Football unites for a day
The past caught up with Hussein Ahmad one morning as he was busily organizing excited local children into five-a-side football teams in Jabal Mohsen, in Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli, for an event aimed at easing communal tensions.
As the local politician arrived to lend his seal of approval to the work of Ahmad and the other volunteer coaches, Ahmad immediately recognized the bodyguard with him. A few years back he had been among the armed young men of Jabal Mohsen, the stronghold of the Shia Alawites; Ahmad had been on the other side of the sectarian divide, as the leader of a Sunni militia from neighbouring Bab-Tebbaneh. Not wanting to taint the event, Ahmad kept out of sight until the politician left.
Memories of sectarian violence are still fresh in this area of Tripoli. With the country’s politicians locked in a heated dispute over the UN tribunal investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a bombing in 2005, many fear that trouble will return to the streets, so often the scene of score-settling during Lebanon’s long civil war.
In a report, the International Crisis Group describes Tripoli’s poorer neighbourhoods as the most likely place for renewed fighting to erupt. “Populations are deeply divided by current events, harbour painful memories of the civil war and are largely left to their own devices until escalating violence brings them into the political game,” the report, New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon, concludes. Over the past month, two missiles have been fired into Jabal Mohsen injuring six.
In spite of the tensions, 300 children from the two rival districts, as well as from villages north of Tripoli and Palestinian refugee camps, showed up to attend the one-day football festival in Jabal Mohsen - 100 more than had been expected and planned for. They were divided into mixed teams, and encouraged to ignore their backgrounds and make new friendships.
Wearing anything from pink skirts and golden ballerina pumps to a Lionel Messi-shirt and real football boots, the children seemed to relish this rare chance. As the games came to a close, Ahmad grabbed a fistful of balloons and ran around the pitch with screaming kids in his wake.
This was the first time the organizers, the NGO Cross Cultures, had set up an event in one of Tripoli’s troubled neighbourhoods. They have started football schools and clubs over most of Lebanon, but only began working with volunteers in the country’s second largest city this summer. And, as in other parts of the country, the events have proved popular.
“I wish we could do this every day. I made several new friends today,” 11-year-old Maha told IRIN. It was the first time she had set foot in Jabal Mohsen, the case for many of the children from Bab-Tebbaneh, even though some live just a few minutes walk away.
Before the civil war the two areas were one neighbourhood, but the road that now separates them is pock-marked with bullet holes.
Ten-year-old Milad lives in Jabal Mohsen and has previously tried to play football with boys across the divide. “I have been a couple of times in Bab-Tebbaneh with some other boys to play football, but every time it ended up in fights. Today we have just had fun together without any problems,” he said.
Cross Cultures has so far set up 90 clubs in Lebanon, with the football events as much an eye-opener for the local organizers as the children. “Previously I was afraid to go to many of the places where I have now been to arrange events and start up clubs. If you had told me only a few years ago that I would one day be standing here in Jabal Mohsen, I for sure wouldn’t have believed you,” said Rabbab Ramadan, responsible for the girls’ clubs.
Twenty-years after the end of Lebanon’s civil war pressure is building again as the international tribunal investigating Hariri’s death prepares to issue indictments. “Inter-communal relations, the legitimacy of the resistance embodied by Hizbollah, the credibility of the tribunal, the survival of the current national unity government, the future of the recent Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and the fragile stability of the country are all at stake,” the ICG report warned.
Photo and story by: Rasmus B. Larsen