Reflections on the 7th Annual Forum for Cities in Transition

Tripoli FCT 2016 at Stolat, Bulgaria
by Padraig O’Malley, FCT Director 

The 7th annual conference of the Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT) was held from 16th to 21st of October at our new permanent address in Stolat, Bulgaria. Our benefactors and partners Robert Goodwin and Julie Kiernan, co-founders of Stone & Compass, donated the use of a plot on their 2000 acre property for FCT’s use “in perpetuity.”

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On this plot, there are facilities that allowed us to host a conference for approximately 80 people, 60 of whom came from 15 cities, once divided by war (some where the conflict is frozen and others where the conflict rages on), yet divided on ethnic, national, religious or ideological lines, now in different stages of conflict transformation and transition to “normalcy.”

These cities were Belfast, Derry~Londonderry and Craigavon from Northern Ireland; Mitte (Berlin); Kaduna, Nigeria; Mostar, Sarajevo and Srebrenica, Bosnia~Herzegovina; Mitrovica, Kosovo; Tripoli, Lebanon; Haifa and Jerusalem (East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem), Israel; Ramallah, Palestine; Kirkuk and Baghdad, Iraq. We were also joined by Abdalaziz Alhamza and Hussam Eesa, co-founders of: Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS).

The Tripoli FCT hosted the conference and the major focus was on a draft Roadmap for Reconciliation between the Alawite community (Jabal Mohsen) and Sunni community (Bab al Tabbaneh), which live on different sides of Syria St., Tripoli.

Tripoli is the second largest city in Lebanon after Beirut. A traditional stronghold of conservative Sunnis, Tripoli is the birthplace of Lebanon’s Salafists movement. However, it is also a stronghold of the Lebanese Alawites, with some 50,000 of them living in the city. In 1966, Alawites came to power in neighboring Syria, triggering a pattern of Sunni/Alawite and Syrian/Lebanese violence that caused great instability in both countries, with conflict in one place frequently bleeding into the other. The Syrian army occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005. The Tripoli neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) are emblematic of both the deep relationship and the divide between Syria and Lebanon. The two areas have always been divided by their ties to Syria, and were the focal point of the wider, brutal civil war in Lebanon that lasted from 1975 to 1990. During that war, the Alawites supported the Arab Democratic Party (ADP) and fought alongside the Syrian Army against the Sunni Islamist Tawhid Movement. Since 2011, when the civil war in Syria erupted between minority President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime and the Sunni rebels trying to overthrow him, there has been a flow of fighters from Tripoli to Syria pledging allegiance to on one side or the other, exacerbating tensions between the two communities and often spilling over into violent clashes. Although the fighting in Tripoli between Sunni and Alawite militants is related to the Syrian conflict, it also has local roots.

These clashes intensified in August 2013, when two Salafi-controlled mosques known for their opposition to Syria’s al-Assad were bombed and ADP members were accused of being involved. For many Lebanese fighters, joining the struggle against the ADP in Tripoli is a way to gain local legitimacy and to help the Syrian rebels in their own way. Salafists are more entrenched than ever; jihadist groups open on its fringes.

Despite the political divisions between the Alawites and the Sunni, the two communities have much in common — they both suffer from severe social problems including poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and sectarianism. These issues have provided the space for extremism to grow. The war in Syria has caused major instability in Lebanon, as a growing number of Syrian refugees (1.3 million), now accounting for over 20 percent of the population, has affected all aspects of Lebanese life, created cleavages or reopened old cleavages across the political terrain.

Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabel Mohsen are overwhelmed with poor refugees with meager means and few options. For a time, Tripoli was a transit point for refugees trying to make their way to Turkey and onward to Europe. But these routes are now closed. Lebanon still manages relative calm, despite the continuous escalation of violence in Syria and the increasing number of refugees. However, with tensions and weapons trafficking progressively increasing along the Lebanese-Syrian border, and increased security incidents, many fear that the situation in the country may take a turn for the worse.

