Tensions have been rising in Lebanon with its northernmost city lying at the center of a continuing sectarian conflict.
For the past week, gunmen have transformed Tripoli into a war zone as rival groups fight duels using snipers and rocket-propelled grenades. Its front line is Syria Street — ironic given that it is the violence in neighboring Syria that has set these neighborhoods on their destructive path.
Sheikh Bilal al-Masri, a local street preacher with about a dozen armed followers, arrives in the alley behind his apartment and apologizes profusely for making reporters climb through a hole which has been beaten into a cinderblock wall behind the building.
“I’m sorry we can’t use the front door, but they know my face and are waiting to shoot me,” he said. “I put in the holes so I can move down to the street safely.”
Masri is one of about a dozen militia commanders in Bab al-Tabbaneh — one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Lebanese city — a slum populated by poor Sunni Muslims. It is notorious for crime under normal circumstances, but today it is at the heart of a sectarian war with its mostly Alawite neighbors in Jabal Mohsen.
With more than 17 people killed and scores wounded — many of whom are civilians — the political bosses in Tripoli have sought to put pressure on the combatants to continue with a ceasefire that was barely holding on Saturday afternoon.
“People need food, bread and water,” Masri said, “but we are one bullet away from returning to the bunkers. This is only temporary, we’re waiting to see if the army will go in to stop the snipers. If they don’t by tonight, we’ll do it ourselves.”
Less than a minute later, a crack of gunfire echoes through the apartment building, which made Masri shake his head in frustration.
“See, it’s quiet, but if they see someone they know on the street, they try to get him,” he said before continuing to explain what it will take to bring peace.
“We need a new ‘Lebanese’ government instead of a bunch of Syrian criminals who lead us now,” he said. “Until that happens, this will never stop.”