Thursday, May 15, 2008

Beirut Brief - May 15

BEIRUT Brief – MAY 15, 2008

CITY AND MOST RECENT EVENTS:
Calm seems to have returned to the city. More road blocks have been lifted and the highway to Damascus (the border crossing at Masnaa) and airport road have been open.

Last night the Minister of Information, explained that the government agreed to rescind the decision, which triggered last week’s violent conflict. After the statement was made around 11 pm, celebratory gunfire erupted throughout Beirut. Supporters of the opposition celebrated a major victory for the opposition.

POLITICS:
Opposition: Late this morning, the deputy secretary general of Hezbollah, made a televised conference seemed positive that the competing parties would be able to reach a political agreement. He said that the opposition would “return things” to normal once the political leaders of the government and opposition went into talks to negotiate a solution for a 17 month long political stand off.


March 14: The government is conceding to the opposition’s demands for the sake of “greater national interest”, explained begrudgingly the Information Minister. The recent events are a serious blow to the government and its political supporters. Humiliated, their speeches are still filled with anger. Statements resound dismay at the way Hezbollah and its supporters used violence and weapons to get its way.

ARAB LEAGUE:
Arab League Ministers arrived in Beirut to intervene, deescalate and ultimately halt the fighting, which have resulted in scores of dead (AP: 81). Fearful that the situation would spin out of control, the Arab league ministers provided a platform for the competing political factions to go into talks.

These could start as early as Monday and will be hosted by the Qatari government in Doha. Essentially, the Lebanese saga will be put on hold until a solution is reached in the Gulf next week.

TALKS:
The talks would cover the following points, which have been put on hold during the 17 month political stalemate:
* How to share power in the cabinet, ie. work out a new formula of sectarian based posts
* Details of a new parliamentary law which would give the opposition greater representation

AIRPORT:
Opposition has agreed to the open up the airport road, hence airport activity can resume.
As of this afternoon/today there will be only incoming flights, nothing outgoing.
Tomorrow, regular flight patterns are due to resume.

After the Storm

THIS IS A PIECE COMMISSIONED By MSNBC.com:

The piece which is slightly edited led to a pretty large response from the public.
I was interested in seeing what people were saying in the US. Makes me think that we need more news outlets to let people get a bigger picture of what is happening out here.

http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/05/09/1003826.aspx

By Irina Prentice

BEIRUT – By Friday afternoon, the street battles which have flared across Beirut over the last three days seemed to have abated somewhat, though sporadic gunfire could still be heard in different areas of the city.

During these tense 72 hours, mostly Shiite Hezbollah and Amal gunmen managed to seize nearly all of the Lebanese capital's Sunni Muslim sector from foes loyal to the U.S.-backed government. At least 11 people have been killed and more than 20 wounded in the armed conflict between the Iranian and Syrian backed Hezbollah fighters and gunmen loyal to the government.


SLIDESHOW: Fighting roils Beirut

Beirut, perched between the sparkling Mediterranean and a green mountain range, has been badly shaken by the violence – the worst sectarian clashes the country has seen since the 15-year civil war from 1975-1990. The skirmishes echo off the mountains, amplifying the sound of explosions as they occur.

Throughout Thursday night, heavy fighting took place, with machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and pistol shots making sleep almost impossible for most residents. Compounding the magnitude of the sound was a thunderstorm, which unexpectedly erupted in the same way the armed conflict had a few hours earlier.

"The thunderstorm… eerie timing" said Hanna Defuria, visiting her sister who just moved to Beirut two weeks ago. "It was hard to tell what was thunder and what were gunshots, but when the storm passed there were no gunshots."

Added Laura Defuria, Hanna’s sister: "Amazingly, I don’t feel unsafe. Maybe it is because I am new to the situation, but I feel like it is far away although it is very close."

The sisters are indeed close to the action – they are staying in an apartment on the same street where Saad Hariri, one of Lebanon’s top Sunni lawmakers, lives. Head of the Future Movement and deputy in the parliament, Hariri’s residence suffered damage from a rocket-propelled grenade, and the television station and newspaper affiliated with his political party were attacked and ransacked.

