The Burj al-Barajneh bombings of last Thursday, 12 November, which have been overshadowed in Western media by the Paris attacks, occurred on the street of my Lebanese in-laws. Forty-three people died and over 200 were injured in the Beirut attacks by three suicide bombers who claimed allegiance to ISIS.
I have walked up and down that street countless times. On many occasions I have frequented the bakery and I can confirm that the street would have been packed with people in the early evening. This is a main street, connecting the area of Burj al-Barajneh with the old airport road, a place Robert Fisk admits he feared to venture during the civil war because of the Shi'ite gangs that roamed there seeking Western kidnap victims. How times have changed; now it is the Shia under attack.
At the top end is the hospital (Al Rasool Al Azeem), and from there the street slopes gently downhill to an area called Ain al-Sikkeh. This has shops on either side selling household items, cheap clothes, grocery goods as well as myriad food outlets hawking the ubiquitous 'farooj' (charcoal grilled chicken). The street is always busy: there are women shopping with young children in tow; taxis and cars filled with families; and young men with zero regard for the norms of road decorum zipping in and out of the traffic on mopeds which fill the air with a thick blue smoke.
Before the bombings ... Boys in Burj al-Barajneh (Photo: Flickr user Magne Hagesaeter)
Despite the obvious signs of poverty which can be discerned in the potholes, broken drains, narrow side streets, and shabby buildings strung with multiple wires to conduct stolen electricity, for me this street has always had an air of joy. There are parts of Beirut, such as the new downtown area, that have been redeveloped since the civil war into sterile and soulless concrete jungles. But Burj al-Barajneh is a community of hard-working families, many of whom live on the poverty line.
Outsiders like me experience a wealth of kindness and generous hospitality. The people of Burj exemplify the archetype of the Arab welcome.
In 2013, when I lived in Dahiyeh, there was a spate of bomb attacks. Some bombs, thankfully, were defused before detonation. Others were not. The Burj bombing therefore is not a new phenomenon and it has been reported that local residents said they had been expecting it.
ISIS is believed to have launched this attack to punish Hizbullaah for its military involvement in Syria. I was surprised it picked Burj because this is not just a 'Shi'a dominated or Hizbullaah stronghold', as has been reported. In fact, it is a very diverse area where if you launched an attack you would be just as likely to kill some of your own people as you would the other side. The level of support for Hizbullaah in Burj is unclear for two main reasons. First, the area is populated by a great many Syrians, who fled the Assad regime, and by Palestinians. Secondly, in the Shi'a community political support is divided between Amal and Hizbullaah.
The Palestinian camp named after the area sits right behind the street where the bombs were detonated. Already a friend of mine who is a camp leader has reported the death of two Palestinian friends from the bombing; it is highly unlikely either supported Hizbullaah. Dahiyeh also houses people from all religious sects including a good number of Christians. As a lower socio-economic area it has become particularly attractive for Syrians and Palestinians escaping the Syrian war, because of the low rents.
While Amal and Hizbullaah are officially aligned in the Lebanese parliament, until 1990 they were at war for Shi'ite support. It was Hafez al-Assad, ironically, who brokered a deal between the two parties at the end of the civil war to stop the fighting that was causing so much bloodshed. Since that time the two parties have maintained unity in the face of disagreement, not least because the union possesses a great deal of power in Lebanon and dissolving it would weaken both sides considerably. But Hizbullaah's Syria policy has tested this unity. Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal, has implied in a number of oblique statements over the past few years that he would prefer the defence of Lebanon stay within Lebanese borders.
In Burj, therefore, you will find as many people who do not support Hizbullaah's Syria strategy as those who do. It's important to maintain a nuanced view of Middle Eastern society and challenge blanket labeling of areas as being of one type or another. Burj is not just a 'Hizbullaah stronghold', a phrase which assigns the area almost military characteristics and suggests Hizbullaah flags flying from every window and doorway. Rather, this is a lower socio-economic area in Beirut where people are trying to get by.
But, when the smoke clears and the street is cleaned up, there is no doubt this terrible act of violence will pull a new cohort of recruits towards Hizbullaah. It will add further fuel to the 'sectarian lifecycle' and ensure many young men in this area do not build successful careers and escape poverty.
Instead, they will become part of the machinery driving the never-ending cycle of war.