Over half of Tripoli’s residents are classified as poor. At least 85 percent of Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh and 69 percent of Alawites in Jabal Mohsen live in extreme deprivation. More than half of the youth is not enrolled in school or left after completing basic education (9th grade); about 11 percent drop out before finishing basic education.  At least 75 percent of adults do not have a high school diploma; 78 percent have no bank accounts; 80 percent of families have never been on a social outing, such as having a meal in a restaurant. Slums once inhabited by Lebanese poor are now flooded with Sunni Syrian refugees desperate to find work. 23 percent of the city’s populations live on less than $2.00 a day.

In the face of this dire poverty, many families have no income and researchers have found that:

 “Whenever the conflict starts, the fighters get paid. And these fighters also give money to children to fulfill specific tasks. They can have three dollars a day and this is better than going to school. Their parents also think this way.”

Government at the national level is paralyzed, Lebanon in the view of many authorities borders on being a failed state.

Hence the focus of this conference on the three most pressing challenges Tripoli faces:  Reconciliation between Alawites and Sunnis; the social/economic impact of migration/refugees on the polity and the instability it creates, heightening tensions between Alawite and Sunnis and the ever threat of an incident of seeming insignificance escalating into conflict; Political rivalries and faction infighting in Tripoli and dysfunctional governance at the national level, leave Tripoli’s self-perpetuating cycle of a freefall to fester and worsen thus contributing to the city’s continuing downward spiral.

Water or rather the looming threats of shortage of water, of long periods of drought throughout the entire Levant, a region most susceptible to the impacts of climate change according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is an issue of growing severity in Tripoli.  It has been scientifically established that sustained drought in rural Syria was one of causes leading to the outbreak of the civil war now entering its fifth year. Countries in the area are already rationing water. Unless cooperation is reached by all the stakeholders in the region, water shortages will cause future conflicts, conflicts that will engulf Lebanon, creating divisiveness among communities, triggering tensions and clashes in the neighborhoods of Tripoli, and emasculating whatever progress has been made reconciling Alawites and Sunnis.

The conference’s agenda can be accessed at here.

At the final plenary on 21st, ten cities, Belfast, Derry~Londonderry and Craigavon, Mitte, Kaduna, Mostar, Sarajevo and Srebrenica,  Mitrovica, Haifa and Jerusalem (East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem), and Ramallah, made specific commitments to assist the Tripoli FCT reach the next level on its Reconciliation Roadmap. It was also agreed to hold a mini FCT conference at Stolat in mid-March 2017 to assess compliance with commitments made and to follow with a visit to Tripoli to discuss its progress on the implementation of the recommendations the amended Roadmap calls on the Tripoli FCT to undertake.

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MORE FCT PHOTOS

Small & big observations: 

Robert and Julie had converted a beautiful old barn, creaking with age and history, into a conference center that seated 60 FCT attendees and could also accommodate another 20 observers in the background. The barn had been insulated and every heater within a 20 mile radius purchased. The weather, however, was not cooperative. The temperature was at least 10 degrees colder than usual for this time of years. Of course this caused some discomfort, but there were no complaints. Indeed, some participants had us do warm up exercises and as we collectively engaged in all kind of gyrations amid much laughter and exhortations from the “warm up trainers” (obviously yoga enthusiasts who could bend and twist their bodies into all kinds of contortions and never drop a bead of sweat!), to jump to it and force our out of shape bodies into performing acts.

Cold feet created a sense of warm bonding and the goodwill generated as we pranced and danced lasted throughout the conference.  Delegates from our ménage of cities mixed freely, engaged in intense conversations at breakfast (yes, even breakfast at 7.30 am) every day at the Dan Kolov restaurant and hotel, where delicious home prepared food was served by a most welcoming staff, penetrating questions at the end of plenaries, more intense conversations during breakaways, lucid feedback and a resumption of multiple animated conversations at dinner.

