TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The men smashed blocks of concrete, smiling in the midday sun, clearing away the debris near bullet-riddled walls and bright oranges on display. Bab al-Tabbaneh was coming back to life.
“Nobody likes war,” said Abul Hasan, a former militia fighter, as he looked on at the vegetable vendors.
Abul Hasan joined a militia after Hezbollah’s takeover of West Beirut in 2008, incensed at the battle, but quit after “thugs” became prevalent in the neighborhood.
After 20 rounds of fighting linked to the Syrian war, cautious optimism has returned to the streets of the northeastern city of Tripoli, as residents pick up the pieces after their very own persistent war.
Gone were the majority of black jihadist flags that adorned the streets leading from the central Nour or Allah Square, and the vast portrait of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad from the entrance to Jabal Mohsen.
Instead, there were countless patrols and checkpoints of Lebanese soldiers and police officers, many smiling, some even playing games with local young people.
Security forces led by the Lebanese Army spread into new areas of Tripoli Wednesday, including the restive neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, as part of its crackdown to restore stability in the city. Troops backed by armored vehicles fanned out into the quarter at 4 a.m. as military helicopters fired illuminating flares, security sources told The Daily Star.
Soldiers removed sand barriers, barricades and lines of barbed wire erected by gunmen in over a dozen areas including Syria Street, which separates the majority Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh from the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen.
The military detained 75 individuals on the first day of the plan’s implementation. Last week, the public prosecutor issued 200 arrest warrants, including several for militia leaders in Tripoli.
Behind the façade of newly found harmony, however, tensions still simmer on the traditional battle lines between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawite Jabal Mohsen.
Sunnis still want Ali Eid, the leader of the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party of Jabal Mohsen, to be arrested. Eid is wanted in connection with twin car bombings in the city last year, but his whereabouts are unknown.
Alawites, who perceive themselves as a persecuted minority, are angry that their leader has been forced into hiding.
Both sides say the massive security presence is not sustainable. They argue that Tripoli needs a comprehensive plan to alleviate the impact of its abandonment by the state – one that resolves the rampant unemployment and poverty that fuel radicalization.
“The military plan in civilian areas cannot continue,” said Nafez al-Masri, who owns a cosmetics, perfume and lingerie shop in Tripoli. “This is an emergency situation that causes economic disturbance.”
Masri’s shop is having a clearance sale. A sign outside says he is closing his shop after over 40 years in business to comply with politicians’ plans to destroy Tripoli’s economy.
He said the city’s citizens feel abandoned by the state, which has left them to wallow in poverty.
“We do not feel like we belong to the Lebanese state,” he said. “Tripoli is one star, and Beirut is five stars.”
Still, he said there was optimism now that the fighters, seemingly made of “paper,” disappeared with the launch of the security plan. This was further evidence, he said, that Tripoli’s crisis was made and exploited by politicians.
The security plan must be augmented with an effort to develop the city and alleviate its poverty, he said.
“Tripoli has a lot of poverty, and it’s created by the politicians because they are not developing it,” he said. “They brought you to the point of despair.”
Bab al-Tabbaneh’s residents now speak of outsiders who instigated much of the fighting, and of others who exploited it for their own ends. Few spoke of whether they had been coerced into supporting the militia leaders who disappeared overnight.
“The majority just want to live,” said Hadi Ghamrawi.
Ghamrawi is a bulk fruit and vegetables merchant whose shop was at the edge of a battle line between the two neighborhoods. His storefront is pockmarked with bullet holes and barrels to shield fighters.
He will reopen his shop this week, after one-and-a-half years of lost business. Suppliers often refused to visit, worried they might have been caught in the crossfire.
“Nobody wants war and everyone in Tabbaneh loves life,” he said, adding: “It was the circumstances that took over.”
Several militia leaders went into hiding ahead of the raids, but militia commander Ziyad Allouki defied the judicial warrants against him, saying he would remain in Bab al-Tabbaneh until Rifaat Eid was arrested.
“I will not leave Tabbaneh and I will not surrender to the Lebanese Army as long as Rifaat Eid is on the loose,” Allouki told The Daily Star in a telephone interview.
Jabal Mohsen, however, is tense. The metal bar at the gate of the Eid family compound has collapsed, police and Army soldiers guarding the entrance behind barriers that were once manned by Eid’s acolytes.
At the district’s entrance were giant posters erected for its martyrs, men killed in the endless rounds of battle – youngsters in gel haircuts and hip poses whose lives were cut short.
Residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh marched earlier toward Jabal Mohsen in an overture for reconciliation, and one Jabal merchant said he saw several fighters reaching out to the neighborhood’s Alawites.
But another march toward a mosque that lies beyond Jabal Mohsen was halted because demonstrators from Bab al-Tabbaneh were shouting “God is great” as they approached their neighbors.
Jabal Mohsen now finds itself without a leader – the Eid family appears to have fled amid fears that its scions might be arrested amid the Army crackdown, along with other gunmen and militia leaders.
“They equated Rifaat Eid, a sect leader, with the militia leaders,” said one Alawite resident, who declined to give his name. “They put a judicial warrant out for our leader.”
“That is a catastrophe,” he added.
He said there were still psychological barriers between the two neighborhoods, which would not be erased until after a broader reconciliation took place.
“Let’s see if they shoot any of us this week,” he said.
Separately, an Army statement Wednesday said that the military arrested 14 Syrians in possession of heavy weapons and forged documents in the Baalbek village of Arsal. – Additional reporting by Misbah al-Ali and Antoine Amrieh