Beirut’s Most Dangerous Slum

Apr 11, 2014 at 11:17 AM ET

It’s a rainy night in south Beirut, and a man named Wissam is guiding me through the muddy alleyways of Hay al-Gharbe, a crowded, lawless area just a few miles from the heart of the city’s opulent downtown.

Before long we stumble across a young man curled up on the pavement, his eyes glazed over. He’s covered in blood and high on a cocktail of pills. On his forearm, there are a series of deep cuts from a razor blade.

“This is because of the Tramadol,” Wissam says, referring to the popular prescription painkiller. “When they take Tramadol, they want to see blood.”

My guide, who asks that I use only his first name, drags the young man into the small bodega he owns. He cleans him up, slaps him a few times for good measure and sends him along through the streets, past the bullet-ridden walls of cinder block houses, where most of the upper floors have permanent sniper positions. The young man knows to listen, to return home.

Inside his bodega, Wissam keeps a bugout bag packed with an AK-47 assault rifle, hand grenades and a black ski mask—in case the shooting starts. He is the leader of a motley crew of part-time gunmen, which includes drug addicts, fugitives and hard-line Salafi militants. His makeshift army and others like it rule the streets of Hay al-Gharbe, one of Lebanon’s worst slums, a forgotten corner of this cosmopolitan city, where the war in neighboring Syria has spilled over into the streets. You won’t find this place noted on any maps of Beirut, but the area sits right on one of the city’s most volatile fault lines separating rival Sunni and Shiite Muslim gunmen and thousands of civilians.

The past year has been a dark one for Beirut. A wave of deadly car bombings, rocket attacks and political assassinations linked to the war in Syria—as well the Shiite militant group Hezbollah’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—has essentially cut off large parts of the city from the rest. But the clampdown by Lebanese security forces in Beirut has yet to reach Hay al-Gharbe, where last month, a long gun battle here killed two and injured dozens.

The neighborhood’s fault lines are complex, and the conflict often contradicts the country’s sectarian schism. On one side are Lebanese and Palestinian Sunni Muslims, like Wissam. His gunmen fight against their neighbors, at points less than 25 yards away, who are a mix of Shiite Muslims, pro-Syrian Palestinians and Sunni Muslims loyal to Hezbollah.

Wissam says he used to be on the payroll of an anti-Syria political party headed by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who now lives in France in self-imposed exile. But Hariri is largely impotent, having lost a violent power struggle with Hezbollah back in 2008. Wissam’s cash-for-loyalty days are long gone, leaving him and locals here to depend on one another when things get ugly. Now many say they feel like cannon fodder for their enemies.

“We don’t exist in the eyes of the state,” he says, pointing at the crumbling buildings and potholed streets. “Civil defense teams won’t even come here if a building is on fire. But over there, if a window breaks, Hezbollah pays for it the next day.”

As Wissam speaks, several gunshots crackle nearby, as if to remind residents that they are being watched.

“When fighting breaks out, men from the other side start throwing grenades into our houses to clear the families out,” he says. “Then when things calm down, they build walls and new houses on our land. They [the Shiite across the way] are slowly trying to push us out of here.”

On an evening tour of the area, an elderly man wearing a tracksuit with tan loafers leads Wissam and me through what remains of his small two-bedroom home. The interior walls are black from smoke and scarred by shrapnel and bullets.

Wissam later explains that he is a fugitive with multiple arrest warrants on charges of terrorism against the state. When a foot patrol of Lebanese army troops approaches—a rare sight here—he ducks into an abandoned building until they pass.

“I am the liaison between the army and the neighborhood,” he explains, laughing. “We work together to calm the situation down, but when the security plan goes into effect here they will eliminate us.”

In the meantime, as the battle rages on between Wissam and his enemies, most men here either seek refuge in guns or drugs. “None of these men have any work,” Wissam says.

Other battle-scarred areas of Lebanon, such as Tripoli, come to life during daylight hours, but Hay al-Gharbe does not. It is a slum devoid of anything resembling normal life. Few men work. Most seek refuge in guns or drugs.

“I used to be known as the guy who takes care of everyone,” Wissam says, explaining the charity work he once did for the area. “But now I am only focused on keeping my men ready for the next fight.”