The young delegation from Kaduna, literally bubbling over with enthusiasm and mirth, were on a continuous “hugging” expedition, but when it came to making their presentation they were all seriousness, each in turn drawing on months of preparation. More hugs were exchanged at Stolat than at any FCT conference – perhaps it was a way of keeping ourselves warm when the evenings turned cold.

On the 20th the weather finally broke, sunshine fell through the clouds, the forests winding their way up the surrounding mountains lit up in kaleidoscopic bursts of greenery. We frolicked on the grounds and held breakaway sessions on the grass, basking in the sliver of warmth.

The delegations from Baghdad and Kirkuk were subdued. Given the trails of blood and sudden death over the years by serial suicide bombers, savage sectarian killings, endemic internecine retributions and chronic displacement of people fleeing from one violent ridden place to the next, they found it difficult to express more than a glimmer of hope for the future.  Adding to their sense of foreboding, Sheikh Abdallah Sami Al-Assi, a presence over the years at previous conferences was assassinated in July 2013.

Nevertheless, when it appeared that the battle to retake Mosul was about to begin they hurriedly left, the Kirkukians to get home before the air route between Istanbul and Erbil was closed. They believed that as the Peshmerga were moved from Kirkuk to the front line, ISIS would to try a counter maneuver and take advantage of the vacuum to attack Kirkuk. Turns out they were right. Turns out, too, that this possibility never crossed the minds of Iraq’s army commanders and their American advisers at the front line, making us wonder how well planned the operation to drive ISIS out of Mosul was.

But their departure was a sanguine reminder to us that among many of the cities in the FCT, violence continues in one form or another and despite flowery speechifying and the promulgation of facile promises, reconciliation is still more of a buzzword than an actuality. It reminded us, too, that we have much to do and that maintaining the FCT as a home where conflicted cities can find space for recovery is a lifetime’s task, and that we have a lot to do to strengthen the FCT so that we can rise to the challenges.

Undoubtedly, the presentation by Abdalaziz Alhamza and Hussam Eesa, the young Syrian co-founders of RBSS was the highlight of the conference because of the inspirational drive it brought to our proceedings.

Their videos and stories showed us the horrors that the people of Raqqa have to endure on a daily basis under Islamic State rule – the savagery and barbaric actions of a cult masquerading as true Islam and the lengths to which ISIS goes to silence those who dare expose its heinous crimes.

Their courage in the ever facing threat of death, ingenuity in spreading their message in Raqqa with underground publications and activities, the proliferation of videos snuck out of Syria that shock us into disbelief with their content and their willingness to sacrifice their lives, left us to reflect on the meaning of commitment.

They spoke and interacted with all of us, the epitome of calm conviction having already reconciled themselves to the fact that what they do may in all likelihood cost them their lives, as it had already devoured the lives of their friends. They taught us that there is nothing we cannot do if we are prepared to make absolute commitments to the beliefs we profess to treasure.

They raised our level of understanding and made us question our commitment to our own values.  They were humble, devoid of any sense of pretense or celebrity, almost embarrassed by the cascades of praises they have been engulfed in. In many conversations that ensued, they forced us to examine the moral underpinnings of the conflicts in our member cities.

Their witnessing cauterized the futility of the violence that consumed our member cities; they reminded us that violence yields nothing but suffering, pain, hatred of the other and a false sense of the moral superiority of our respective causes.

All ideologies dispossess our humanity, but every ideologue possesses humanity and we cannot reconcile with each other unless we search for the humanity in the ideologue.

“All we want is freedom in our country,” they told us. A sentence resonant with simplicity, but with profound implications.

We left Stolat (more hugs) reminding ourselves of our commitments to assist Tripoli before the 2017 conference in late July.  If we take our inspiration from FCT 2016, we will succeed.

Our effusive “thank you’s” to: Ivan Vasilev of the Balkan Heritage Foundation; Emilian Kerchev, Hristo Panov and the entire Stone & Compass team at Stolat; to the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for assistance in processing visas and its patience; to all who came and all who were unable to make it. We are a family. Stolat is now home.

The next FCT conference will take place from the 23rd-28th July, 2017!

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