Waking up to pock-marked streets
The Beirut residents who actually managed to sleep during the night woke up to television images displaying empty streets patrolled by armed militiamen. Damage displayed on the news varied from pockmarked storefronts to shot-up cars parked in the street.

A U.S. citizen studying at the American University of Beirut said "that bullets whizzed by my place in the night." A little shook up, he commented on the relaxing atmosphere in mostly Christian East Beirut, which had remained mostly free of violence.

Meantime, Joe, a supporter of the Hezbollah opposition, expressed his pleasure at the turn of events. (Like most people I spoke to, he asked that his last name not be used because of the volatility of the situation.)

"Look, it is time that there is a change in the government," he said. "They have been robbing the country blind, and this is simply unacceptable." According to him, Hezbollah is only doing what is best for Lebanon, and will pull back once a change in the government takes place.

But supporters of the current government are fearful that a forceful change of guard of the government will lead to a Shiite takeover, and lead to an invitation for Syria’s return. "The situation is not good," said Anthony, a supporter of the current government led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. "Stay home today if you can."

Hunkering down
Not knowing what to expect, Beirutis in the Christian neighborhood of Achrafiye piled into a nearby supermarket to stock up on provisions for the next few days. Fresh produce shelves were emptied by mid-day and there were long lines at the checkout counter.

Gas stations also experienced increased activity. "Things are calm, but if they get bad again … I will take my family to the mountains," said one driver.

Although the atmosphere seemed to have calmed by Friday afternoon, most people seemed to be staying indoors and watching the situation carefully – walking in the quiet streets you can hear the sound of television reports drifting out of open windows.

"We are all on standby," said a man named Mustafa who, like many others, had been following the news all day.

For more information click here: Q & A: What's happening in Lebanon? NBC News' Richard Engel explains the issues behind the battles in Beirut

Irina Prentice is a freelance journalist in Beirut working with NBC News.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Beirut Brief - Ramping Up

Beirut- Morning Wrap

Yesterday afternoon the political fight came to a head, turning to armed conflict throughout key neighborhoods in Beirut. Loud explosions, automatic machine gun fire, rocket propelled grenade, and pistol shots resounded throughout the night.

The fight moved from a vicinity of half a kilometer from my house by Sodeco around 5pm, outwards throughout the city. In the middle of the night, the sound was drowned out by a thunder storm which unexpectedly set in as quickly as the fight which
broke out.

Although, the sky was clear in the day, and the temperature cool, the unusual storm caught many of the inhabitants off guard. The loud thunder drowned out the explosions, the downpour took over and things seem to quiet down until 5 this morning.

"Things were quiet in the neighborhood until about 5 and then it went off", explains an AUB student living in the neighborhood of Hamra.

A foreign journalist living in Hamra explained that clashes have been ongoing since this morning, and the streets have reportedly come under control of the members of the opposition forces Hezbollah and Amal militia despite ongoing exchange of gunfire being resounding throughout the neighborhood.

Television pictures this morning reveal and predominantly deserted Beirut. Shops are closed, no cars on the street. Damage so far: bullet holes in ars, shattered shop fronts, freshly pockmarked uildings, and some smoke out of Hariri's Moustaqbal
Newspaper headquarters.

Reports of dead are varying between 7 and 15, but a tally will probably be difficult to track unless the fighting factions announce the numbers.

The city yesterday was at 60% blocked, making moving between neighborhoods very difficult. The percentage today is rising although there are no firm numbers.
Moving between East and West Beirut has become even more difficult as announcement of the sea road being cut off by opposition Amal forces.

At 3pm yesterday, as I left my work day in the Serrail, the political advisor dropping me off to my house received a call in the car announcing the
opposition's plan to besiege the government seat in the Serrail. This morning, this unconfirmed rumor seems to be becoming a reality, as reports are saying
the Serrail is surrounding by opposition forces.
Unconfirmed reports are saying that the security forces of the Serrail have handed over their weapons, who knows.

On a wider scale, there are reports of fighting in the northern city of Tripoli as well as fighting in the Bekaa valley.

