Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Third Car Bomb in Ten Days

Published on internet site: The Belgravia Dispatch - 46k

March 27, 2005

2125 and a heavy boom resounds in the city, another car bomb has gone off in the Christian area of Bouchrieh.

In a rudimentary apartment housing ten Indian workers from Madras, the back windows looking onto the burning buildings have been shattered.

One of the men, a cleaner by profession, has been in the neighborhood for eight years, apparently living in poor conditions. He knows most of the workers around, and to his knowledge he doesn't think there was anyone working in the burning buildings on this Saturday evening in the industrial neighborhood. All the rest of the men in the room are grouped around listening in with alert eyes.

On the street, tension is riding high, there is a scuffle between a civilian youth and the military. After a few punches, the frazzled and angered young man is released. Soldiers are voiciferously telling people to clear the area.

A wide eyed Asian fifty year old man is holding his head lying back in an ambulance while first aid workers wrap his legs with band aids. He is clearly shell shocked.

The worst is over for tonight with but with the count of three Indian workers killed and five other people wounded.

A middle aged man, Carlos Edde, the General Secretary of the National Party, who was on the scene, explains in French in a press gaggle that the Syrians had warned Hariri before his death that daily life would become unstable if opposition to the Syrian presence was pursued. The culprits he had in mind were clear. He reinforced his accusation by explaining that it was no surprise that the bomb took place in an area strongly run by Christians strongly against the Syrians involvement with Lebanon.

This would be a third bomb exploding in the past ten days in another anti-Syrian area. The attack is both an act of intimidation and provocation. Regardless of who is behind the bombing campaign, it is clear it is paving the way to destabilize the country, and have impact on the economic well being of the Christian community. Hopefully the Lebanese will be able to keep there heads down, and take the brunt of the bullying without picking up weapons.

There are plenty of people who have had enough with war. One young teacher, who will remain unnamed, explained that although the had a good job, she was leaving at the end of her contract. When asked why, she said: "I have lived through one war, and I can not go through a second. I don't want to do that to my daughter, so we are leaving." And her family: "I am torn, I have to leave, but my family will be here, and that feels terrible". But what will happen to those who are not able to leave the country? Where will they turn when the attacks begin to take Lebanese lives?

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Thank God for Bingo: Lives spared from Beirut Car Bomb

Friday night in Beirut, and a little after midnight, a car bomb goes off in the residential neighborhood, Jadeide, east of Beirut. Roland Bashi shop owner of Bashi pret-a-porter women's wear, suffered the greatest brunt of the blast. His shop was decimated: mangled wires, windows blown out, and a conical shaped crater right on the outisde the doorstep. When asked
what he thinks: "I don't know, I've never seen this before, what do you want me to say?" His son who speaks better English explains that the neighborhood is quiet, "my father doesn't know what to feel, maybe he feels angry, but seems more shell shocked." There's a parking lot next to the shop.

Abrahim, a 24 year old living two buildings over says he heard the blast. The windows in his flat, unlike others did not shatter, because as he explains the windows were open. He said: "I heard the blast, saw people at home bend over, and looked out the window. There was a smoky hole". When asked what he thought took place, he said he lived in a neighorbood where nothing takes place, it was newly rebuilt since after the war.

A police talking to reporters explains in Arabic that so far that have been no dead, some six injured. Reports on the ground become messy. Some explain that there were four armed men who showed up, and apparently took someone away. Another description is that the car bomb exploded in a stolen car, which apparently had been spotted in the neighborhood for
the past two days. Abrahim said that they wanted to park in front of the bingo parlor, but had been turned away. Then in a contemplative way, he said: "It is good that the bingo tonight over-ran as if it hadn't, many people would have died."

He continued to explain that the neighborhood was made up of the Lebanese Forces, a hardcore militant christian faction. When asked if things got worse, whether he would take arms: "I would take arms, but to fight my enemy." And who's his enemy? "I don't know, but I would fight." Could the retaliation be in connection to the beating pro-Syrian civilians were given by Lebanese Forces youths the other day? If so, the escalation of tension has already gotten out of hand, and there will be some very difficult strides to take to keep vigilanteeism off the streets.

Deeb, another on the sight, seemed disheartened. What did it mean to him, he explained in Arabic: "It's the Syrians, they want to make conflict so they can come back." Deeb, of Armenian origins, fought for two separate factions during the war starting at the age of 15. He explained he had been shot in the chest and the right leg. "Haram, shame for Lebanon. This is not a good country." Although he does not want his two children to experience the war he had grown up and fought in, he explained if it came down to it, he would pick up arms against as much as he hated it. And his target is anyone connected to what he thought were connected to the Syrian instigation methods.

The events over the night, will certainly not help ease the way to democracy. The downturned heads of people in the street may not be a mellow dramatic expression, rather a reflection of what is going on in the heart of the country. A middle eastern acceptance of fatalism which lead Abraham to say: "Thank God for Bingo!."

