Monday, December 16, 2013

Zaatari: Jordan's new city of Syrians

This article first appeared in The Atlantic Post:

By Justin Salhani
ZAATARI, Jordan – Countless tents scattered over a plot in the northern Jordanian desert are being replaced with caravans, as this camp built for displaced Syrians continues to evolve into a city in its own right.
Zaatari refugee camp, located 10 km east of the northern Jordanian city Mafraq, was opened on June 28, 2012 to host a small portion of the thousands of refugees flowing over Syria’s southern border due to the increasing intensity of the civil war. To date, more than 120,000 people have been killed in the vicious conflict and millions have become displaced. Nearly 570,000 Syrians have sought sanctuary in Jordan.
While the number of refugees in Zaatari is currently around 80,000 according to UNHCR officials who run the camp, their data-keeping website puts the figure at over 117,300. Ninety percent of the refugees hail from Daraa in southwest Syria. The figures are unlikely to grow by much as the Jordanian government has began limiting the number of refugees it allows across its borders to around 200-250 each day, a stark decrease from the daily thousand. The previously uninhabited stretch of desert has grown so massive that it is now Jordan’s fifth largest city and even appears on Google Maps.
“We are doing more planning and looking to connect with the local government to find ways to provide services,” said Killian Kleinschmidt, UNHCR’s senior field coordinator at Zaatari. Kleinschmidt, a veteran in dealing with refugees from many of the world’s hot zones over the last two decades, says that current plans for the camp are more akin to city planning – something he is experiencing for the first time.
One way UNHCR is trying to expand in Zaatari involves looking into more effective ways to distribute water and electricity. Currently, Kleinschmidt says 73 percent of the refugees have illegally connected electricity which costs UNHCR half a million dollars each month. Kleinschmidt and UNHCR are looking into ways to empower the refugees so they earn their own money and can afford to pay for such services. They are also contemplating a camp-wide plumbing system.
“We need to do more than just keep them alive,” said Kleinschmidt, adding that he believes by empowering refugees they can regain some of the dignity that has been lost by losing their homes and being forced to live off handouts. The strategy seems to be working, says Kleinschmidt.
“People used to get angry when the electricity collapsed,” he said about the electrical grid’s inability to support all the illegally wired tents using electrical heaters during colder nights. “Now they understand that a proper connection is needed.”
Kleinschmidt said that one thing UNHCR is trying to instill in the refugees in Zaatari is a sense of order.
“We are putting a frame because there is a rejection of governance and they don’t respect administration or rules. We bring that frame back otherwise there is chaos… [This frame is] important for the future of Syria,” he said.
Kleinschmidt says one example of the progress made is apparent from parents’ reaction to their children’s’ actions. “Children lost their bearings because adults used to laugh when they’d throw stones but now the adults get angry at the kids.”
But with the progress also comes potential problems. “The Jordanian government is nervous,” said Kleinschmidt. The Jordanians will remember back to the civil war in 1970, in what is known as Black September, between Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and King Hussein’s Jordanian Armed Forces. The refugee Palestinians and Hashemite Kindgom’s forces engaged in a ten-month conflict that killed thousands, mostly Palestinians, and resulted in the expulsion of the PLO to Lebanon.
The situation is made all the more worrying for the Jordanians considering developments in Syria, where a nearly three year long war shows no signs of abating. Refugees initially set up in Zaatari’s tents with an aim to return to Syria in the short term but that notion has recently changed.
“At first I wanted to go back quickly but now we know we’ll be here a long time,” said an imam called Abu Walid from Daraa’s Sanamayn region.
Many of the refugees in Zaatari have accepted their circumstances and started trying to make their plots of land more homey by constructing gardens, hanging birdcages, and planting trees outside their tents or caravans. Abu Walid’s neighbors have laid the ground for gardens that will sprout vegetables after winter and built large handmade fountains that will add a bit of blue to the dusty, rock-strewn Jordanian countryside. Kleinschmidt says that 70-90 percent of homes in Zaatari have also recently erected private toilets.
The Tareeq al-Souq (Shop Street), which has alternately been labeled the Champs Élysées of Zaatari after Paris’s famous strip, has sprouted 685 shops that may bring in an income of anywhere between $5,000-15,000 each month, according to Kleinschmidt. Here residents can find a plethora of offerings, including Syrian delicacies like the deep fried chickpea patties called falafel, chicken or meat kabob called shawarma, or roasted chicken. Other shops sell mobile phones, rugs, furniture, shoes, teddy bears, and a wide collection of other accoutrements. The street also boasts such luxuries as butchers and computer shops, where the camp’s youth play video games.
Despite the urbanization of the area, there will come a day when the war subsides and many Syrians decide to return home. But some refugees who have established themselves economically may decide not to uproot their lives once again.
“They are keen and eager to go back but some business people might stay and contribute to Jordan’s economy,” said Kleinschmidt. With infrastructure already in place and some businesses established, a handful of Syrians may choose to continue residing in Zaatari, while Jordanians in lower economic classes potentially could vacate lots left by the returning Syrians. Even if the Syrian war were to end there is a high chance that Zaatari, the city, could live on.
“Syrians who directly invest in Jordan will have a positive impact,” said Kleinschmidt. “Most will go, some will stay.”
Justin Salhani is The Atlantic Post’s Lebanon Correspondent, based in Beirut.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wounded Syrian fighters yearn for return to frontlines

