Me Against My Brother

Lebanon_Brother_AP_06
A member of the Lebanese army fires up an alleyway toward a sniper in Jabal Mohsen. The army is often accused of playing both sides: one day fighting with the Sunnis in Bab al Tabbanne, the next bringing bread and supplies to fighters in Jabal Mohsen. Alex Potter

Alex Potter lived in Lebanon for two years and witnessed the slow decline of security and the resilience of the locals, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli.

Lebanon is sandwiched between active battlegrounds and surrounded by looming threats from militants allegedly backed by Iran, the spillover of war and social upheaval from neighboring Syria, and now the threat from the encroaching presence of the Islamist militants known as ISIS, and many would like to see the country fall. The tiny Middle Eastern country is caught between unfriendly neighbors, with the never-ending Israeli­/Palestinian hostilities to the south and the multifront Syrian civil war to the north and the east.

Lebanon_Brother_AP_01
Alawite youth look down onto Sunni-majority Bab al Tabbanne from a building in Jabal Mohsen. Tripoli, once Lebanon's greatest port city and a hub of trade in the north, never quite dug itself out of the sectarian conflict left by Lebanon's civil war. The Sunni-majority part of the city is nearly constantly in conflict with the Alawite area - a sect loyal to Syrias Bashar al Assad. Alex Potter

As an old Bedouin proverb goes, "Me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, and all of us against the stranger." ­Lebanon is surrounded by conflict, and trust is in short supply.

The nation has experienced its own struggles­, notably in the 15-­year-long civil war and the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israeli forces. Eight years after the 2006 war, Lebanon is in great danger of falling into another cross-border conflict.

While hardline Sunnis and the Shiites supporting Alawites in Tripoli have been in conflict for years, the situation has gone downhill. Battles shut down Tripoli every few months for weeks at a time, killing dozens and wounding hundreds. The situation was largely pacified by the Lebanese armed forces in a rare push in April 2014, but both Alawites and Sunnis are heavily armed and tied to militant groups in Syria.

Lebanon_Brother_AP_02
Fighters from the Al Farouq Bridgade in Bab al Tebbanne, many of whom claim to have fought in Syria, show off their wares. With the advent of the Syrian Civil war, the Sunni majority Bab al Tebbanne area has grown increasingly violent toward the Alawites in the neighboring Jabal Mohsen. Alex Potter

Physical damage is present in every area of the city. Bullet holes sprout from buildings like flowers sprouting from the grass, and living with the chaos has become normal. According to Potter, the damage extends to the people as well; psychological damage is obvious in all classes of citizens in Tripoli, as years of physical conflict and mistrust have left even the most innocent civilians with deep prejudices against those on the other side of the conflict.

Lebanon_Brother_AP_03
A poster of Assad hangs between buildings in the Alawite-majority Jabal Mohsen. While they don't approve of his actions toward civilians, nearly every one in Jabal Mohsen supports the Syrian president. He is seen as the unequivocal leader, ensuring the very survival of the Alawite sect in Lebanon. Alex Potter

The latest turn of events, with ISIS on the doorstep, only adds to the tension, and a rare truce in the Syrian city of Homs leaves Lebanon walking a fine line. ISIS supporters have recently voiced public support in Tripoli, spraying graffiti on churches, hanging their flags in public squares and terrorizing Christians and other minorities.

All-out war in Lebanon, either as a proxy conflict or the result of invading forces, has been avoided thus far, but very real enemies are waiting.

Lebanon_Brother_AP_04
Alawite families walk through poorly lit alleyways during peace times. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, battles have broken out every few months between Sunnis in Bab al Tebbanne and Alawites in Jabal Mohsen. The houses of the poorest families lie on the shared border between Bab al Tebanne and Jabal Mohsen, leaving them the most vulnerable to destruction. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_05
Two fighters from the Al Farouq Bridgade patrol after dark. Much of the fighting takes place after dark in the narrow alleyways; fighters sprint across each open space to avoid sniper fire. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_07
Jabal Mohsen during a battle from a fighters point of view in Bab al Tabbanne. Many have said that during times of peace, men used to do business with each other, women visited homes across the border, and their children played together. Now, no Sunni dares to ascend Jabal Mohsen, and no Alawite is able to descend into the city center for fear of being beaten or killed, even during peace times. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_08
Sunni men from Bab al Tabbanne and Qobbe carry the coffin of a fighter killed in Syria. At least twelve young men from Tripoli joined the Syrian rebels and were killed in an ambush that set off one of the most deadly rounds of fighting to date. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_09
A young man named Hasan paused to talk to other youth in the Jabal Mohsen cemetery. "We don't want to live like this. The majority of the people don't want conflict, and in the end it mostly hurts the people who don't want to fight." Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_10
Women watch a funeral procession in Tripoli from their balconies. Nearly everyone in the enclaves has lost someone close to them. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_11
The most recent round of clashes was set off when a group of Lebanese fighters were killed by alleged ambush in Syria. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_12
A Lebanese youth shows a gunshot-wound scar. He was on his way home from school when the bullet struck his back; it was lodged in his spine till surgeons could remove it. He now walks slowly with crutches, but is improving. While many are physically wounded from the battles, scores more carry the psychological wounds of mistrust and newly-born sectarianism. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_13
A tank watches over a playground that sits exactly on the borderline between Bab al Tebbanne and Jabal Mohsen. Mothers in the area described how their children used to play together, and now they can only watch, as with each battle, more bullet holes decorate their former common ground. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_14
A Bab al Tabbanne fighter shows his neighbor boys how to handle AK-47 rifles. While young boys are never seen on the front lines, fighters from both sides proudly show off cell-phone videos of pre-teen boys and sometimes girls firing into the distance. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_15
Alawite worshippers in Jabal Mohsen attend a prayer service at the Mosque of Fatima al Zahra. As a Shia' offshoot, Alawites live much more liberal lifestyles than their Sunni neighbors in Bab al Tabbanne. Some drink, few women cover, and faith is viewed as much more of an inner pursuit than an outer show. Most in Bab al Tabbanne say they are not Muslims. For this reason, so many Alawites are loyal to Assad, despite his war crimes: the survival of their sect, as well as their very lives, depend on his success and survival. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_16
Bullet holes decorate a living room in Jabal Mohsen. When asked how she deals with the conflict, the woman of the house threw up her hands and said "We pray." Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_17
Youth in Bab al Tabbanne sprint across sniper alleyways while delivering food to fighters just after dusk. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_18
A young Alawite man and his relative view the destruction in their home after a vicious night battle. While some on both sides profess their hate for the other, this family, like many others, say they are simply fighting to defend their homes. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_19
A family flees from Tripoli to their village in the north. As the fighting has grown ever more sectarian, many families are fleeing the city, even though it has been their home for generations. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_20
A young boy patrols the alleyways in Bab al Tabbanne. Just moments before, his friend was hit by sniper fire in the neighboring alley. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_21
Small community hospitals in Tripoli are sprinkled with young men maimed in fire fights. Alex Potter
Lebanon_Brother_AP_22
A building in Bab al Tebbanne is seen from a sniper position in Jabal Mohsen. While an agreement in early 2014 took down a number of community warlords from both sides, fighting continues to break out. As the Syrian Civil War draws closer to Lebanon, sectarianism grows, as does the influence and supporters of the terrorist group ISIS. If Tripoli does not draw together as a community, it could easily become the next full-blown battleground of the Syrian Civil War, pulling Lebanon from the fringes to the heart of the conflict. Alex Potter
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