North Africa, West Asia

Radio Hakaya Podcast, episode 6: Hussein - beyond sectarianism

Episode 6 of a podcast series about the socio-political climate faced by Syrians and their host communities through their own eyes as the pressure rises for refugees to return to Syria.

Radio Hakaya
14 March 2019
Illustration by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.

Radio Hakaya is a community radio project started by Brush&Bow in a refugee camp in North Lebanon. Radio Hakaya's podcasts feature individuals whose communities have been directly affected by the war in Syria and the displacement of Syrians to Lebanon. Each podcast presents a subjective opinion that, combined with the rest of the series, provides a mosaic of differing perspectives and experiences, exploring the reasons why people fled Syria, the living conditions in Lebanon and what the future might hold.

All recordings are taken, translated and edited with the help from members of the local community.

Interviews and Editing by Roshan De Stone & David L. Suber.

Editing and Translations by Fadi Haddad.

Illustrations by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.

This is the sixth podcast of an 8-part series. It is an interview with Hussein, a young Lebanese man from Jabal Mohsen. The neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen is home to the Alawi minority of Tripoli, a city traditionally known as the heartland of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon.

Since the years of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), armed conflicts have sporadically occurred between Jabal Mohsen and its Sunni neighbours in Beb Al-Tebbeneh and Qobbe. All of these neighbourhoods are located in the poorest areas of Tripoli and have been subject to bad governance by local militias and government officials alike.

At the start of the war in Syria, conflict re-erupted between the people of Jabal Mohsen and Beb al-Tebbeneh, reflecting the sectarian divides in Syria’s civil war. Enrolled as a fighter at 17, Hussein took part in the Tripoli clashes before joining a militia fighting in Syria on the side of the Syrian regime.

Today however, Hussein reflects beyond sectarian divisions. Based on his own experience, he shows how his decision to fight was fueled more by boredom and poverty than an ideological conviction. Disillusioned by the poor treatment received on the battlefield, Hussein gave up on violence and has now joined a local NGO working to deescalate tensions and counter radicalization in Tripoli.

Hussein’s words are a testimony against a sectarian reading of the situation in Lebanon and Syria. In this podcast he explains that the problem lies not in people’s different beliefs, but in a general situation of poverty, too often abused by politicians for their own purposes.

His experience represents only a fragment of the very complex puzzle of memories and positions Lebanese ex-fighters have of the war in Syria and their experience of war in Lebanon. As such, it should be heard in relation to the contents expressed in the previous and forthcoming podcasts.

Listen to the podcast in English or in Arabic below

Read the transcript:

Podcast #6 Hussein: Beyond Sectarianism

Introduction:

Welcome to Radio HAKAYA – حكايا the official podcast series of Brush and Bow. These podcasts report on stories and challenges of the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian communities in Lebanon. By focusing on individual stories, we hope to convey the complex realities of life here in Lebanon: people’s memories, present experiences and hopes for the future. We would like to remind you that the views published on these podcasts are the participants alone and do not reflect the opinions of Brush and Bow.

Today’s podcast is an interview with Hussein, a young Lebanese man from Jabal Mohsen. The neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen is home to the Alawi minority of Tripoli, a city traditionally known as the heartland of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. Over the years, armed conflicts have occurred between Jabal Mohsen and its Sunni neighbours in Beb Al-Tebbeneh and Qobbe. All of these neighbourhoods are located in the poorest areas of Tripoli and have been subject to bad governance by local militias and government officials alike. At the start of the war in Syria, conflict re-erupted between the people of Jabal Mohsen and Beb al-Tebbeneh, reflecting the sectarian divides in Syria’s civil war.

Having fought in Syria himself, Hussein reflects beyond sectarian divisions. In this podcast he explains that the problem lies not in people’s different beliefs, but in a general situation of poverty abused by local politicians for their own purposes.

Interview:

Hussein: I am from Jabal Mohsen.

Roshan: How old are you?

Hussein: I am 23 years old.

Back in 2012, almost at the beginning of the crisis in Syria, I went to Syria with my friends. I fought there. I stayed there for three months. It was a real war, in its early days. There was a lot of destruction and the situation was really bad. I fought on the side of the Syrian army.

David: Is it true that the Syrian regime wanted Lebanese people from Jabal to fight for them?

Hussein: No, they didn't ask us. We went there out of boredom; we couldn't properly use our brains because of the drugs. We used to do whatever someone asked us to do. We decided to go and fight in Syria, no one asked us to do it.

I came back after a friend of mine got injured there. No one took real care of him. And they told us that if someone dies in Syria, they wouldn’t send the body back to Lebanon. They would just bury him wherever he dies.

Our only condition to fight for the regime was that if someone of us dies, they must send the body back to Lebanon. And the regime told us that they cannot do this. That we would be buried in the ground of the battle where we die.

Roshan: Do you have family in Syria?

Hussein: Half of my family is from Syria. Even my wife comes from there, from Tartous.

Now, there are no problems in Syria, except for in Idlib. The regime did all it could to besiege the opposition in one area. And they did so, but I don't know if it is in Deraa or in Idlib, I am not sure.

Earlier, you couldn't travel to Damascus. The roads were too dangerous. Now you can go there and get back whenever you want, there is no problem. Earlier, you couldn't even go to Latakia. Now, you can get in your car and go there. Those areas are safe now.

