TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Residents of the Tripoli neighborhood of Zahrieh were still reeling from attacks targeting businesses owned by Christians and Alawites over the weekend, with some fearing the incidents were meant to fuel sectarian hostilities. The attacks took place overnight by unidentified armed men, as owners were surprised to learn early Friday when they arrived at the main street of Zahrieh to open up their shops. They rummaged through the debris, as many shops had been burned, to see if any of their merchandise could be salvaged.
All of the owners belong to the Christian and Alawite communities of Zahrieh, causing some observers to muse that they were paying the price for long-standing sectarian tensions in the northern city.
The affected shop owners, identified as Fadi Khoury, Jean Maamari, George Rachkidi, Farid Estephan, Tamim al-Atrash and the owners of retail chains Eskandar and the Nidal boutique, expressed frustration over the incidents, saying they were shocked and saddened that their properties had been damaged and fearful that there were certain parties in Tripoli seeking to remove them from the city.
Belonging to a minority group in Tripoli, some shop owners said they didn’t have authority figures to complain to either.
“My neighbor called at 6 a.m., and told me that plumes of smoke could be seen billowing from my shops after unidentified men attacked the stores and threw fire bombs,” shop owner Maamari told The Daily Star. “When we arrived at the scene it was horrible, we could see our properties and stores, our only means of making a living, burning before our eyes.”
“There is no one here to protect us, because we live in Tripoli,” Maamari said dejected. Residents have long complained that the area is underdeveloped and constantly overlooked by the government, centered in Beirut.
Both Maamari and his neighbor, the owner of Adib Khoury, a retail shop, refused to say they were attacked because they were Christian, but did say they believed those who planned the attack aimed to demolish coexistence in Tripoli and portray the city as an anarchic hub for gangs.
“Those who burned our shops don’t want to drive us away from here because we are Christians, but because they don’t want Muslims to live side by side with Christians in one city,” Khoury said. “Our Muslim neighbors and relatives have suffered similar attacks in the past.”
He added: “My [Muslim] neighbor told me this morning that they would not stay in Tripoli if we decide to leave, because if we leave we would be taking away a cherished part of his daily routine and his memories.”
The Muslim residents of the neighborhood helped to console their Christian and Alawite neighbors, relieving some shop owners. However, some expressed fear that the attacks would occur again, aiming to drive them away from the northern city.
Some pointed to the example of the Christian-owned Paul Mansour chain that moved its offices to Zghorta because of recurrent attacks and robberies on employees.
The city is still plunged in the most recent bout of violence, which has killed at least 16 people and wounded 75 and erupted last week after Syrian President Bashar Assad made a televised appearance. Some say calm will remain restive, as the preponderance of armed gangs, comprised mostly of young men, still wield power in the area. Even Army personnel turn a blind eye to their activities, some residents say.
Some armed groups are collecting protection money from residents, claiming this was the only way to guard shop owners from attacks and theft.
Shop owners in general were hesitant to talk of the rise of protection racketeering in their neighborhoods, fearing reprisals from gangs.
Residents complained that some gangs were protecting those carrying out construction violations, some of which are even encroaching on public properties. Gang members are even building on top of already standing edifices illegally, residents said.
The gangs have threatened security forces with arms when ordered to hand them over to state institutions. They said they would not hand over their weapons until Hezbollah relinquished control of its arsenal as well.
The neighborhood of Zahrieh is close to the traditional front lines in Tripoli, separating the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. Its residents say it is still a model of coexistence, despite the security situation.
Zahrieh features many churches and Christian schools and before the 1967 war was inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews. Elderly residents recall the presence of the latter community, pointing to one notable figure named Joseph Mizrahi and his two brothers. The Mizrahi family fled the area in 1967 and now resides in France. Family members are still in touch with their former neighbors in Tripoli.
Architect Hadi Ghamrawi, a Muslim resident, said he studied in one of the Christian schools run by the Rev. Carmelo Venianos.
“We are all the sons of Tripoli,” he said. “In our school thousands of students from Zghorta, Akkar, Bsharri and Dinnieh came to learn. It’s a shame we look at one another from a sectarian perspective.”
“I am proud because I was raised by a Christian man,” he said of Carmelo. “I feel as though he is a second father to me.”