AMMAN, Jordan, Dec. 11 (UPI) --A little over three months ago in the village of Ghabagheb in Syria’s southern municipality of Dara’a, a two man hit team from the Free Syrian Army awaited the arrival of an important Syrian Arab Army figure. One of the FSA soldiers, a 24-year-old defected SAA soldier from Dara’a named Sultan, had been tipped off by a contact still enlisted in the army battling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The pair waited but the man never came. Instead, a mini bus arrived and seven SAA soldiers emerged. Realizing they had been betrayed, Sultan’s comrade fled, leaving Sultan face-to-face with the enemy combatants. Time slowed down as Sultan was overcome by melancholy. As he stared at his foes a thought crept into his conscious: “Am I going to die here, in this place?” Despite being filled with fear at the notion of an unavoidable demise Sultan felt no regrets. Both sides opened fire.
Sultan took down two of the soldiers before his luck ran out. Three exploding bullets crashed into his right leg, just under the knee in the upper shin area. As the bullets penetrated his leg the fear vanished, he says.

“Before you are shot you feel fear but when you are shot the fear goes because you know death is coming.” But Sultan wasn’t prepared to die. He crawled 100 meters to safety behind the corner of a nearby building and continued returning fire. Here, a local woman found him and pulled him a further 150 meters away from the fighting. For 45 minutes, Sultan waited until FSA forces arrived to take him to a field hospital.

The Syrian Civil War has dragged on since March 2011 pitting opposition forces against the Assad regime. The war has grown in intensity in the past year, as packs of foreign fighters have entered the fray on both sides, twisting the conflict into a brutal sectarian affair. Despite peace talks in Geneva planned for January 22 there are few who believe the war is nearing its conclusion. While exact figures are hard to find, most estimates put the dead in Syria at over 120,000, a figure that will only be added to as neither the opposition nor the regime appear ready to concede. As the war continues to destroy proud cities and claim heavy casualty counts, Sultan and other wounded opposition fighters are rehabilitating in hopes that they regain enough mobility to return to the battlefield.

“As soon as they recover everyone wants to go back and fight,” said Abu Yara, a 19-year-old who was shot through the left shoulder by a sniper and was told by his fellow soldiers that he would “definitely die”. He had an emergency operation and rested at home for a month before going north to Turkey, selling his rifle and motorbike, and buying a ticket from Antakya to Istanbul and then on to Amman.

Sultan and Abu Yara now reside in a hospital in the northern Jordanian governorate Mafraq where wounded Free Syrian Army fighters receive free accommodation and physical therapy paid for by private donors from Gulf countries and various NGOs. The hospital is currently hosting around 60 wounded or disabled fighters and is staffed by three doctors and four nurses. The hospital is not publicized but is known by fighters simply by word of mouth, in order to keep it secret from authorities.

Sitting on a bench in a public area in Jordan’s capital Amman, Sultan now needs a crutch to walk. The inside of his right knee is indented by a large crater and he has three metal rods sticking out of his right leg, with a further three scars where the rods were previously inserted. While his black, slicked-back hair shows tips of gray beginning to creep in, a possible sign of the constant pressure of living through war that is stealing the remainder of his youth, his piercing green eyes constantly squint as his round face breaks into laughter. As he puffs a cigarette, he speaks of an unflinching itch to return to the battlefield.

“Once you fight you want to fight again, you get used to it,” he said. “When the fear breaks you don’t care anymore.”

Despite his desire to get back to fighting, Sultan realizes there are obstacles in his and his comrades’ paths.

“Seventy percent of the hospital’s wounded are disabled and even if I recover I won’t ever be 100 percent like before,” he said. Pictures of his initial x-rays show a large portion of his shinbone completely missing after being shattered into tiny pieces by the exploding shells. He had to have marrow removed from his hip and placed into his shin so the bone could properly regenerate.

A day later, Sultan posted a photo on Facebook featuring himself, Abu Yara and five other former opposition fighters. In the photo, one man is on crutches and another holds up a peace sign with his right hand as his left one is bandaged. The caption to the photo reads: ‘We will return to our country. Being hit will not stop us from continuing on our path.’

Monday, September 16, 2013

Lebanese political party relaunches war-time magazine

By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – In a country where most media are controlled by the plethora of political parties, another Lebanese political entity has joined in with the re-launch of a magazine first published during the dark days of the Lebanese civil war.

“During the war, all Christian people [in Lebanon] used to look to Al-Massira to see what would happen in Christian areas,” said Amjad Iskandar, editor and chief of Al-Massira, the newly re-launched magazine of the Christian nationalist political party, the Lebanese Forces (LF).

The LF was initially formed during the Civil War as a Christian militia led by Bashir Gemayel. The militia was rebranded later as a political party under the guidance of Samir Geagea, a former officer under Gemayel, who was assassinated in 1982.

Read full story:

Lebanon’s celebratory gunfire culture

By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Bayan Bibi was strolling through one of Beirut’s shopping districts last Saturday evening when an object fell from the sky and hit her in the back. The object was a bullet.

In Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a gun fired in the air can be ubiquitous with weddings, funerals or when a popular politician delivers a rousing speech.

On Saturday, Amal leader Nabih Berri was delivering a speech on the 35th anniversary of party founder Imam Moussa al-Sadr’s disappearance. Gunfire could be heard emanating from the streets in close proximity to Amal’s green flag clad office by the Beirut seafront. The bullet that struck Bibi is likely to have come from someone celebrating Berri’s speech.

“When there is joy or sorrow people shoot their guns,” said Ali Moussa, 38, an Amal member, outside Amal’s Ain al-Mraisse office in Beirut. “It has a long history here and in the region.”

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Locals ponder possible Syria strike

syria_map-300x235 lilil

By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – A possible U.S.-led air strike on Syria has caused debates in the Middle East where locals are likely to feel the backlash firsthand.
“I’m not with the U.S. strike because it will not be directed at the Syrian regime but at at unarmed people,” said Barae Kayali, a 25 year-old Syrian marketing supervisor working in Saudi Arabia.
Syria is surrounded by Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan and Israel to the south and Lebanon to the west. The country has grabbed international headlines since a peaceful uprising turned into a violent internal conflict lasting 30 months and taking the lives of over 100,000 Syrians.
With the exception of Israel, fighters for and against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have flowed across Syria’s borders to exacerbate a conflict that is becoming increasingly intricate and complex.
Both Assad’s army and the armed opposition have been accused of atrocious acts of violence. On August 21, chemical weapons were released on the Syrian town of Ghouta near Damascus, the capital. Although this was not the first time chemical weapons were used in the war, it was the largest and demanded the attention of the international community.
Despite denial from Assad and his allies that the Syrian regime was behind the attack, western intelligence has released reports accusing Assad. Obama said in the past that if Syria were to use chemical weapons it would mean a “red line” has been crossed and the United States would be forced to respond militarily.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Lebanon on edge with threat of more car bombs

By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT/ABRA, Lebanon – A week of deadly car bombs has pushed security agencies in Lebanon to increase security measures as the country continues to suffer the effects of the war in neighboring Syria.

Various buildings around the country, including political offices and mosques, have blocked off parking in response to the bombs thought to be repercussions to areas deeply involved with the war in Syria.

Lebanon is a Mediterranean country slightly smaller than Connecticut with some of the most tumultuous borders in the Middle East. To the south lies Israel, a country with which Lebanon has a history of conflict and no diplomatic relations, and to the north and east is Syria, embroiled in a nearly two and a half-year civil war that has Lebanese deeply divided between support and opposition of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

On August 16, a car bomb exploded killing more than 20 people in Beirut’s southern suburb, where Assad enjoys swathes of support. Eight days later, two more blasts followed in the northern city of Tripoli, an area that holds great ire for Assad’s regime, killing dozens and injured hundreds. The blast in Beirut’s suburbs was in an area with heavy traffic while Tripoli’s twin explosions targeted crowded mosques.

Read full story here:

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Twin blasts rock city in north Lebanon

Photo by Justin Salhani
By Justin Salhani
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli was rocked Friday by devastating twin car bombs that left at least 29 dead and more than 300 wounded in a coordinated attack that appears to be connected to the war in Syria on neighboring Lebanon.

The bombs were detonated outside crowded mosques ran by sheikhs known for delivering fiery sermons against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

Lebanon rests on tenuous geopolitical fault lines with Israel to the south and Syria bordering the north and east. Tripoli, a bastion for Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, is 10 miles from the Syrian border and overwhelmingly sympathetic with the Syrian opposition. In certain parts of Tripoli, armed men roam the streets in a show of power without interference from local security forces. Political cover or support from portions of the local population protects the armed groups, some of which are Salafist.

On Friday, the first explosion took place outside Taqwa mosque, located on the outskirts of the troubled Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, turning nearby parked cars into heaps of twisted scrap metal and shattering the glass of surrounding buildings. The street flooded with water where the blast left a crater, as somber faces looked on at charred trees and the other destruction encompassing the mosque.

Read full story here:

New actors in Lebanon’s north threaten Tripoli’s stability

 I wrote a blogpost about this a few months back. Here is the final story of my investigative report into what was fueling the fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. The intro to the story is the usual caveats but the interesting information is further down. I've put a few graphs here.

In the past, prominent Tripoli politicians have provided funds to Bab al-Tabbaneh street leaders in exchange for popular support and votes, multiple sources said.

Mouin Merhabi is a representative in parliament of the Future Movement, an anti-Assad party led by former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the son of the Rafik al-Hariri. He said, “More than 90 percent of people in [Bab al-] Tabbaneh are poor. They used to buy the bullets themselves and sometimes they would ask people from the city to [fund their fighting].”

Portraits of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and Mohammad Kabbara, a Tripoli parliamentarian from the Future Movement, are commonly found plastered on Bab al-Tabbaneh’s bullet-ridden walls.
But Tripoli’s politicians are finding it harder to control the conflict. Sitting behind his desk in his Beirut office, an adviser to one of Tripoli’s most prominent politicians said, “The politicians are no longer in control [of the men on the street].” The adviser, who is not affiliated with the Future Movement, asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Future Movement parliamentarian Ahmad Fatfat, said, “Politicians cut all attempts to try and control [Bab al-Tabbaneh].” Now, “[street leaders] found a way to keep [their funding] alive.”