Over there, the Syrians feel that everything has become expensive with the war. But for the Lebanese who live in Lebanon and travel to Syria, everything is cheap. If you went shopping in Syria to buy stuff, let’s say, for 3-4 thousand Syrian Lira, here in Lebanon you would get the same stuff for four times the price.

Clothes are very expensive now in Syria because all the factories were in Aleppo, and Aleppo has been destroyed. So Syrians are now importing cloths from outside and these cloths are more expensive. Some things are expensive but everything that is still manufactured in Syria is still cheap.

If a man could work here in Lebanon but live in Syria, he would easily be able to pay the rent and provide for his family. The rent of a house in Syria only costs around 20 thousand Syrian Lira, which is about $50. And for this you could have a big house with 3 rooms, 2 saloons and 2 bathrooms. Whereas in Lebanon, the rent for a house could be 300$, 400$ or 500$.

David: Are there any Syrian refugees in Jabal?

Hussein: No. Very few. The refugees that escaped from Deraa, Homs, Raqqa don't come to Jabal.

David: Why?

Hussein: Because the Syrian refugees from those cities are against Bashar Al-Assad. And here in Jabal they support Assad. The party here, the Democratic Arab Party, is very close to Syria.

Roshan: And there is just one party in Jabal Mohsen?

Yes. At the time the Syrian war erupted, we only had one person that led the whole area. Only one person, Refaat Eid. In the other areas, like Tabbeneh for instance, there were many leaders, like Reefi, Al-Safadi, Karameh…many politicians were supporting those other areas. While we only had one leader, Rifaat Eid.

We definitely needed someone other than Rifaat Eid to help us when clashes re-ignited between Jabal Mohsen and Tabbeneh. It was necessary that someone helped us because Rifaat Eid couldn't do it alone.

--

Why did the conflict start? The politicians wanted it like this. All the politicians in Lebanon. For instance Hariri in Beirut supported Reefi. When they want to move things here in Tripoli, they give the order to make sure that the clashes begin between Jabal and Tabbeneh.

Roshan: Why do the politicians want this?

Hussein: They probably use it to step up pressure to meet their power demands. For example, they used to punish Syria or Hezbollah by attacking us in Jabal. If they want to send a message to Hezbollah or to Syria, they would start clashes between Jabal and Tabbaneh. People believe that Jabal Mohsen belongs to the family of Bashar Al-Assad.

Eventually people got tired. Wherever you go, up to Jabal or down to Tabbaneh, every family has a son that got killed or is in prison because of the battles, or a brother killed, or a cousin with disability due to injury and thus unable to leave the house. People got tired of all this and stopped caring about the politicians or what they say because they understand the game now.

When the Lebanese army started coming into our neighbourhoods to arrest people, none of the politicians who were speaking before stood with us anymore.

Some speak of terrorism, and it might be that a few terrorists briefly entered the area. But if you are from the area you know, the real residents of Tebbaneh would never accept that. Three quarters of the people who fought in Tebbeneh had only been living in Tebbaneh for a year or two. They were originally from Akkar, and had married someone in Tebbeneh and moved here.

Most of the extremists were the new residents in Tebbaneh. The original people from Tebbeneh are the old residents, friends to my father, those who used to come visit us and have lunch with us in our home during the conflict between Jabal and Tabbaneh. They know better. They lived during the civil war, that's why they know better.

Instead we, the new generation, we didn't experience those same struggles. I, for instance, during the conflict of 2008, was given a rifle that I didn't even know how to use. I was shooting with it and it would push-back. I didn't know what was going on at that time. I didn't understand the political game. And drugs were very common. Everyone used to do drugs and then carry a weapon to fight. No one used to think: why am I carrying a weapon? Why am I fighting? Or who am I shooting at? This person that I am trying to shoot is a human like me, he's got a soul like me.

But now it’s not like this. Now there is some hope.

In those days we all used to work for Rifaat Eid. I used to work as a security man for him. I quit when I started working with the NGO. Now, there is no private security in the area, just the government’s army and the intelligence.

---

Jabal and Tabbaneh have one common problem, and that is poverty. It is the politicians who have made Tripoli poor. And that’s not because there is no money, or resources. If you look well, you will realize that the richest people in Lebanon are in Tripoli. If they built factories here, no one would want to become a fighter, no one would want to lose their job just to throw a bomb. That is why they don't want to offer jobs in Tripoli, in order to keep the people under their control. In order for someone to go to their powerful leader every month to seek for their help - for a medical prescription or for a food basket to eat or to borrow 100 thousand Lebanese Lira or to pay for the hospital.

The real problem is the lack of jobs. If the youth get jobs, there will be no troubles between Jabal and Tabbaneh no matter how hard the politicians may try to create one. The core reason of all those clashes is poverty.

It is not because there are different sects, it is because there are bad politicians. If all politicians, the Sunnis, the Alawites, the Shias and the Christians put their hands together to cooperate to make something useful to the people... Take for instance a company that has 30 Alawite, 20 Sunni, and 50 Christian employees, and the same for another and another and another company. In this company all people would be working together, and stay away from troubles and animosities. For example, in the past I used to get paid 30 dollars to launch a grenade. If I had a job with salary coming in every month back then, I would have never left it just for the sake 30 dollars. The reason behind these conflicts is poverty, a poverty mainly caused on purpose by politicians.

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