines.
“I cannot bear to stay in this house. I cannot take it. I don’t even dare cook, because I am scared I won’t be able to turn off the gas when the shooting starts.”
She is disheveled just like her house that was transformed into a war zone. “I do not live in a house, but in a graveyard for the living,” she stammers and lights another cigarette.
Samir never gets tired of making jokes in Abu Jamal’s Coffee Shop. His sarcasm spares no one; the war, the political leaders of Tripoli, the sects…“God save us from the Sunnis” he says; teasing some while making others laugh out loud. He also whispers in their ears from time to time some jokes that seem to be sexual.
In Al-Hara Al-Jdide, the poorest neighborhood of Baal Mohsen, the scene is almost the same. Hala sadly admits that she has to start her life from scratch. Her house in what is known as “Syria Street”, burst into flames in the last battle. She went back to her parents’ house to live in 2 rooms but this time with a husband and a little children. “We lost everything; the wedding trousseau, the kids’ clothes, identification cards …everything”.
If life made it possible for Emm Mohamad to have a cup of coffee with Hala from Baal Mohsen, she would have been able to comfort her and share her sadness, despite her troubled state of mind. But there is no space left for social relations between the two clashing regions since 2008, and the only space is for fighters and warlords exchanging bullets among other things. They replaced the social system connecting the two regions with a war system, and agreed to play by the rules they set.
Money, unlike everything else in war, keeps circulating between “here” and “there”. The merchant will preserve his partners and customers behind the enemy lines. But when a merchant is a fighter, things get more complicated as revealed the conversation with Omar (his pseudonym), a field commander in Bab Al-Tabbaneh. He considers that the fighting does not aim to achieve military goals, but rather to put pressure economically on the inhabitants of Jabal Mohsen as a way to turn them against the leadership of “Al Eid.”.
Despite that, you will find Omar selling vegetables to a dealer from Baal Mohsen. “It is not easy for me. I am torn between the Alawis and my people,” he admits . The exchange is almost confidential and carried out in coordination with commanders from both sides to make sure the dealer doesn’t get shot. Then he gives an excuse to cover the clear contradiction of this situation: “Poor people up there, they need to eat and feed their children! We are not against civilians.”
Not only money can circulate between the demarcation lines, weapons have this privilege too. Ahmed (his pseudonym), a field commander, assures that he is obliged sometimes, for logistic reasons, to buy ammunition from field commanders in Bab Al-Tabbaneh in coordination with his political leadership. “It’s easier to buy ammunition from Bab Al-Tabbaneh (close to his area of influence) instead of the villa of Mr. Rifaat Eid (located in the middle of Baal Mohsen). “Don’t shoot so and so” has become the passphrase between commanders wanting to close a business deal with the opposite side, in exchange for mutual services later on.
The field commander agrees with the other commanders in charge of the nearby areas of influence, not to shoot “the approaching customer” from Jabal Mohsen. He receives the ammunition, but does not pay immediately. After crossing the demarcation line he delivers the cash to a mediator working on the borders of his influence zone, to avoid being shot in the back.
This weapon trade is done the opposite way as well. Last year, it was revealed that a field commander from Jabal Mohsen had sold his weapons warehouse to fighters in Bab Al-Tabbaneh. The operation was revealed when comparing serial numbers of guns apprehended from a Syrian opposition group.
“Do not shoot so and so,” has also become the passphrase to point out merchants who paid some kind of racket to field commanders on the other side to protect their shops from being targeted during battles. It’s no longer surprising to find certain shops on the front line running along Syria Street untouched by bullets.
Mohamad, another field commander and owner of a shop in the street, says his store has been safe from harm so far. But what he didn’t reveal is the monthly payment he makes to a field commander in Baal Mohsen to avoid targeting his shop.
During the battles, ‘commercial exchange’ is limited to fighters and fighter-merchants. Owners of nearby bakeries from either side are always in contact with them. A commander from Jabal Mohsen recalls how an owner of a major bakery in al-Meatein street in Tripoli called him several times: “Is there a battle soon? You need to tell me a few days ahead so I can stock flour,” he would ask.
This stable relationship between field commanders on one hand is coupled with conflicts in the same trench on the other hand. From far away, the conflict might seem between the opposing trench lines separated by Syria Street. But a closer look will reveal the contradictions, conflicts of interest as well as the fierce competition for authority in every trench that might lead to bloody battles in Bab Al-Tabbaneh specifically.
No Bullet is for Free
“We are sick of merchants who trade in blood, those so-called “field commanders”. Nobody gives you a bullet for free and without something in return. We know that. Some of the sheikhs and leaders on the ground are getting paid in our name”, according to Riad (his pseudonym), manning demarcation lines in Tabbaneh.