According to the Tripoli-based political adviser, “Gangsters [in Bab al-Tabbaneh] have direct access to primary funding. They don’t go to politicians anymore.” In the latest round of fighting, when Mohammad Kabbara asked for a meeting to organize a ceasefire he was ignored by fighters once loyal to him, said the adviser of the Tripoli politician.

The adviser said that Gulf state intelligence agencies are funding street leaders, or “gangsters” as he labeled them, in Bab al-Tabbaneh. “High-level experts on the other side go to Damascus or Tehran,” he said.

When fighting erupted in Tripoli in June, the Lebanese English online publication Naharnet reported that Saad al-Masri, a prominent street leader in Bab al-Tabbaneh and one-time ally of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, had traveled to Turkey to obtain financial support. Fighters on the street however said al-Masri was “on vacation.”

“If you are a Salafist or Islamist, you go to Saudi Arabia or Qatar,” said the adviser to the Tripoli politician. “Gangsters go to Turkey, but not to meet with the Turks,” he added. Fadda, the ADP spokesperson, also accused the Bab al-Tabbaneh fighters of receiving funding from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The adviser said that leaders like Masri broke from their political allies because of constraints placed upon them regarding buying arms and fighting with Jabal Mohsen. Today, they have no constraints.
Requests for an interview with Saad al-Masri went unanswered.

Read full story:

Rockets launched from south Lebanon at Israel

By Justin Salhani 

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Two rockets launched from south Lebanon hit non-residential areas of Israel, local media reported Thursday. No casualties or damages were reported.
The Israeli Army’s official spokesperson said via Twitter that initial assessments were that “Global Jihad terrorists” fired the rockets. Israel said it believes Hezbollah is not behind the attacks.
The National News Agency reported that the Lebanese Army found wooden platforms in the Batoulieh valley southeast of Tyre, a city 12 miles north of the Israeli border. One pair of rockets made it past the border while the other pair landed in the Lebanese border village of Alma.
The Rashidieh refugee camp, a short distance from the Batoulieh valley, is believed to have a Sunni Islamist presence. No group took immediate credit for the attack.

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Armed group kidnaps Turkish pilots in Beirut, demands release of Shi’a in Syria

By Justin Salhani

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Armed gunmen intercepted a shuttle bus transporting Turkish Airlines crew members from the airport Friday morning, kidnapping two.
Local media reported that the bus left Rafik Hariri Airport Friday morning at 3 a.m. for a hotel in Beirut. Shortly after, while driving along the old airport road the vehicle was stopped by two cars filled with eight gunmen. Four of the gunmen allegedly approached the bus and asked the passengers about the Turkish pilots before kidnapping them.
A group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Rida, which roughly translates to “The Visitors of Imam Ali al-Rida,” claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of pilot Murat Akpinar and copilot Murat Agca, both Turkish nationals. Shi’a Muslims believe Imam Rida was the eighth of the Twelve Imams.
Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel claimed to have no information on the group but said authorities were looking into the situation to determine if the group was authentic.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Beirut blast kills at least 20

Bomb blast in Beirut August 15, 2013.
Bomb blast in Beirut August 15, 2013.
By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – A car bomb exploded Thursday afternoon in Beirut’s southern suburbs, an area where Hezbollah enjoys heavy support, killing at least 20 people and injuring over 100 more, according to local media.
The explosion took place on a road between the Bir al-Abed and Rouess neighborhoods and initial reports suggested it might be a suicide bomb. According to Al-Manar, the Hezbollah-affiliated local television station, the bomb weighed between 60 to 80 kilograms and was heard in the mountains. Local stations reported that some residents are still stuck inside their apartment buildings near the blast.
Shortly after news of the explosion broke, a group calling itself Saraya Aisha Um al-Muqmeneen released a video on YouTube claiming responsibility for the attack. In the video, the group addresses Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, telling him to expect more attacks in the near future. The group also took credit for a bomb that went off last month in Bir al-Abed and wounded 53 people. The group’s accent hints that they are not Lebanese.

Read full story here:

Security worries strike Lebanon’s economy

Beirut stock exchange

Beirut stock exchange
By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon ‒ Lebanon’s volatile security situation is negatively affecting the country’s economy, which will continue to spiral downward short of a major political breakthrough, say economists, business owners and members of the banking sector.
“Every major dip [in revenue] is due to a security incident like a demonstration, a bomb or an assassination,” said Ziad Kamel, 32, treasurer of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, from his office in Beirut’s Gemmayze neighborhood.
In years past, political assassinations and large-scale protests briefly scared consumers off the streets, but before long they resumed frequenting Beirut’s famous nightlife.
Today, although clashes have been restricted to a few specific neighborhoods throughout Lebanon, the tourism industry has been knocked by consistent instability, political chaos and the war in neighboring Syria. Sources say tourism comprises as much as 20 percent of Lebanon’s GDP.

