"People get used to war. During the last battle, children were still coming to play. Can you imagine, a seven-year-old boy running through the bullets just to play video games," says Mohammad Darwish, a calm man with a curled beard framing his face.
Sitting behind the counter of his cybercafé, located in one of the main streets of the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood in this northern Lebanese city, Darwish says that his young customers have resigned themselves to the persistence of armed conflicts.
Despite their age, they are pretty sure that clashes - which have become routine here over the past six years - will erupt again sooner or later. Even when calm reigns, the shelled and bullet-riddled buildings in Tabbaneh stand as a reminder of previous clashes.
Many families don't have incomes. Whenever the conflict starts, the fighters get paid. And these fighters also give money to children to fulfil specific tasks. They can have three dollars a day and this is better than going to school
The last eruption of violence was in late October 2014. Clashes between the army and local Sunni gunmen paralysed Tripoli for three days and destroyed part of the historic old city, leaving at least eight civilians, 11 soldiers and 22 militants dead. The army now controls Tabbaneh, with soldiers and tanks deployed on every street corner.
Tabbaneh is probably the hardest neighbourhood to grow up in the whole of Tripoli. Despite being the second largest city in Lebanon, barely 80km north of Beirut, policy neglect by various central governments has left this Sunni-majority city suffering from alarming poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, and Tabbaneh is one of its poorest and most marginalised areas.
Curiously, flags and posters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) can be seen displayed in houses and shops.
"I support ISIL and the [al-Qaeda-affiliated] Jabhat Al-Nusra," says 19-year-old unemployed Hassan with a smile, explaining that he thinks ISIL will give him rights to have a job, to live peacefully according to Islamic precepts, and to move freely.
Seventy-six percent of Tabbaneh's inhabitants live below the poverty line, according to a study, "Urban Poverty in Tripoli", published in 2012 by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.
These circumstances, aggravated by the political exploitation of sectarianism within a very conservative society, have fuelled the frequent rounds of violence, mainly between Tabbaneh and the neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen.
The two neighbourhoods are separated just by just one street, but while Bab al-Tabbaneh inhabitants are mostly Sunni (like the main Syrian rebel groups), most of Jabal Mohsen's inhabitants are Alawites (the same sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad).
This sectarianism has determined a rivalry that dates back to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon which began in 1976 and ended in 2005, and has turned violent again since 2008, more so since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. During the last three years, more than 20 rounds of fighting have broken out in Tripoli, most of them between Tabbaneh and Mohsen militias.
"We fight to defend our people, to achieve peace," says 19-year-old Khaled, who usually works in a bakery but also belongs to a local militia. But Ahmad, who is the same age, is sceptical: "People fight because they don't have money or work."
Hoda al-Rifai, a Ruwwad youth officer, says: "Many families don't have incomes. Whenever the conflict starts, the fighters get paid. And these fighters also give money to children to fulfil specific tasks. They can have three dollars a day and this is better than going to school. Their parents also think this way."
A new self-confidence
Stereotypes also contribute to make things hard for Tabbaneh's youth - including finding a job outside the neighbourhood - and shape their personality, explains Hoda. "When we started, the youth had no self-confidence. The media do not produce an image of these neighbourhoods as areas where you can find brilliant young men, willing to study. They just underline the clashes and all kinds of negatives things."
Nevertheless, various studies have found that only a small percentage of the estimated up to 80,000 Tabbaneh inhabitants take part in combats, and Sarah al-Charif, Lebanon director of Ruwwad, stresses the immediate improvements observed in Tabbaneh and Mohsen youths who participate in the NGO's projects.
This article first appeared on IPS News Service