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

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