Read full story here:

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lebanese keen to avoid sectarian war

by Justin Salhani

This article first appeared in The Atlantic Post

BEIRUT, Lebanon ‒ In Lebanon, memory is still fresh of a vicious civil struggle that lasted 15 years and took the lives of over 100,000 people. Lebanese today fear a return to the violence and sectarian friction of the civil war that ended in 1990. This fear has been worsened by the war in neighboring Syria.

The Syrian civil war has stoked sectarian divisions in Lebanon, a small country on the Mediterranean that borders Syria and Israel, leading to some of the worst bouts of armed clashes in years.

Lebanon’s second biggest city Tripoli in the north has witnessed repeated skirmishes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Select villages in the east Bekaa Valley have been subject to shelling from both the Syrian armed opposition and the al-Assad regime, and late last month followers of a radical Sunni Muslim cleric clashed with the Lebanese Armed Forces in the southern city of Sidon.

But despite the increase in tension and violent repercussions, many analysts believe Lebanon will, at least for now, avoid a return to the full-scale war of years past.

Read the rest here:

Ramadan observance in Beirut more muted than elsewhere

by Justin Salhani

This article first appeared in The Atlantic Post

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The holy month of Ramadan is an important holiday for the world’s Muslims, including those living here in Beirut. Lebanon’s capital, however, observes the month in a more muted fashion than other Arab and Muslim capitals.

“Nothing really changes in Beirut during Ramadan. In other countries I’ve been to, like Egypt, Ramadan is more festive, and Cairo is full of Ramadan decorations,” said Nada Zanhour, 28, an assistant director at a Beirut art gallery.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is both joyous and somber for the world’s followers of Islam. During Ramadan, Muslims are asked to fast, meaning they abstain from food, liquids and sexual activity each day. At night, Muslims break their fast at iftar as the sun goes down.

Read the rest here:

The Atlantic Post

The Atlantic Post is an online journal based in Washington DC. It was launched today Saturday, 10 August. I have signed on as their Lebanon Correspondent and will be contributing regular features and news.

Please take a chance to check it out at

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My story in VICE

First things first, the editors at VICE wrote in a couple mistakes into the story after what was supposed to be the final edit. The title is not reflective toward the story whatsoever and the picture is not in anyway relevant. Futhermore, they held onto the story for nearly a month, though sometimes that happens and is inevitable.

I wasn't happy with all these things, but still it is hard to get regular work as a freelancer so I appreciate VICE running the story. Here are a couple excerpts and you can read the full story here:

The talks seemed civil at first till two armed men in body armor arrived and began shouting and pointing their rifles in the air. What had been quiet negotiations evolved into a shoving match between these men and the soldiers—and then, of course, came the gunfire.
I cannot say who shot first. Reports later said two soldiers were killed;  I saw a LAF soldier leap off an army jeep, as bullets barraged him and then watched the LAF take cover behind buildings as Assir’s men fired on from above—based off this knowledge and where the bullets hit the jeep, it seems Assir’s men were already in position when the shoving match began.
I rushed inside and took cover behind the counter as a stray bullet shattered KFC’s windows. Aside from the ten or so employees, there were a few young men in their late teens/early 20s, two mothers, and a few children. The oldest child was 11 years old.
Em Mohammad spun around and headed downhill in the reverse direction. As she drove down the winding road, her nerves started to set in, and the car picked up speed. We flew past a group of armed men who yelled at the car, “Turn off your lights!” In full panic mode, she obliged and pressed the gas pedal hard. We flew down the dark street. Oblivious to the two cars blocking the road, she barreled into them.
The next few moments are still blurry. I only remember the car stopping and blood running down my face. Seeing the two cars ahead, a deep fear set in—I checked to see if anyone was badly hurt and then jumped out of the car.
“Get back in!” yelled Mostafa.
I returned to the car. Em Mohammad tried to reverse but smashed into a wall instead. She pulled forward and went back into the two cars. She repeated this once more, and then I decided to exit the car for good.
From across the street, men motioned us over—Mostafa and his family decided to follow my lead. They left the car. We sprinted till we found a man in a balaclava—clearly one of Assir’s guys—sitting outside a house.
“Here, try to stop the bleeding with this,” he said to me, handing me a sweaty hat.
As the car started, the passengers—including the driver—began to pray. Hearing the driver leave his fate to God made me feel clueless, so I prayed too. I’m not sure what I said or if I just jumbled out a bunch of syllables at an attempt at forming English words, but I know an argument in the front seat interrupted my quasiprayer.
“Where do you want to go?” the driver asked.
“We want to go down to the Sea Road,” replied Mostafa.
“That won’t be possible,” the driver replied. “I’ve got a rifle in the car. What if the army stops me at a checkpoint?”
“Then what are we supposed to do?” asked Mostafa, his voice increasing in anxiety.
The driver suggested we find a friend’s building. He drove a bit further before stopping. “This is far as I go,” he said. “May God be with you.”
We exited the vehicle and then started to walk. I envisioned the two bullets that had hit the soldier earlier that day and worried I’d meet the same fate. I demanded to know where we would find safety.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Up ahead,” said Mostafa.
“Where up ahead?”
Mostafa pointed somewhere in the distance. “That building, there.”
Trying my best to keep cool, I said, “Describe it.”
He described the building, and then I ran ahead. Before I reached the building, an armed LAF soldier stopped me—we had just ran through the area where the two sides had exchanged gunfire hours earlier. I told the startled soldier that I wanted to take cover in the building.“
“Go! Go!” he said.
I reached the building and tried to open the door, but it was locked. Around this time, Mostafa surveyed the buttons for a name he recognized. “Just press all the buttons!” I yelled.
I’m not sure if it was because he didn’t want to bother people or if he thought they wouldn’t open the door because they were afraid of armed men entering, but he hesitated. “PRESS ALL THE BUTTONS!” I screamed frantically.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Men Who Get Rich Off Syrian Refugees