Although the fight which has broken out is predominantly political, it is difficult to separate the sectarian aspect of the conflict whereby so far the greatest clashes are occurring between Sunni and Shia groups. Despite the political wording in both
Nasrallah's and Hariri's, the undertone was such that if you are not with us you are against us, and so bring it on... The night clashes echoed the stances.

Also, something to track is the wider regional Arab response. Depending on today's local political positions and regional positions may help the picture
of what is to come.


WHAT LEAD TO THE PRESENT CRISIS:

In the beginning of the week, the Lebanese government removed the head of security from the airport, a government employee who was a supporter of the
opposition was sacked, and Hezbollah controlled surveillance cameras were removed from the airport. The impact of the decision has been explosive,
yesterday Nasrallah explained in his speech that the decision should be revoked and that anyone tampering with their surveillance system was essentially acting
for the benefit of Israel.

The Hariri well, I don't have it underhand, however it would seem that this morning's results mean that what televised offer he made, it was rejected.

SIDE LINE:

ONE NON-OFFICIAL REPORT Describing a TACTIC on the ground

A pro-opposition source called to explained that the tactic on the ground is to take control of key neighborhoods and news outlets of the various loyalist/ or pro-government factions. From here on, it is a matter of time before government seat will fall.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Uncertainty Prevails Despite Feb. 14 Calm

BEIRUT, Feb. 15, 08

As Far as Unknowns Go: Welcome to the Capital of Uncertainty

Life as usual bustles on this sunny and cool Friday, but do not be duped nothing here is really normal other than uncertainty.

"We don't know where the country is going. We want to tell them to stop, but we don't want the Syrian regime here", explain Marie-Louise and Salim, two university students standing under a balcony in a vain attempt to stay dry from the driving rain.

The street on which they stood was filled with traffic of people walking in groups to and from Martyr Square in downtown Beirut, a place symbolic for hosting political contestation.

The crowd was varied, Muslim, Christian, veiled, bare headed, expensively dressed, poor, in from the country side, other from the city, families, single young men, women under umbrellas, youths carrying party flags, other wearing the flags on their heads for protection, baby strollers adorned by the Lebanese flag.

Movement around the square was cramped as security barriers, armed soldiers and armoured vehicles controlled the flow of people heading to the square to watch members of the governing coalition reaffirm
their stances on the day commemorating the assassination of Rafic Hariri killed in an explosion three years back.

The assassination of the former Prime Minister marked of the political struggle the Lebanese are faced with today. The unfolding Lebanese political saga has led today to a split in the country, which reflects the
greater regional political confrontations.

The stormy downpour, and increased armed security did not dissuade supporters of the governing coalition to march in the streets determined to fight for a sovereign Lebanon. The amount of people from all walks of life was reminiscent of the spring of 2005, when
the country came together in various protest movements.

"We will not be scared from anyone until the end", explains 20 year-old Salim, a student at the American University of Beirut. "We are here to prove that Michel Aoun does not have authority. We are here for
our Martyr's that have died since the 90's", Salim continues.

In the context of his statement, although the February 14 has become a national day to commemorate the death of Rafic Hariri, Salim's words are as politically divisive as is the current state of the country.

For some, the former Christian General Michel Aoun a leading member of the opposition siding with Hezbollah is blamed to splitting the Christian community between both anti-and pro-Syrian party supporters.

With Aoun siding with the opposition supported by Syria and Iran, his main Christian support finds itself at odds with the present governing coalition backed mostly by the West and Saudi Arabia.

Aoun, however, is not the only leader to have divided a sectarian community. It seems that the division cuts across of the sectarian communities, from the Druze, the Sunni, and the Shia.

The political battles are not based on religious ideology and differentiation rather the larger underlying theme seems to be competition for power. On a local level, it reflects unfinished business from the Civil War years, on the international front, it reflects the confrontations between the US, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In Lebanon, international tensions directly impact the local level because political group finds economic and ideological support from external powers. Thus local political victories and losses reflect symbolic ones of international communities.

"The solution has to come from outside. It is out of our hands and our leaders, all of them are marionnettes (puppets)," explains the elderly and elegantly clad property agent sitting in his '60s designed office space in East Beirut.