The tension between fighters and leaders might sometimes turn into armed conflicts between groups in Bab Al-Tabbaneh to gain control over the territories and monopolize the channels of funding. While field commanders from both sides seem to establish a steady communication with each other, they face defiance and disobedience from their own soldiers, who want to have their share of control and power in their own neighborhood.
Everyone knows his limits, except when one wants to expand them. Riad says he would not dare impose a racket on the vendors in a wholesale vegetable market, from fear of getting into trouble. “A rooster only crows on his own dump” he says, which is a popular Lebanese proverb. “The vegetable market has its people, it is known who benefits from it… a lot of blood was shed in it”.
The market is an important financial outlet for the economically destitute area. Young militants have clashed here while trying to control areas of the market or impose protection fees on vendors. The field commanders have so far failed to rein them in. “We cannot control individuals if they buy their weapons with their own money,” admits Omar.
Some internal feuds have turned into battles with the ‘other side’ to score points against rivals in the same trenches, namely in Bab Al-Tabbaneh. Omar describes how some fronts were reignited during the ceasefire following the latest round of fighting. Four rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) were launched at Jabal Mohsen and the fighting continued for another day, “so that political figures and local sheikhs will learn not to overstep the field commanders again,” he boasts.
Internal rivalries have also pitted the fighters in Jabal Mohsen against each other. At the start of battles in 2008, a decision was taken in Damascus to unify the political leadership under Rifaat Eid, according to sources close to the leadership. Before this date, a lot of renowned merchants in Jabal, tried to make political relations with Syrian officers, this created a political competition that came to an end in 2008. The same applies to field commanders and fighters who make no exception. The efforts that were exhorted to marginalize Ahmad as a field commander in Baal Mohsen failed because “only Mr Rifaat decides who must be the field commander”, according to him. The political structure in Baal Mohsen restrains the political ambition of merchants and group leaders. But this doesn’t deny the existence of conflicts inside the region.
Getting Out of War System?
In the middle of this situation and its barricades, putting its entire burden on the shoulders of the people of the region, is there any space left for other choices? Is there a way out of this system?
Staying in the zones of conflict means getting involved. “I wish I could,” replies Riad, the Tabbaneh frontlines officer, when asked if he tried to leave the area. He doesn’t wait for the next question, he instantly says “my rent is 100,000 Lebanese Lira (LL); I cannot live outside the area. If I could afford it, I would have left Tabbaneh a long time ago. I am tired of all this and looking for the peace of mind.”
He sighs before saying: “We live in the heart of the problem. We cannot isolate ourselves. We have to deal with this by imposing our presence on the battle fields .The bullies and “shabiha” are many, not just in Jabal Mohsen, but here as well.”
Ordinary residents are very resentful of the situation. “Only God can protect us. I cannot afford the cost of leaving the area,” maintains Mahmoud, a grocery shop owner in Tabbaneh. One of his customers makes a sarcastic comment while paying him money: “As it seems, God is protecting only the fighters these days.” He smiles at him before pursuing the conversation about his daily fears at Tabbaneh insisting that: “The armed man is the one who protects you and uses you”.
Umm Omar and her family have been suffering from social stigmatization. “My children received an education and refused to carry weapons,” says Umm Omar. “The young men of Tabbaneh look at them as cowards. We are not secure here and this is not a life” she says.
At Baal Mohsen, Salim a man in his 50’s, tries hard to maintain his critics: “the chances of living will obviously shrink if men here refused to participate in the battles. Usually, choices are limited especially for the poor classes. Jaafar is a young electrician in his twenties, who also refused to carry arms: “I am simply not a believer neither in the so called cause nor in the leadership in Jabal Mohsen…We are being used,” he says angrily.
He is trying to express the burden of the prevailing social norms lying in this speech: “Defending home, dignity ….and arms is what makes a real man”.
There are few options left for the residents, between those involved in the war system and those refusing it. It is inescapable to innovate a behavior revealing this duality and contradiction, to give those a chance to deal with a reality they didn’t choose.
In Baal Mohsen, a women says to her brother fighting in Al-Tabbaneh “May God Protect you” during one of the battles in the presence of her husband’s family. Then she looks at them, realizing the sensitivity of the subject, and says: “what else can I say”?
In Harat al- Baquar an extension of the Tabbaneh trench, Abu Bakr, a frontline commander, has converted his house into a barricade. He sent his wife and three children to stay with some relatives on the opposite side, in Baal Mohsen, and instructed his men not to target the home of their host.
“It is an imposed battle. The Alawis do not know what they are fighting for and neither do we. Both sides shoot and both sides do not know why,” he confesses.
This matter is not personal; it is simply the war system.
