Displaced Allawis find little relief in impoverished north

Hussein Mohammed and his family fled their home in Jebel Mohsen for the Allawi village of Hisa, in Akkar. The area is one of the poorest in Lebanon, and aid agencies have yet to provide any relief to those displaced by the fighting in Tripoli. (Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

HISA, AKKAR (IRIN) - They may have been uprooted “more than 40 times” over the years since Lebanon’s Civil War began in 1975, but Hussein Mohammed and his family say they have rarely felt as threatened as they do today.

“When Israel did air strikes [in 2006] they dropped leaflets warning us to leave the village. These Salafis are trying to drive us out of the country,” said Mohammed, a member of the Allawi sect, an off-shoot of Shia Islam, referring to followers of an extremist doctrine of Sunni Islam.

Since May, long-standing historical grievances between the Allawis of Tripoli’s Jebel Mohsen neighborhood and Sunnis living in adjacent Bab al-Tabbaneh have morphed into an intractable armed conflict, spurred on by political cleavages in Beirut and a rising tide of Sunni radicalism in the country.

For Mohammed, his wife and three children it meant fleeing rockets and machine guns that have damaged their home in Jebel Mohsen, amid cries of “jihad against the infidels” from local mosques which have terrified their children and left them fearing for their future.

“Is killing women and children jihad?” asked Mohammed’s wife, Fatima Ali Hamoud, her face anxious with worry lines. Since May, at least 23 people have been killed, hundreds injured and several thousand Allawi and Sunni families displaced.

For Mohammed’s family, finding safety is just one of the challenges they face.

For while Sunni families displaced from Bab al-Tabbaneh have been hosted in state schools in Tripoli and supported with food and medicine, the sectarian nature of the conflict has meant nearly all Allawi families have fled north to Akkar, one of Lebanon’s poorest regions.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which has been leading aid efforts in the northern town of Tripoli, says that nearly two weeks after the flare-up in fighting began, no international aid agency has yet delivered relief to the hundreds of Allawi families in Akkar.

Mohammed Ali Hussein, mayor of Hisa, one of 15 predominantly Allawi villages in Akkar to where residents of Jebel Mohsen have fled since May, told IRIN he estimated around 500 Allawi families had had their homes damaged and perhaps half of all Jebel Mohsen’s 50,000 residents had been displaced.

Fleeing to Syria

Those without friends or family to stay with in Akkar have crossed the nearby border into Syria, where Allawis form a large part of the ruling classes. Those left behind find themselves in a region ill-equipped to care for them.

“A huge number of families left for Syria because we have no capacity to help them,” said Hussein. “Our municipal budget went down from US $165 million to less than $100m in the past four years. We have 70 percent unemployment. Since independence [in 1943] no-one has paid attention to Akkar.”

The destruction of Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp last year was also a major blow to the local economy, which relied on accessing the tax-free cheaper goods sold inside the camp.

Mohammed’s family is now staying with his brother, swelling the family to 13 people living in three rooms. “We’re missing everything: food, baby milk, medicine,” said Fatima Ali Hamoud, whose youngest daughter is eight months old.

UNICEF last week asked the mayors of the 15 Allawi villages to provide figures on the number of displaced families and their needs, but the agency has yet to receive a reply.

Failure of farming

The economic decline and political mismanagement in Akkar is clearly illustrated by the failure of farming in a region rich in fertile soil and irrigation.

Mohammed Mahmoud, a rugged Allawi with the distinctive blue eyes of his community, used to work the land growing potatoes, the majority of which would usually be purchased by the state-run agricultural wholesaler.

But in recent seasons the state-run firm has been buying less and at lower prices. Where a kilogram of potatoes could once be sold for 33 US cents or more, today, farmers in Hisa say, they go for six US cents, or are sold as livestock feed.

Mahmoud gave up farming with debts hanging over him of $15,000, but found money to pay them off and support his family by smuggling diesel fuel from Syria, where it is heavily subsidized, into Lebanon, where it can be sold for nearly triple the price.

“I’ve now paid off most of my debts and have decided to move my family to Syria,” said Mahmoud. “I want to enroll the children in Syrian schools. It’s much cheaper to live there and we can be treated just the same as everybody else.”

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