"There is nothing for us to do, but to have patience and wait for a greater solution to take place outside. The United States and Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia all have to talk and come to some sort of agreements" says the realtor.

"Once they can make a decision, then it will only take Lebanon 24 hours to decide on a government and move on. But until then, we only have patience to work with", continues the tired agent who takes another puff from his local brand Cedar cigarette.

Although February 14 went unexpectedly calmly, the show of force on the streets reflected the intensity of the division in the country.

As supporters of the coalition government grouped together in the tens of thousands downtown, simultaneously in the southern suburbs of Beirut, tens of thousands followers in the opposition commemorated
the death of one Hezbollah military wing commanders assassinated in Damascus on the night of February 13.

Imad Mughniye, long time fugitive and number one on America's most wanted list until Ossama Bin Laden took the lead, found his death to yet another unknown hand.

Accused of being involved in a series of deadly plots leading killing American and French servicemen during the 80s, and Argentine Jews in Buenos Aires in the 90s, his list of ills extends, adding kidnappings to
his resume. Reportedly, his death is a serious blow to Hezbollah, having just lost a key player in their “military” activities.

Additionally, with silence and mystery surrounding each assassination, perfect conspiracy theories and so-called justified fingerpointing will add fuel to the fire. In search for a culprit, each looks outside
and draws conclusions based on international reaction.

In the case of Mughniye’s death, the United States celebrated the event as a victory in its war on terror. Iran on the other hand decried the event as an act of terror.

Hassan Nasrallah leader of Hezbollah and friend of Mughniye called for revenge yesterday in his eulogy of the party member addressing himself to Israel. Whoever the culprit, the silent hand of murder will
only be used legitimately or not as another scapegoat further decreasing chances for peace with Israel in the region.

"This country was the best in the region", recalls the realtor this morning. "Between 1963 and 1970, you should have seen it, you couldn't find a room in any hotel be it summer or winter. There were people in the streets after midnight, restaurants and cafes were
full', he continues.

“But with the war, they destroyed everything. My textile business evaporated. Everything went with the wind, ” contemplates with a glazed gaze our realtor.

His business destroyed, his savings gone because of the rapid rises of inflation during the civil war, our realtor's story is a foreshadowing of what may be to come if the country becomes engulfed in war. The
livelihood of many will go with the wind.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mud Sligging and Political Tensions Escalate

It has been raining and hailing in Beirut for the past two days. The temperature is cold and this storm appears to be one of the coldest felt in the past couple of years. Ironically, the timing of the chill illustrates the starkness of the political situation. The country is at a standstill, and the impact of the coalition and opposition's face off is taking a fatal turn in the streets.

If last Sunday's protest was not a pretty serious expression of the political stalemates and bickering, than today's news, in the French language paper, L'Orient, describing 13 to 15 year old youths attempts to close off one of the main arteries between East and West Beirut last night with burning tires, is a rather depressing escalation. Why are teenagers allowed out of their houses at night during this current situation? Why is there no curfew being set in order to keep civilians away from escalation and danger?

Last Sunday's death toll, 9. The numbers for the wounded hover in the 30s. Finger pointing and accusations are rife. News reports: "Why are people dancing along the edge of the precipous?". It is a good question indeed. If the calls for retaliation which have been going out since Sunday evening are heeded, than regardless of the groups involved or responsible for igniting the deadly clashes, the whole of Lebanon will be implicated.

As the country functions in a system of political alliances, factions composing the various teams will be called on to support whichever side comes under attack first. It feels like a waiting game, with the patrons getting ready for a showdown.

As Samer rolls up his pant legs to show off his shrapnel wounds he explains: "There were about 15 guys who came down the street. Some were huntched behind a dumpster which they rolled down the street as protection. When they got close enough, they lobbed their bomb at us. Out the seven of us sitting on the street corner, 5 of us ended up in the hospital".

Atif, Samer's father sitting on one of the couches of his living room hisses between his teeth. He interjects raising his voice saying he had told his son to stay inside. There is only so much Atif can do though: Samer is probably in his mid-thirties.

It was around midnight that the explosion occured. Atif in a panick ran downstairs to retrieve his son. By the time he had found Samer, Samer was running as best he could down the street. The back of his left ankle and right knee were injured by shrapnel.

