Zafer is a tourist guide to a most unusual trail in Tripoli, a city in north Lebanon that has been branded for years as an unsafe place and a hub of terrorism and extremism.
He is among 350 former combatants-turned-tourist guides who have fought against each other for years but are joined now in promoting their war-damaged and impoverished neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, after having reconciled with support from March Lebanon, an organization promoting conflict resolution and social cohesion in marginalized areas of Lebanon.
“The tour is meant to show the real face of our area. It is a beautiful place, rich in history and heritage, and the people there love life. It also includes storytelling, during which we share our personal stories of the fighting and how we have changed,” says Zafer.
Residents of Bab al-Tabbane and Jabal Mohsen were engulfed in violence for several years before the Lebanese Army could tighten its control over the area and put an end to the fighting, which led to the incarceration of many fighters.
Zafer was 17 when he first took part in the battles.
“I dropped out of school at the age of 8. I did not learn any craft at all. I had no work, no income… fighting was a way to make money. When the battles stopped, I tried to immigrate illegally without success,” he says.
Zafer was reluctant to join the March programs in the beginning. “I could not imagine that I could sit with those who have killed our people. It was just unthinkable,” he adds.
“But I soon found out that we are similar. We are poor, deprived, marginalized, and endure the same hardships. We worked together in reconstruction and restoration, erasing, as such, the scars of the war from our neighborhoods.”
BRINGING ‘ENEMIES’ TOGETHER
When March stepped in, it sought to unite the “enemies” by organizing a play, Love and War on the Rooftop, inspired by their lives and experiences and performed by them. The following move was to set up a café on the former demarcation line between the two neighborhoods, where the rival youth could mingle, debate, exchange ideas, and become friends. Later, The café expanded and became a community center where they could learn crafts and skills, attend literacy and English classes, and get psychological support.
Today, at 37, Zafer is a proud guide leader on the Love & War tour that starts from the Café Kahwatna and goes through the former demarcation line, with stops at the war-scarred places that were restored, the old souks and historical landmarks of the two neighborhoods, which few people knew they existed.
“I feel like I am reborn again,” Zafer says. “I learned how to read and write; I also learned English, everything that I was deprived of when I was young. I worked hard on myself, and now I am an Arabic and English tour leader.”
CHANGING THE MINDSET
The Love & War tour was placed on Lebanon’s internal tourist map in July in an official ceremony the Minister of Tourism attended. Visitors can book a tour online with Arabic or English-speaking guides.
Lea Baroudi, March co-founder and director, underlined the difficulties of changing the mindset of the former fighters, many of whom had served prison terms on charges of terrorism.
“It was not easy at all, in the beginning, to convince them to participate in our initiative. When we were preparing for the play, many would come armed to the rehearsals, fearing to be attacked by the others. We used to check them before they would go in. They had guns, knives, daggers…It was that bad, no trust in each other at all.”
“But when they started sharing each other’s stories,” Baroudi continues, “they realized that they are alike, more than they had thought. They all had deep-rooted causes to turn to violence and extremism, including a bitter sense of injustice, deprivation, lack of hope, and the feeling that they don’t matter.”
The play Love and War on the Rooftop toured the country as an example of reconciliation and conflict resolution. Its name highlighted the importance of the rooftop, where the youth spent most of their time because there were no places to meet elsewhere in the area. Everything was happening on the rooftops, from snipers shooting at each other to friends playing cards and spending time together.
March allowed the former combatants to deconstruct by working with the rival fighters.
“It is a space for changing the ideas they had of each other, all the while learning a skill through different vocational workshops, including carpentry, fashion design, wood paint, or kitchen construction, in addition to taking classes as most of them were school dropouts,”
Baroudi says, adding they also learned soft skills, such as communication, and anger management to deal with their traumas, misconception, and hatred.
Baroudi explains that the Love & War trail tour aims to break the stigmatization and encourage people to visit.
“We thought, let’s break this stigma by humanizing these people and sharing their stories. At the same time, try to revive the economy by encouraging people to visit,” she says.
AGENTS OF POSITIVE CHANGE
Like Zafer, Bassam and Ali are former fighters who fell victim to life’s circumstances growing up in one of Lebanon’s most marginalized areas engulfed in violence and conflict. Through March’s program, they rediscovered those they once perceived as enemies in a different light, learning to accept, grow and build a community. It allowed them to shift their life trajectory and transformed them into agents of positive change who today guide other young men who share similar experiences.
“I love history and heritage and am happy to be a tour guide. I was trained and learned English to guide foreign tourists,” says Ali, adding, “The psychological support helped me to cope not only with my former foes but also with my family and friends.”
For Bassam, who had served three years in prison, the March rehabilitation program was a lifesaver. “I want to change Tripoli’s image, which is tarnished by the infighting. We have beautiful old souks and heritage that I want to show to the world.”
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