The economy of War, its pillars are employers and daily-paid workers
Going up the economic ladder isn’t the same in times of peace and in times of war; the battles between Bab Al-Tabbaneh and Baal Mohsen don’t make an exception to this fact.
The intersection between economic authority and military / political authority is a cornerstone in the war system and economy. A system that reproduces itself through continuous rounds of violence. This situation might resemble a chess game but this is not really the case. In the war game, white and black squares overlap to turn into grey squares where pawns move according to the position and hierarchy of each pawn-individual part of the dynamics of the conflict.
At the top of the military pyramid lie the war mediators that form the link between funders and fighters. According to the popular say: “They have their own influence on the field”. Mediators can control the situation on site; they accumulate money and distribute some of it in order to feed their authority. The “Kings” and “Queens” in white and black squares have no interest in ending the conflict…and all the authority that comes with it. At the bottom of the pyramid, lie the socially smashed pawns; the vast majority consists of unemployed young men, and dropouts being the basic tools of the conflict.
Fighting as a “Safety Net”
Most of the “Pawns” don’t get paid to participate in the conflict. They are neither hired assassins ready to exterminate their neighbors for a monthly salary or a remuneration as they call it, nor heroes ready to sacrifice their lives for the cause. The fighters of Bab al- Tabbaneh and Baal Mohsen are “normal” people who were forced to live in a war system. They got involved in it and became, against their will, one of its tools. They learned how to deal with war and how to take advantage of it.
Their militancy unlike their jobs provides them with some kind of “safety net” that is obviously fragile. Militancy guarantees a sort of “medical insurance”, that is partial of course, for the fighter and his family. It might also open the door for new jobs.
“For almost two years, the boys in my group worked with me. None of them is unemployed anymore,” says Ahmed (his pseudonym), a field commander in Baal Mohsen and building contractor inside and outside Tripoli. This way, the military commander becomes an employer at the same time.
Houssam (his pseudonym) is one of the workers/fighters. He is a father of six and used to work as a casual porter in the vegetables market. Today, he makes US$220 a week working with Ahmed on the construction sites and his situation has improved remarkably. “When the battles begin, I leave the site and take my workers into Jabal Mohsen,” Ahmed explains. “Sometimes I have to keep some of the workers on site so as not to anger the contractor with a late delivery.”
In Baal Mohsen, where party hierarchy is key, the Arab Democratic Party (ADP), which controls the area, intervenes directly with employers in Jbeil and Safra to allow workers from the quarter to return to their jobs, after being threatened with dismissal due to absence from work. They were busy with the fighting. This is according to Ali Fodda, politburo member in the ADP, which is led by Rifaat Ali Eid.
During the battles, field officers in Baal Mohsen spend on the fighters and their families, in coordination with the political leadership. “How can a fighter cover his and his family’s bills during the battle? If I do not cover his expenses, he will throw away his gun and leave me to take care of himself,” Ahmed says.
In Baal Mohsen also, fighters are reimbursed for loss of economic activity. Compensation can go up to 250,000 Lebanese Pounds (LL) (US$160) according to the fighter’s role and the period of the battle. Health benefits outside the battle are awarded only to fighters and people close to the political leadership.
The situation in Tabbaneh is similar but without a partisan methodology due to the numerous political leaderships. Despite that, Bab Al-Tabbaneh fighters enjoy some form of ‘safety net’ in cash contributions.
Perhaps the closure of the offices of most of the political leaders around the elections of 2009 in Bab Al-Tabbaneh and the following shortage in assistance and social services, led to the growing role of field leaderships. Thus, they started providing assistance to their fighters and their families directly during the battle and outside it as well.
One fighter, Abu Awad, expresses gratitude to Omar, his field commander: “Thank God he always helps as much as he can. He distributes bread and vegetables, sometimes medicines.” By equal measure, Abu Awad is dissatisfied with Tripoli’s leaders.
The veteran fighter used to own a modest fish store in Tabbaneh. But seven months ago, it burnt down along with his home in one of the battles, and he was unable to provide for his eight children.
“This year, I could not register my kids in the [public] school. Unfortunately, I have to choose between feeding them or educating them,” he complains. Two of this sons, (13 and 15 years old) have dropped out of school and joined the militias. He struggles to sound optimistic: “decent people like the hajj [Omar] still exist.”
Here, ‘health coverage’ is not only provided during battles. The field commander is responsible, albeit partially, for keeping fighters and their families healthy, providing them with medical services and hospitalization during the battles and in times of ‘peace.’
Mahmoud (17 years) is one of Hajj Omar’s fighters. The short skinny boy also works as a carpenter in Tabbaneh for a monthly salary of LL120,000 ($80). Mahmoud is a shy, quiet boy and a heavy smoker as well. He helps his father, a cleaning worker, in supporting his ten brothers and sisters. His salary can barely cover the cost of his cigarettes, so he is forced to work as a porter at night at the vegetables market to provide his daily bread.