I wrote this story for The Atlantic

by Justin Salhani

Hassan is only 30 years old, though like most people who have lived through war, he looks much older. Sitting next to his father, a few neighbors, and the landlord of the room he rents at a former school Lebanon, he beams as he describes the elation he felt upon reuniting with his family last month after he fled his home in Nahriyeh, near Qusair, Syria, and the gratitude he has for his landlord's unremitting hospitality.
As Hassan's story comes to a close, he politely excuses himself to check on the children playing outside. Once outside, the diminutive man slyly looks over his right shoulder before lighting a cigarette.
"My dad doesn't know I smoke," he says in between drags. But Hassan didn't leave the room simply to get out of his father's line of sight. He left to escape the earshot of another guest.

Continue Reading:

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Arab Spring NOW: Lebanese Army steps in to end Tripoli clashes

 This article appeared on Arab Spring NOW (  
Follow them on Twitter @arabspringnow
             Fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh take aim at their foes in Jabal Mohsen  (Photo by Justin Salhani)     
By Justin Salhani in Beirut
Armed men engaged the Lebanese Armed Forces in Tripoli Thursday, following attempts by the LAF to confiscate arms from the city's troubled neighborhoods.

“The army will retaliate without hesitation to the sources of fire from any side because the residents of the city have the right to live in peace,” caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati told Al-Hayat newspaper. Mikati is also represents Tripoli in Lebanon’s parliament.

For years, sporadic clashes have engulfed the areas of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a Sunni Muslim neighborhood, and Jabal Mohsen, a neighborhood of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s coreligionists known as Alawites. Usually the clashes are related to political causes and last a couple of days. Recently however, the fighting has intensified and the usual intervention by local politicians to broker a ceasefire has gone unheeded as heavy fighting has dragged on for over a week before cooling down. Tripoli now is experiencing relative calm disrupted by the occasional sniper fire.

On Thursday the army entered into parts of Tripoli with the intension of seizing illegal arms. Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA) reported that the LAF encountered “a warehouse of weapons containing large quantities of explosives, homemade mortar shells, rifles and ammunition, in addition to a variety of military equipment.”

NNA reported that the warehouse belongs to Ziad Alloukeh, a well-known militia leader in Bab al-Tabbaneh. Multiple sources say Alloukeh was a representative on the ground for a Member of Parliament from Tripoli named Mohammad Kabbara. In recent months though, sources say Kabbara and other politicians have lost control of figures they formerly funded in Bab al-Tabbaneh.

While sources vary as to whether it was the politicians or the street leaders who cut ties, they agree that street leaders like Alloukeh have found alternative means of funding the fight against Jabal Mohsen. With the puppet strings severed, Tripoli's politicians have turned to the LAF to restore stability to their city.

An adviser to a Tripoli MP who asked not to be identified, as he was not given clearance to speak to the media, said that all Tripoli politicians and Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest administrative Sunni Muslim body, have given the LAF their full support to enter Bab al-Tabbaneh and stop the armed men.

“If the army continues to play their role then [the fighting in Tripoli] will be finished,” said Mouin Merhabi, a member of Lebanon’s parliament who has been outspoken about inaction from the army in the past. 

But despite the army's efforts, armed men and protesters hit Tripoli's street's Thursday. The protesters expressed anger over Hezbollah's role in the Syrian regime's recapture of Qusair, a strategic town in Syria close to Lebanon’s eastern border.

Former Tripoli MP Mustafa Allouch indicated that what is happening in Tripoli will carry on for some time and is linked to larger developments in the region. “We believe there is no solution for clashes in Tripoli unless you have a major solution for what is happening in Lebanon and Syria," said Allouch.
Justin Salhani is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. He’s on Twitter @JustinSalhani

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bringing the Syrian war to Lebanon

Beirut: Qusayr's fall to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah have reignited rhetoric that armed groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could begin operations inside Lebanon.

"Hezbollah fighters are invading Syrian territory. And when they continue to do that and the Lebanese authorities don't take any action to stop them coming to Syria, I think we are allowed to fight Hezbollah fighters inside [Lebanese] territory," said General Selim Idriss of the Free Syrian Army to the BBC.

Hezbollah's involvement in Syria has drawn numerous reactions from the FSA in recent months, including threats that the FSA would march on Dahiyeh or engage Hezbollah in Lebanon. To date, none of these threats has been acted upon.

In a recent interview with a seasoned Lebanese journalist closely affiliated with Sunni Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, I was told that Jabhat al-Nusra and certain Sunnis in Lebanon are waiting to bring the war here. He said Nusra will follow Hezbollah back into Lebanon and when that happens Lebanese Sunnis will join the fight.

