Observers

In Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon, there’s a new café where all the employees are former combatants — from opposing sides. Kahwetna Café, opened by the NGO Match, sits on the former frontline between two neighbourhoods that spent years locked in bloody clashes. Residents of Jabal Mohsen are mostly Alawite, while most residents of Bab al-Tebbaneh are Sunni. Yet this café is helping residents bridge the historic divide between them — over a cup of coffee.

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Tripoli, the second-largest city in Lebanon, is infamous for years of brutal fighting between two adjacent neighbourhoods, Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh. Clashes between the two districts have been breaking out sporadically there since the Lebanese civil war.

In the past few years, the conflict in Tripoli has been reignited by the war in neighbouring Syria: each of these two opposed neighbourhoods support a different side in Syria.

Perched on a hillside, mostly Alawite Jabal Mohsen has aligned itself with the Syrian regime, dominated by fellow Alawites like Bashar al-Assad. A few metres below lies the Bab al-Tebbaneh neighbourhood, whose Sunni residents have sided with the Sunni Syrian opposition. Since 2011, hundreds of people have died or been wounded in clashes between these two neighbourhoods. And while the implementation of specific measures aimed at increasing security in 2014 put an end to active combat in Tripoli, the animosity between neighbourhoods remains palpable.

People gather in Kahwetna café. (Photo: March)

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"They realised that they had more things in common than differences”


It’s in this tense context that Léa Baroudi, the founder of Lebanese NGO March, opened Kahwetna Café in February 2016 (Kahwetna means “our café” in Arabic). Located on the former frontline between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh, the café employs young people from opposing sides — young adults in their twenties who, up until recently, were employed to kill each other.

Back in 2014, we took advantage of the halt in fighting to organise drama lessons for 16 young people from the two different neighbourhoods. Most of them were former combatants who were then unemployed.

Our idea is to use art to resolve the conflict that pits these young people against one another. At first, it was really difficult. They didn’t take our classes seriously and were hostile to one another. However, the more time that they spent together, they more they began to break down the prejudices that they had towards one another. They realised that they had more things in common than differences.

For a long time, these neighbourhoods lived in a vacuum. People from one side saw their neighbours as a threat and had lots of prejudice about their differing religious beliefs. Spending time together helped them to realise that the neighbourhood next door didn’t necessarily represent a danger and that, in actuality, people from Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tebbaneh share similar cultures and socio-economic circumstances.

Joan teaches students graphic design for March. Here, she poses with Ali (on the left) who is from Jabal Mohsen and Atris (on the right), who is from Bab Tebbaneh. (Photo: March)

The café provides a space where people from opposing sides can meet. Dialogue and understanding are essential in order for reconciliation to take place. We also organise various concerts and performances at the café, with the same idea of bringing people together.

These two neighbourhoods have been forgotten by the government and its people are left in poverty. By employing young people from these neighbourhoods, we improve their financial situation.

It’s very important because, more than anything, the war between these neighbourhoods was provoked by socio-economic reasons. It’s extreme poverty, lack of hope and opportunities that encourage young people to take up weapons, even if they understand that they are being manipulated by politicians and warlords.

Many young people choose to take up weapons just to get paid. According to a study published by the UN in 2015, 87% of people living in Bab al-Tebbaneh and 69% of people in Jabal Mohsen live in poverty. This deprivation stands in contrast to the opulent living conditions of Tripoli’s elites — men such as Najib Mikati, a billionaire former prime minister.

Young people from opposing neighbourhoods meet each other and spend time together in Kahwetna. (Photo: March)

"At first, we came to the drama lessons armed with grenades or pistols”

Currently, Kahwetna employs four former combatants (two from Jabal Mohsen and two from Bab al-Tebbaneh). One is Atris, aged 26, who grew up in Bab al-Tebbaneh. About 15 other young people from the two neighbourhoods often help out with special events held at the café in the evenings like rap concerts, for example.

Before working in the café, I participated in the theatre project. People tend to think that everyone from my neighbourhood, Bab al-Tebbaneh, is a terrorist, so I saw participating in the project like a way to prove the contrary. Still — at first we came to the drama lessons armed with grenades or a pistol. The war between the two neighbourhoods had just finished and we didn’t trust the participants from Jabal Mohsen…

Then, as we slowly got to know each other, I realised that the living conditions were just as terrible in Jabal Mohsen as they are in my neighbourhood. We live in the same poverty.

I realised that there is actually a small group in Jabal Mohsen that’s supported by Bashar al-Assad’s regime that causes most of the trouble. Most of the people in Jabal Mohsen aren’t to blame. In any case, in both neighbourhoods, there’s a small minority that is the source of the unrest. The residents of both of these neighbourhoods are sick of war.

"We got threats from both neighbourhoods”

When the café opened, we got threats from both neighbourhoods. Some local people didn’t understand our idea. But, now, people have a better idea of what we do. A lot of locals come here to drink coffee and to watch football matches.

People socialise in the café. (Photo by March)

I joined the conflict when I was 16. When I started, I was given the job of removing the bodies of people killed during the clashes. On one awful day, I saw the bodies of women from my neighbourhood who had been shot and killed by combatants from Jabal Mohsen.That’s when I made up my mind to take up arms myself.

However, I’ve now left the conflict behind me and I’m not going to go back to it. That said, I don’t feel like the situation is stable. If a small group of people took up weapons again, that’s all it would take for the neighbourhoods to start fighting again.

Aside from running the café, the NGO March also financed a short-term renovation project for several months. The NGO employed young people from Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh to renovate shops in the two neighbourhoods. A group of more than a hundred young women from the two neighbourhoods took graphic design classes through March and were given the job of designing new signs for these renovated shops.

This shopkeeper had his signs redesigned by a group of young people supported by the NGO March. (Photo: Virginie Le Borgne)

Around Bab al-Tebbaneh, some residents are still extremely skeptical about the project, which they say will not resolve the numerous deep-rooted problems in the neighbourhood. The founder of March, Léa Baroudi knows that her job is a difficult one:

It’s extremely hard to change mindsets and to break the cycle of cronyism. People in these neighbourhoods live in squalor, but they’ve got used to being paid by politicians ahead of elections.

The problem is that the government isn’t actually invested in ending this conflict, so the situation just doesn’t improve. For the time being, it’s calm, but it could ignite in an instant. You’d just need five people to cause a stir and the fighting would start all over again. But I'm reassured to know that at least the people who have worked in our café and participated in our activities won’t pick up weapons again.
Article written with
Marie Kostrz

Marie Kostrz , Journaliste francophone et arabophone