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Vulnerable Place

Monday officially was the last protest at least for the opposition. Politicians and to a certain degree citizens agree that Lebanon needs to get back into its regular weekly rhythm. With shops and schools closing and streets blocked off on days of each protest, daily life seems incapacitated by a case of hick-ups. Asking a protester what she felt about it being the last
hurrah for the opposition: "Well, we have to get on with our lives", explained the woman. And in regards to the outcome, she said and echoed what many think:"We are here for our independence and our freedom. We are here for a united Lebanon, and I hope we can achieve this. But, I don't know. I hope", and as she pointed to the back of her head, "there always the fear, a doubt, but I hope."

Pointing to the back of the head seems to be a new tick in town, as more than one has been spotted making the gesture when expressing doubt for a positive outcome. This fear also resounds in the story of a young bar tender on Monot street who about to open his business in Beirut, has decided to leave. His brother will be following shortly after. This exodus not
uncommon prior to Hariri's death, may be accelerating now caused by decisions taking place behind closed doors. When asked why, he smiled and said with an uneasy smile that things were not as well as he would like them.

And in a typically Lebanese way, where paradox and contradiction are essential to the country's make up, the fear is both real and irrational. The country divided on what to do with the Syrians and the government, generally adheres to this new Lebanese nationalism shaping itself on the streets: regardless of the differences, the voices of both camps at least
agree on a Lebanon for the Lebanese. This first step toward reaching for a sovereign Lebanon has been set in motion by consensus on the street. And it is precisely the birth of this consensus, which is exhilarating the population as much as terrifying it. So here we are looking at a new national sense and people deciding to leave.

Getting closer to the heart of the protest, this time it felt like a giant street fair, where people milled around with children, soldier's sat chatting on sunny benches. Streets were un-barricaded, and there was the odd group of twenty year olds chanting as if in support for its favorite football team, and all of this on an absolutely glorious spring day. The
entirety of downtown had been taken over by protesters. The closer one got to what seemed to be the centers of the protest, the more difficult it was to move as each inch of free space was filled with bodies. It came to the point where buildings got in
the way of people whose need to congregate seemed in part a need to show the pro-Syrian demonstrators of the previous week that size does matter. As one protester said in a perfect West Virginian accent which he picked after twenty seven years there: "We got to show them who's the boss."

The protest was so large, that it seemed only natural for it to be the last one, as no one could sustain such an escalating competition without bringing the country to a standstill. But then again, what was remarkable and shocking to the Lebanese as much as to the onlooker, was that in the crush to get to the heart of the protest, there was no aggression and very
little tension in the crowd. As if in the fourth week of protesting has led to civilians become more comfortable in their democratic steps. And it is specifically the democratic steps which to a certain degree is creating unease. How long will it last? And is it real process toward the society progressing or will it all fall apart if there is a political stalemate in the upcoming elections.

In a slightly insecure state, people are hopeful and so far proud of the lack of conflict, yet it seems that they don't belive it as once again there are unnerving currents moving through town.

A taxi driver explained to me, that he felt very little hope that the appearance of what looks like democracy is illusion. He explained that on the day of the explosion, he saw something which he couldn't repeat fearing for his life, but that whatever it was, it was a sure sign of bad times ahead. He said that there was a nintey percent chance of things going sour, reinforced by his description of people heading to the Palestinian camps to buy weapons. If this is the case the question than rises today of who would turn on who? And if this is rumor, bringing the so far quiet Palestinian refugees into the equation cold
create some problems. Based on the words of the people on the street, people are more in a unifying mood, than a divisive, so where would the conflict begin?

In taking steps toward democracy, it would seem that the stones below the feet are wobbly. And it is precisely in the poorly set road that trouble makers could take advantage of destabilizing the process through a random murder or the publicizing of the fight that took place last week by Martyr Square where opposition members beat up two pro-Syrian lads in
retaliation to the shooting that took place ten days ago.

Impossible to tell what is really going on, Lebanon seems hopeful and skeptical because of the unknown and the reliatory nature of the place. The one thing for sure, is that is looks like a tinder box, and as the heat of the sun has chased the rain away, it is more likely to ignite. As one protester said: I wish I was born in Sweden or something. The problem is that this
is region is about conflict and has been so for the past 2000 years... It is an emotional place but i hope we can make it."

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Lebanese Unity?

As each week goes, by there are more and more complications added to the equation which makes getting a clear perspective impossible. It is not only because I am new to the region that things do not seem to make any sense. It is also that most around me born to this land have no sense of what is taking place. The more I ask, the more I discover another eighty versions of how each individual feels. And the greater the confusion, the more likely to fall into erroneous black and white depictions of events.

Yesterday, on a grey balmy Tuesday, I went down to yet another protest. One not to miss as the so-called silent majority had decided to speak out in the capital. The time had come for the pro-Syrian factions to take a stance, make a show of force, and that is just what is was. This was unquestionably the largest number anyone had seen recently come together in Lebanon.

An Australian cameraman filming along the side lines mentioned: "I have been here for four years and it is the biggest thing I have ever seen." "It is from here to the airport, and they are still coming", expressed a protester, and by the bus loads and in from all parts of Lebanon.