As the journalist said, "from central Iraq to Lebanon...the Sunni-Shiite war has started."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tripoli's politicians no longer control the street: sources

Beirut: Tripoli's latest round of clashes over the last week have become more intense than in the past. According to multiple reputable sources, politicians have lost control of leaders on the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh side that they used to fund. This could be one reason why Tripoli's MPs were unable to secure a ceasefire last week. The Daily Star reported that despite attempts at a ceasefire last night, snipers from Tabbaneh fired at the Alawite side of Jabal Mohsen, injuring two people.

Current Calm

Yesterday, during the day Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen appeared relatively normal. The Lebanese Armed Forces' (LAF) 12th brigade remained deployed but residents were on the streets and shops were open. A prominent militia leader in Tabbaneh named Ziad Alloukeh said that he expected fighting to continue soon and clashes were on hold so residents could collect food and other supplies after being stuck at home for over a week.

Alloukeh also took the opportunity to denounce all of Tripoli's politicians and members of parliament. He tossed out the usual caveats about the guys in Tabbaneh buying their own weapons and not getting help from the state or any other actor.

Alloukeh is known on the streets for having been one of Future MP Mohammad Kabbara's representative on the ground in Tabbaneh. Political sources have also confirmed that this was once the case but no longer holds true. Alloukeh is no longer under Kabbara's control and neither are other street leaders in Tabbaneh, according to political sources both on and off the record.

Stories vary about whether the politicians have cut funding voluntarily or if the street leaders spurned them first, but what is clear is that mid-caliber weapons are appearing and the cost of daily fighting (amount of ammunition, type of weapons & ammunition, etc.) is increasing.

I've also been told by a local source that street leaders who struggled to get by in the past are now holding elaborate dinners for local figures.

The Emir of Tripoli?

Word on the street is that many of the major street leaders in Tabbaneh have united and pledged their allegiance to Hossam Sabbagh (trying to find a video to confirm this).

Sabbagh is a wanted man by authorities in Lebanon & Australia (both countries where he holds citizenship), is thought to have fought with the Nusra front in Syria, and is now believed to be Nusra's representative in northern Lebanon. He's also reportedly fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq and I'm told he was recently declared something to the extent of the "Emir of the Islamic State of Northern Lebanon". For more on him check out the Daily Star's article from January here.

As the article says, when Sabbagh used to attend meetings at MP Kabbara's house authorities wouldn't touch him, most likely for fear of the reaction it would cause among Islamist factions. I was told recently that Sabbagh has since stopped attending these meetings and sends representatives instead.

Where as Ziad Alloukeh and Saad al-Masri's (another well known militia leader) offices are known to everyone in Tabbaneh, my contacts inside said they couldn't tell me where he is because "even we don't know."

My contacts tried to arrange to get me a meeting with him for the next day or two but considering Sabbagh has yet to speak to any press the chances of that are slim.

New Strategy

On the Tabbaneh side of the conflict locals said a new strategy has been adopted. They said fighters are not allowing Alawites (the sect to which Bashar al-Assad belongs) from Jabal Mohsen to buy bread and other basic goods in the hope that they will become desperate and turn on Arab Democratic Party (ADP) leader Rifaat Eid.

During peace times in Tripoli, Alawites from the Jabal come down to Tabbaneh and shop for food, clothes, and other goods. "Seventy percent of the Alawites are good people," said one fighter last week, adding that the only grievance he has was against Eid's ADP. Many residents of Tabbaneh believe that with Eid gone the fighting will stop and the two communities could coexist.

Yesterday, Omar AlKalouti (photojournalist) and I made our way over to speak to the LAF's 12th Brigade. Near a strip of closed shops that borders the front line, Syria Street, one soldier showed us two shops that had been burnt down just a few days before.

"These were shops owned by Alawites," the soldier said. "Don't take pictures."


Theories as to why this round of fighting started and why it has carried on longer and heavier than others are rampant. Ziad Alloukeh, the militia leader, believes it was to occupy Tripoli fighters in order to keep them from going to fight in Qusair. He said there were between 200-300 fighters from Tripoli currently in Syria. A Salafi fighter, Abu Baraa, said the figure was closer to around 60 last week.

But if Alloukeh's theory was correct then why would Tabbaneh continue to refute attempts at organizing a ceasefire?


The fighting has calmed for now but the general sentiment is that the calm won't last. Tripoli residents, inside Tabbaneh and out, say the current situation is of greater cause for concern than in the past and threatens to ferment in neighborhoods that once saw nothing more than occasional spats. If local politicians have abandoned or been shunned then it indicates that local militia leaders have found other means of funding this never-ending battle. It also means local politicians can't reel in their gangs when they feel fighting is getting out of control.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Clashes in Tripoli linked to Qusayr

Zouk Mikayel, Lebanon: Relatively light clashes took place between Tripoli neighborhoods Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen today after a brutal night of fighting that included the firing of over 47 mortars.

Today, saw only occasional spats of sniper fire, machine gun fire, and the occasional mortar. Fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh however said they are expecting heavy fighting to continue tonight.

The fighting this time around is intrinsically linked to the battle for Qusayr in neighboring Syria, say sources. Abu al-Baraa, a fighter stationed on the front line, said that "as long as Qusayr is surrounded, we have to deploy around Jabal Mohsen."