At the hospital, Le Mont Liban, by the time Samer was being treated, the youngest of the Gemayel sons appeared on the scene to speak with the injured. The Gemayel family founded the Lebanese Forces, known locally as Kata'ib. An ultra nationalist Christian group, who lost one of its youngest leaders and MPs, Pierre Gemayel, assassinated in December of 2006 at the age of 34.

If anything Pierre Gemayel's brother's visit to the hospital late on Sunday night was a courtesy call, but the symbolic way of paying respects is also a symbolic reaffirmation of patronage and protection.

The Lebanese client/patron relationship lives on, and is clearly taking the upper-hand during a time when the Lebanese government is at its weakest since the Civil War of 1975.

By Monday morning, tension was obvious on the street. Although the Lebanese shop keepers had speedily replaced broken windows, and cleaned up the debris caused by rocks which had been lobbed between opposing factions, the road surface was scared by the heat of the burning tires. Military armed presence was heavy, as was a strong Syrian presence leaning and crouching along the walls along the opposite side of the street. They are day workers supposedly, hanging about for some boss to pick them up. But these seem to also dabble in protesting explains Atif.

By Wednesday, the national papers are filled with defensive statements by various groups involved in the violence which broke out during the protests. The only group which seems for a first time to have been executing the dirty work of the coalition is keeping its mouth shut. It has no other option at this point, if the only multi-confessional institution wants to keep itself from splitting apart.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Reflecting on Recent Outbreak of Violence

The recent outbreaks of violence reflect a large part of unresolved issues left over from the civil war.

The points of contentions and the political posturing reveal tensions which are completely Lebanese and not foreign. One supporter of Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement referred to unresolved issues from the civil war to reinforce his description of deficiencies among various pro-government factions.

Based on his line of argument, Lebanon's decision to avoid national reconciliation talks after the civil war appears to have been a mistake.

However, as of today, it looks like there will be a lull period of two weeks, during which political heads will meet and attempt compromise.

Yet, one should not hold one's breath.

After listening to Rice's remarks at the Paris III conference, it seem the US will only back Siniora's government. The US does not seem keen in reaching compromise with the opposition which could empower the Hezbollah. As Rice explained she thought Siniora would best promote American ideals.

Because of this position, it would seem difficult for pro-government and anti-government forces to reach compromise. The inability to reach compromise on a political level could take a negative turn, as tensions are high and need an outlet to release pressure.

On the street level, things are very tense. Tuesday and Thursday's protests spiralled into the type of violence leaders could not contain.

On Thursday, a mudslinging match between two student at the Beirut Arab Universtiy flared up. "Reinforcements" from different political factions were called in. To stop the escalated situation which turned violent, phone lines were cut on Thursday.

But the protective measure occured too late as "reinforcements" arrived outside the university, armed with sticks, knives for the most part.

However photographs in the local papers the next day revealed that civilians were carrying handguns and semi-automatic machine guns.

As the army shot in the air to keep protesters apart, nerdowells took advantage of the noise to shoot off their weapons.

Local press reported that snipers on roof tops were spotted.

After six hours of strife, things began to calm on their own as the evening set in.

As things cooled, most of Beiurt was in shock. By then Hariri and Nasrallah appealed for calm via phone calls aired on the competing TV channels. A curfew was set in place.

During Thursday's violence which broke out at the university, youths in different parts of the city set up unofficial road blocks asking all drivers for ID papers.

One driver I spoke to the following day was livid. He felt that his religion was being targeted. He explained that when he was asked for his papers, he told the youth he was Lebanese like the youth. By the time he described what had happened he seemed irate, excitedly exclaiming: "We are all Lebanese!"

Unofficial road blocks in general are both provocative and oppressive for those who have lived through the civil war.

The taxi driver who lived through the civil war ws furious that boys who do not remember the civil war would do such a thing.

A second source of frustration to most people on the street, is that the army and police simply can not stop these road blocks from happening.

The army is not equiped to deal with civil disobedience. It neither has rubber bullets, nor water cannons. If they were to use the equipment they had on the streets, it would lead to massive blood shed.