“When (Mahmoud) or one of his (fighter) brothers get sick, I have to cover their hospitalization and medications,” commander Omar interjects in a patronizing tone.
While most of Ahmed’s fighters (in Jabal Mohsen) are construction workers, most of Omar’s fighters (in Tabbaneh) are porters in the vegetables market. But it is no coincidence that the arteries feeding the war are the two main economic activities in the two areas. Rising up the ranks of construction work and clothes manufacturing in Baal Mohsen is a lever for the military-political ladder. In Tabbaneh, being promoted from porter, to supervisor, to a vegetables merchant is almost always linked to “increased influence on the ground”.
In Baal Mohsen, Rifaat Eid is the only war broker. But field commanders have also benefited from their role in linking the central political leadership with the fighters, namely in terms of distribution of arms, ammunition, relief, and compensation.
Ahmad used to work for no more than $22 a day. But two years ago, he rose up the ranks and became a cement supervisor earning around $100 a day. The Arab Democratic Party (ADP) fund compensates him after each round of violence for the amount spent on ammunition and supplies for the fighters and their families. But as Ahmad says: “the field commander has responsibilities due to his financial status and his position as in independent employer…so he has to maintain his good financial status”.
All field commanders in Baal Mohsen are employers. “One owns a bakery, the other a grocery store, yet another has a taxi service…” he lists.
Hassan, one of the fighters’ states: “Cadres are a class of their own… since money and power always meet; and some people stepped up economically after 2008”. From the balcony of his house in Baal Mohsen, Hassan retracts knowing the sensitivity of the situation: “But this is because they are more targeted than others”.
The fact of the field commanders’ financial rise shows clearly in Jaafar’s story. Jaafar, from Baal Mohsen, told us about a commander who used to be a construction worker. “Overnight, people started asking for his blessings. He bought a new car and a house in a well-to-do neighborhood in Baal Mohsen.”
Even if the socio-political structure is different in Tabbaneh, but the financial and military promotion is very similar. Omar is a vegetables merchant who specializes in selling lemons and carrots year-round. He moved to a luxurious neighborhood in Tripoli around a year ago and recently purchased two apartments in a neighborhood with the same social level as Baal Mohsen contractors.
Many leaders tried to have him on their side around elections, under the logic of: “give us the votes of your people and we will improve your state.” But he refused to be a follower of a specific leader in Tripoli. So he decided to take advantage of everyone. He admits with a wink that he knows how to spend money offered by local leaderships under the name of : “Humanitarian assistance”
A group of demarcation line commanders sit around a wooden rectangular table at a popular coffee shop in the vegetables market. A portrait of the Tabbaneh leader Abu Arabi hangs above them all. The legendary leader of 1970s and 1980s in Tripoli is still present in the quarter’s collective memory, following his assassination by the Syrian regime in 1986.
Omar introduces his men by pointing out their various political alliances: “Mikati, Safadi, Hariri, Karami, and al-Tawhid Movement (General Command).” The political and ideological void pushes many to ally themselves, at least on the surface, with local leaders. In return, they receive monthly salaries ranging between $400 and $500 for 4 years, until it is time for the next election. “He pays. We commit,” is the logic.
But why shouldn’t the field commanders turn this to their advantage? “People are suffocating financially and it is important to keep their true allegiance to Tabbaneh,” Omar reasons. This allegiance to Tabbaneh turned Omar into a local dignitary. But things are not always that simple. As a vegetables merchant, he sometimes has to buy lemons and carrots from the farmers, knowing he will not be able to sell them, only in order to keep his monopoly and stop any other merchant from gaining control over the market. The same logic applies to his military and political influence.
Sometimes, he has to take at his own expense the ammunition, medication, or supplies to preserve his men’s loyalty and his military and political influence.
The interest is relative sometimes. The field commander acts while taking into consideration the existing war system and the way to handle it. As a military leader, no one dares to impose a protection fee on him at the vegetables market; he maintains his role as a mediator between funders and fighters. Without forgetting to mention the social estimation he gains, among the fighters.
Sustaining ‘ownership of the conflict’ is a fundamental objective for any field commander, by controlling the game and his role as a key player detaining an authority that is hard to control or to confiscate by local leaderships.
This is a game with its own rules and principles. When another round of violence ends, the barricades get refilled and rebuilt and the ammunition resupplied, in preparation for the next battle, which has a fixed time and place. In this game, all the players use their soldiers and the smell of death hovers over. But what makes the difference between this game and chess is that the pawns die, however the “King” is never checkmated.
This investigation was completed with support from ARIJ and coached by Bissan al-Sheikh