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On Tripoli's Syria Street, calm masks Lebanon's deep scars

March 25, 2024

Syria Street in Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, was a microcosm of the Syrian Civil War for many years. Nowadays, a fragile calm hides the complexities of Lebanon's past and the resilience of its people.

People walk among cars on a narrow street in Triopoli
Syria Street is one of the main arteries running through the city of TripoliImage: D. Hodali/DW

Turn into Syria Street, a wide boulevard in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, and you'll find yourself driving past buildings pockmarked with bullet holes and rubbish that has sat uncollected for weeks.

But you'll also pass items of furniture neatly set out and arranged for sale, practically inviting you to take a seat right there on the street as if in an open-air living room.

The residents here all know each other. Many of them grew up in the area and have lived here all their lives.

In the early 1900s, goods were transported north from Lebanon's capital, Beirut, along this bustling road to the region that is now Syria. Trade brought prosperity to those living here back then, but little is left of that prosperity today.

"Syria Street is known for its diverse population and also for periods full of tensions and conflicts," said Jihan Takla of the nongovernmental organization Utopia, which is located on the street and advocates for social justice and reconciliation.

Syria Street bears the scars of history

The street bears visible scars from these conflicts, and its walls speak of fighting and violence. Syria Street is the dividing line between the quarters of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, parts of which are extremely poor. And for years they were mired in rivalry and fighting along sectarian lines.

From 2008 onward, rival local militias would have sporadic shootouts. The outbreaks of violence intensified between 2011 and 2015, as the civil war in Syria exacerbated old resentments and political divisions between the two neighborhoods.

When civil war broke out in Syria, the predominantly Alawite quarter or Jabal Mohsen sided with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Sunni quarter, Bab el-Tabbaneh, which has historic ties to the Syrian cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo, supported the rebels.

For several years, the street was a battlefield.

Woman in a patterned dress and a black headscarf, photographed from behind, so that only her right cheek can be seen, in the stairwell of an apartment block.
Hala, a longtime resident of Syria Street, has five children and looks after her brotherImage: Diana Hodali/DW

Hala, now 40, grew up in Bab el-Tabbaneh. She remembers that period all too well. "My brother was still a teenager then," she said. "He was shot and has been in a wheelchair ever since."

This troubled street became a microcosm of the war in Syria, a front line that lived up to its name. Young Lebanese from Tripoli were waging war on one another, prepared to die for a cause that wasn't even their own. That is until the Lebanese army intervened and brought the violence to an abrupt and unexpected end.

Today, the area is still under military supervision. Since then, various nongovernmental organizations have been trying to reduce tensions and promote peace, said Takla from the NGO Utopia.

Drugs, unemployment and poverty dominate daily life

They have largely been successful, although the city as a whole is struggling. Tripoli, with a population of around 50,000, is Lebanon's second-largest city, located some 85 kilometers (about 50 miles) north of the capital, Beirut. According to a report by the World Bank, it's one of the poorest cities on the entire Mediterranean coast.

Lebanon has been in an economic crisis since 2019, which has made life in Tripoli even harder than it was before. This is especially true in the area around Syria Street, which was already characterized by high youth unemployment and poverty.

Many young men from Tripoli have tried to leave the country and cross the Mediterranean by boat. Many have died in the attempt, including people from Syria Street.

A workshop with the red metal shutter half rolled up and crude ladders outside. The metal shutters on the shops on either side are painted green and blue.
All sorts of traders can be found on Syria Street, their businesses often spilling into the roadImage: D. Hodali/DW

"There's no open fighting here anymore," said Hala, "but we have other worries now." She cites drugs as one problem, criminality as another.f

"They say the building I live in is in danger of collapsing, because it's not being maintained," she said. "But where are we supposed to go? We don't have any choice but to stay."

Since her mother died, Hala has also looked after her brother. For that reason alone, there is no way they can move.

Syria Street 'reflects resilience and perseverance of its residents'

"Syria Street is a neglected area," said Nadina Alidib, who worked for an organization on Syria Street for 10 years before founding the cultural space Warche12 and the cultural center Marsah, both in Tripoli.

"There's no government control and no order. There's no decent life for people here, no clean water, no clean streets, no protection."

"People here somehow have to solve their problems by themselves," said Takla. These could be anything from power cuts to rubbish collection to the lack of clean water.

Just recently, former fighters from rival groups worked together, under the leadership of the Lebanese social organization March, to install solar-powered street lamps in the two formerly hostile neighborhoods on either side of Syria Street so that people would feel safer at night.

Run-down looking buildings on Syria Street in the sunshine, car in foreground
Once a flourishing trade route, little is left of Syria Street's former prosperityImage: D. Hodali/DW

Young people on the street here say the economic crisis has been a leveler — it has brought everyone equally to their knees.

For some, the dire economic situation is the greatest challenge here. Others, like Hala, count the drugs and guns that circulate in the neighborhood as a challenge, too. Here, it's local leaders who call the shots.

"But Syria Street also reflects the resilience and perseverance of its residents, despite all adversities," said Takla. The once-segregated groups are learning to live together again and even stand up for each other. 

But Takla knows the situation is still tense. It doesn't take much here on Syria Street to reopen old wounds.

This article was originally written in German.