Lebanon News

Ethnic tensions erupt in Burj Hammoud

A woman walks in a street in Bourj Hammoud where a fighting took place on Saturday. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The stout, gray-haired man, who says he is “bigger than the mukhtar” in the community, stares coldly and speaks with authority.

“The Kurds have no religion,” Serge says firmly, standing only a block away from where a Syrian Kurd put a local man in intensive care Saturday. “They have no Jesus, no God.”Serge is one of many in Beirut’s northeastern suburb of Burj Hammoud who harbors a flagrant resentment toward Kurds. Enmity between some runs so deep that tensions have even descended into gang warfare in the past.

That sentiment boiled over during the weekend after Lebanese citizen Elias Kalash was knocked unconscious by a gas canister thrown by a Syrian Kurdish man.

The ensuing tensions were only quelled Monday when local municipality figures and representatives comprising various security forces held a series of meetings aimed at preventing a recurrence of Saturday’s events. A representative from the Kurdish Lebanese Razgari Party was also in communication with the Burj Hammoud municipality in an attempt to further defuse ethnic and communal hostilities.

There are no exact figures details on how many Syrian Kurds live in Burj Hammoud. The relatively cheap housing in this low-income neighborhood has always attracted people of all nationalities, and has proved just as popular among Syrian refugees coming to Lebanon over the last three years. A sizeable Lebanese Kurdish community has been present in the area since before the start of the Syrian civil war.

Locals claim the incident began when a drunken Syrian Kurdish man provocatively gawked at someone’s fiance Saturday, prompting a group of Lebanese and Lebanese-Armenians to gather and try to break into a one-story house the Kurdish man was renting with his father and four brothers. As the situation escalated, one of the Kurdish men on the roof picked up a gas canister and threw it at the mob below, knocking out Kalash.

As of Monday, Kalash was still in intensive care, though his family said he was rapidly improving. Media reports Monday evening that he had died of his injuries soon proved to be false.

The Kurdish men are being held in police custody, according to authorities. Burj Hammoud’s Vice Mayor George Krikorian says he is “unaware” of the arrest of any Lebanese citizen.

Members of the Armenian Tashnag party deployed around Burj Hammoud over the weekend with instructions to patrol streets but to not interfere in any fracases.

“As Armenians we don’t interfere and we believe problems must be solved by the municipality and the government institutions,” explains Hagop Havatian, a Tashnag party spokesperson. Although he admits this is not the first time such problems have arisen in the area, he insists there is “no such tension” currently prevailing throughout Burj Hammoud.

“The number of foreigners in Lebanon has increased dramatically in the last few years resulting in severe repercussions on the host community,” Krikorian says. “So frustration is understandable.”

Regardless, Krikorian describes Saturday’s episode as “an isolated incident that happens between young men in all neighborhoods in all regions.”

But it is not the first time Burj Hammoud has seen the security unravel into ethnic violence.

Burj Hammoud resident Panos Aprahamian recalls the last time an incident in his neighborhood spiraled out of control. “Before the Syrian war a Lebanese guy was stabbed by a Kurd,” he says.

The stabbing led to what Aprahamian describes as “vigilante lynch mobs” of mostly Lebanese Armenians attacking Kurds and Syrians, with the Kurdish community gathering in large groups to retaliate.

Aprahamian says smaller incidents are also regular in the neighborhood and usually occur after locals claim a Kurd has verbally harassed a local woman. He says a lot of the tension in his neighborhood is based on xenophobic sentiments among the working class or older generations, a problem aggravated by a spate of Kurdish-run shops opening in the area over the last couple years.

Serge exhibits this xenophobia blatantly by likening the Syrian Kurds in Burj Hammoud to Zionists. “They’re buying up all the land like the Jews did in Israel,” he says.

The man says there had been one Kurdish-run store on the street but it closed Sunday following tensions. He doesn’t foresee any more Kurdish-run businesses opening in the area.

“No more Kurds can come here,” he says. “It’s forbidden.”

The only Kurds remaining on that street are a couple of women living in an apartment with a baby. Both refused to speak to media. According to Serge, they were not involved in the weekend’s events.

While Lebanese Kurdish figures are adamant that their full support is behind state institutions, a sense of persecution and defiance lingers in the community.

“There are groups of people who want to remove other groups from certain areas and this is shameful,” says Mahmoud Sadr Fatah Ahmad, president of the Kurdish Lebanese Razgari Party.

“Kurds are defending themselves in Lebanon and wherever else they are present.”

“Kurds fear nobody but their God,” he adds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 20, 2014, on page 4.




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