Far from the global spotlight, Lebanon is left simmering - we ignore it at our peril
Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30
The winding alleys of Burj al-Barajneh in south Beirut are plastered with portraits of the victims, mostly young boys, who were killed in twin suicide blasts on November 12. Isil claimed responsibility for the attacks, in which a bomber detonated his explosives next to a crowded bakery as people flowed on to the street after sunset prayers. But this is life in Lebanon, the country that hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world.
There have been many voices complaining that the Paris attacks received more attention than similar attacks in Lebanon, and that the global news agenda is more sensitive about the loss of white Western lives than others. This disparity in reactions underlines the sense in this region of being left alone to bear the brunt of Syria's deadly five-year war. For the Lebanese, their own ineffective government has been little help either, plagued as it is with gridlock and corruption that have engendered electricity and water shortages and, most recently, a collapse of the rubbish collection.
The EU regards the arrival of a million or so refugees as a major emergency but Lebanon, a country the size of a postage stamp, has absorbed more than a million Syrians, who mostly fled with little more than the clothes they were wearing. There are refugees living in garages, in an abandoned chicken farm, mixed into the jumble of Lebanon. You can have four or five families under one roof and each has a story unheard, untold.
The refugee situation has authorities panicked about how to absorb and feed these newcomers but most worrying of all is the fragility of Lebanese society where sectarian, ethnic and proxy regional tensions bubble around the surface. And the Syrians' situation has become all too similar to that of the stateless Palestinian refugees who exist at the very margins of Lebanese society ever since 1948, fought against by every faction at one point or another.
While Lebanon's civil war may have fizzled out over two decades ago, the influence of its major players is still all visible. In Tripoli, Lebanon's second city, there are armoured vehicles, truckloads of troops and coils of barbed wire in case Syria's violence slops over into its neighbour.
Forty suicide vests were discovered here the day before the Beirut bombings and the city is a microcosm of Syria's civil war, playing out in two neighbourhoods between the Alawi Shias and the Sunni Muslims.
Concern funds a women's embroidery co-operative in the Jabal Mohsen district. Women from all communities attend. It's a novel project to unite communities and Noor, a Lebanese participant, has overcome some of her prejudices since joining.
"I like the idea of gathering people from the different communities together," she says. "We used to be in conflict with them, not with them on an individual basis but with the idea of them. I've built up real friendships with women from the other communities here."
Down side streets, not far from shiny new towers, Syrian families share single rooms in dark, dilapidated buildings, unrenovated since Lebanon's civil war a generation ago. Every refugee over the age of 15 needs to pay an annual $200 residency fee. But five years have eaten up their savings so up to 80pc of refugees aren't legal in the country.
Permanent dwellings aren't allowed, so NGOs such as Concern step in to help. Concern works with 130 informal settlements or tented communities by doing repairs, laying pathways and creating sewerage facilities.
In Borg Arab the "shawish" or head of the family tells how they are all related and used to have various commercial enterprises back in Syria. "There's none of our family left in Syria. We are all here," he says. "The landowner is a friend. We know him for 15 years and we pay him $60 a month to be here. We left Syria with nothing and nobody is coming to visit us but Concern. We have left our destiny to God. I was invited to go [legally] to Sweden but I'm staying here. I can smell Syria from here."
Concern manages brilliantly on the budget it can scrape together from donors, although this too has been hit hard in recent years. A meagre World Food Programme allowance of $23 per person every month means some have become desperate enough to contemplate joining the flow of those taking the dangerous sea journey to Europe. Still they seem resigned to their fate. Ahmed (53) was a building contractor back home in Homs. Nowadays he spends his time in contemplation. "I wake up at four and read the Quran until everybody else gets up," he says. "This is the only thing that keeps me going. When I came here with my wife and children we thought it would be temporary. But now it's in God's hands if we are to return."
Stories like Ahmed's echo across the country, and ignoring Lebanon could have dire consequences. The UN's Humanitarian Rights chief, Antonio Guterres, has warned of an "existential threat" to Lebanon caused by the Syrian crisis and urged international support for this poor, brittle state.
Here in Tripoli you feel that the ghosts of the civil war could awaken at any moment.
Beirut appears to be a confident capital with glittering skyscrapers, but there is a real underlying fear that this country, where Sunnis, Shias, Alawites and Christians all live side by side, could explode into yet another brutal conflict.