When asked whether he was happy about the turn out, he explained: "I am really glad, it means I am not alone." Indeed, he was far from being alone as estimates ran as high as a million people attending, and from the perspective of the bystander the number seemed credible.

The protest was at the foot of the UN building, about a half a kilometer west from the Place des Martyrs, where the anti-Syrian coalition youth is living in their tent city of protest next to Hariri's grave. Although, once again there had been talk of the both groups protesting on the same day, this did not happen.

It was a day dedicated to listen to what the supporters of Lahoud and Syria had to say. A young man, Basel, full of hope like the people on the other side of the downtown, expressed with glee: "This is the real democracy. Two different streets, two different opinions, and no weapons." However, with emotions riding high, and idealism all around, the difference became more tangeable as the pro-Syrian factions spoke up. But first, let's start with the similarities.

In both protesting camps, each agree that the people do not want to revert to arms. Both groups are talking about a sovereign Lebanon, where a Lebanese government is in charge of the questions affecting the nation including no citizenship to Palestinians who have been living in camps for over 40 years throughout the country. As Abdallah said: "We respect the Palestianian as part of the Arab Nation, but they should not stay."

Both wish for more freedom, and this may intensify as their taste for freedom of speech increases with the upsurge and frequency of the protests.

All seem to agree that they want al-haqiqa, the truth, behind who murdered Hariri, and finally all factions are waving the Lebanese flag under the guise of a united Lebanon.

Yet many of these similarities resound difference when each group speaks of the other and the respective goals.

Pro-Syrian factions do not agree on the terms of departure of the Syrian presence prescribed in the 1559 resolution which the internationally backed opposition have petitioned for.

Some from the pro-Syrian factions said that Syria was like a brother made up geographically of the same group of people. Others described Syria as a protector and defender of the southern border. Many men and women were there to say: "Thank you to Assad and Syria", including the Syrians who were apparently shipped in for the protest.

All agreed at least publically that they did not want any foreign intervention from both French and American. A fifty year old and fluent English speaker explained that the reason why the US had turned its attention on democracy in Lebanon is because it wants to divert the attention from what is going on in Iraq.

Another repeated concern expressed by many was that if the anti-Syrian opposition were to come into power, they would deal-make with Israel. And Israel the constant Middle Eastern scape goat, is another point of contention when it comes to Hizbollah disarming.

"Hizbollah cannot disarm as long as there is an Arab Israeli conflict" explained another protester.

His statement lead me to wonder: "If the Palestinians and Israelis broker a peace treaty, does it mean that Lebanon will have to come to terms with present war with its southern neighbor? And would Hizbollah lose its political legitimacy and clout
without the "threat" of Israel? "

Meanwhile in the Place des Martyrs, the grey and by then cooling day was reflected the body language of the tent sitters hunkered down in their seats.

The green where the squat is located with at the bottom of it a dug out opening revealing a Roman arch system has been sealed off with red and white striped plastic tape.

Maurice a student in a English language Christian university in Achrafyie said that they had sealed off the compound with tape after young men with Hizbollah flags in a car drove by pointing their M16s in the direction of the encampment: "We are scared for our life. They have the power, they have the guns and the president".

However fearful, Maurice said he wouldn't be deterred as his hatred for the Syrian presence is greater than anything. He explained that the year before, he had been taken in for questioning over the desecration of a Lahoud poster in his village. "There is no political freedom here". When asked what independence meant to him, he explained: "To live free, to end the present government, and see a new one elected from the people... We want respect."

The wind picked up, Maurice rubbed his eyes from the dust. The pages of a newspaper were lifted in the air, pushed into the side of tents, finding obstacle in the legs of chairs, and the voices of the protesters a few streets over intensified as the air carried their voices now ecstaticly cheering as Nasrallah in one of his few public appearances took the stage.

When asking another what he thought of the magnitude, he lifted his shoulders and said: "It is their time to speak. We have been quiet for 29 years, now it is time." He mentioned this after saying that the fighting throughout the war had nothing to do with the Lebanese and everything to do with Syria and Israel which wanted to keep the country divided.

Depending on who one speaks with, there is unquestionably a level of amnesia and trend of blaming the other. Regardless of whether anyone was right or wrong and/or 'righted' and wronged during the war, the problem is that surely everyone was right and wrong. And that is what is coming out of the voices of the people on the streets.

Many on both sides of Syrian equation agree and or at least make solid possibly justifialbe arguments for their stance. But what seems crucial is for the political heads to work quickly toward a finding a productive platform of exchange and discussion where the people can vent and voice their concerns. Speed is crucial however.

The realities of a pro-Syrian group of men letting off a volley of bullets in Achrafiye as an act of intimiadationon Saturday evening, the wounding of an 18 year shot in the back on Sunday, and the word of mouth stories of a container being seized at the port filled not with radios, but weapons allegedly bought by some Christians, and rumors of the Palestinians arming up are not promising signs.

Lebanon should give itself the chance to sort out its differences and lack of trust through reliable and transparent political means rather than letting itself hash out its differences, sorrows, guilt, pain and confusion felt by its citizens through the barrel of the gun.