Abu al-Baraa gave the impression that what is happening in Tabbaneh is basically a direct retaliation to what is happening there. By surrounding the small population of Jabal Mohsen the Sunni fighters in Tabbaneh feel they are protecting their fellow Sunnis in Qusayr from being slaughtered by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army.

He added that between 60-70 fighters from Tripoli are in Syria now. Two of those are from his own brigade. Supposedly, a group of fighters from Tripoli tried to go through Tal Khalakh to make their way to Qusayr just the other day. "They couldn't make it," said Abu al-Baraa, there was too much fighting.

As we sat on the stairs of his building Abu al-Baraa showed us his Russian Kalashnikov, a recent purchase for $1500, he said. "You see these?" he asked, pointing to thin yellow bullets. "These are Syrian bullets. They're no good, just like the regime is no good."

To date, every fighter I've spoken with says they buy their own weapons and ammo. Abu al-Baraa admitted that Sheikh Salem al-Rafei occasionally distributes bullets but no arms.

Yesterday, Saad al-Masri, a respected militia leader and brother of the slain militia leader Khodr al-Masri, returned from Turkey where "he was on vacation," according to Abu Hasan, a deputy of Ziad Alloukeh.

Rumor has it that Masri and other militia leaders are receiving funding directly from foreign intelligence services. This is something I will investigate further...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Clashes in Tripoli

Beirut: Clashes in Tripoli between neighborhoods divided by their opinion of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad show no sign of a hiatus as the death toll rises to eight. The Lebanese Army, Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen have all lost people in the last three days.

Local residents reported this evening that sounds of gunfire and mortars hitting closer to residential areas outside of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen where the fighting usually takes place. Local TV station LBC reported earlier today that Imam Radwan Al Asmar of the Jihad Mosque was killed by sniper fire. The death of a religious figure in Tabbaneh threatens to further rile up the men on the street.

Yesterday, an Irish photographer, a British journalist, a fixer and I entered Tabbaneh.

We wandered through the alleys of Tabbaneh and the man-made passageways that cut through buildings in order to avoid alleys susceptible to sniper fire. Along the way we met a few different groups of fighters. One grizzly fighter with a neatly-trimmed beard and backpack filled with mortars said he was in Tabbaneh briefly to recruit men to fight in Syria. I guess he joined in the Tabbaneh feud for kicks.

We eventually found our way into the apartment of Bilal al-Masri, a media-friendly shiekh who lives on the frontline known as Syria Street. The three journos sat on the edge of his couch (if we leaned back we'd have been sitting on top of a rifle and a smaller fire arm) as he lectured us on how our Western governments have been failing the Syrian rebels. I'm not sure if he knew we don't have much sway with Obama, Cameron and the lads on that subject or many others.

As he lectured us, the ringing sound of gunfire burst into the room through the open door and windows. We were itching to get a look at it but every time we tried to politely excuse ourselves our friend the shiekh insisted he finish his discourse.

After saying goodbye to the shiekh we carried on to a block of streets littered with armed men. Some were tattooed looking thugs while others were dressed in an Islamic fashion. Here we heard the constant rattle of gunfire as fighters took turns popping out from behind building corners to fire off a few rounds. Oddly, I can't pinpoint one time where gunfire came in the direction of the fighters near us, though an empty shell dispensed from a Tabbaneh fighter firing a few feet from us bounced and hit the photographer in his bald head.

Whenever faced with the query of which local figure they answer to, the fighters said no one. They were adamant that they bought their own rifles and their own ammunition. They said a basic rifle costs $2,000. Not taking into account more pricy weaponry, of which many were on display, more than 75% of households in Tabbaneh make under $500 a month. They did however to fire off a few rounds so we could take photographs of them in action. Since a box of ammo is 35,000 LL (around $23) it would only cost us $300-400. We were told that local media often takes such deals but we still declined.

At one point, fighters and locals started screaming that the army was coming and began running for cover. At this point, the photographer and I looked at each other and asked, "Should we run?!"

Our fixer was walking behind us in a cool strut and never changed expression. The photographer and I exchanged glances maybe three or four times, both of us sporting a smile of stupidity and confusion, before we jogged into a shop.

The fighters were under the impression that the army was trying to overrun Tabbaneh and wipe out all the fighters and Islamic factions. In fact, the bulk of the fighting over the last few days seems to have been between the men of Tabbaneh and the army with a sprinkling of sniper fire from Jabal Mohsen mixed in.

It's a widely circulated rumor among the Sunni community in Lebanon that the Army targets Sunnis. This rumor has spread deep throughout Tabbaneh and now this idea is ingrained in the minds of the fighters there. I've also heard rumors that Tabbaneh is sick of the media. The locals feel that nothing has changed despite dozens of media outlets frequenting Tabbaneh over the last year.

Yesterday, we left because as the conflict heated up so did the tempers of armed men. Upon seeing our friend's camera, one fighter became confrontational and said that if any photos were taken he would break the camera.

A friend from Tripoli told me this evening that for numerous reasons "the fighters are out of control." As of now I'm supposed to head back up tomorrow morning. Will add more then...

PS--tried to add photos but not working right now. Will try again later