And where there is less army such as outside Beirut, squirmishes have taken place as well. But this time, some have been between competing factions within the Christian community.

The question in front of us, is not only a rivalry between sunnis and shias, but the tensions are also between pro and anti-government movements.

Anti-government movements want a greater share of political representation such as Hezbollah and the popularly led Free Patriotic Movement by Aoun. However, their agenda and approach threatens the status quo.

And in the meantime, a source at the Hariri backed Moustaqbal Youth movement (pro-government) alluded to fueling tensions so as to get international attention. The source explained "we want to media to say Hezbollah led protest" because we want the world to focus on Hezbollah.

So as usual the situation is complicated, and no one is innocent. But civilians who want peace feel threatened.

Because of the recent squirmishes, people in the neighborhood of Tariq Jadideh (pro-government/ Moustaqbal supporter) are complaining about not having weapons, and accusing Hariri of abandoning them by not arming them.

When asked how does a gun help the piece, the answer always points to the need for protection from all of those who do have guns.

When asked why not rely on the army? The answer is what army? How could they stop anyone, they are also members of the society.

Based on the recent events, the general feeling is that the government need to work hard for the next two weeks to decide on compromise which could help de-escalate the crisis and deflect the tension.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Beirut Protests Turn Violent

January 23, 2007 - Beirut

15:48 - Volleys of gunfire went off downstairs. Men scrambled in the street yelling. The Lebanese army worked hard at holding back rival factions from attacking each other. Soldiers ran back and forth forming cordons in attempt to secure the streets and separate the riotous men.

A bullet, then the discharge of a magazine, a second discharge, a single bang, and more gunshots: rioters were not dissuaded from throwing rocks during the gun battle.

From the terrace, looking down eight floors to the street, a man was carried by a group of men, wounded. He was lifted into a SUV, which sped off.

News sources reported different numbers. One source says 100 men were wounded. The Lebanese paper, An Nahar, published 38 wounded of which 25 caused by bullets. As of this evening, today’s events have claimed three lives.

My apartment abuts Hariri's Moustaqbal TV, and is up two buildings from the headquarters of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, and two blocks away from the Corniche which was then filled with pro-Hezbollah and Amal supporters brought up in mini-vans from the south.

On my street corner was the confluence of 3 factions Future Movement (pro-government), Hezbollah/Amal (anti-government), and pro-Syrian nationalist (anti-government), a Sunni/Shia mix. It has been place of tension since early this morning.

I was woken up to men yelling in an altercation. Young Lebanese men were setting garbage on fire in tipped over dumpsters, and lighting tires strewn across the width of the street. Arguments ensued broke out as the army moved in to clear the streets and scatter the men.

The fighting prompted me to go out on a morning walk though the city.

My first stop: the supermarket next door to pick up a phone recharge card. Most of the employees had not made it to work.

Zubaida, a cashier, however was triumphant. "I made it through, it took an hour to come to work. We pushed our way through a road block."

The store manager however was more downcast.

"Do you think half of the staff will make it?" I asked.

She puckered her lips and nodded downwards lowering her eyes. The movement of her head is the Lebanese "no". "I don't think so", she added quietly.

The night before, the opposition forces called for a general strike enforced by blocking the roads to keep people from going to work. The strike was aimed to step up pressure on Prime Minister Siniora to resign. In turn, a resignation, would lead to an interim PM to appoint a new cabinet, hence pro-Syrian government.

Leaving the supermarket, John who accompanied me and I headed out toward the Corniche. We walked toward the towers of black smoke rising from behind the buildings.

Hanging just below Beirut’s skyline was a black film of pollution. The air smelled like burning trash and rubber.

Along the Corniche, by the Pigeon Rocks, men in makeshift dark outfits wore short beards, wollen caps, and cheap shoes. They stood in bands along the street.

There was no traffic. Mini-vans, which had brought the opposition supporters from the countryside, were double-parked in the road. More tires had been set on fire. The army stood by vigilant.

Three lads about sixteen explained that had arrived around 630am. They had come up from Nabatiye, a stronghold of Nabil Berri's Amal and Hezbollah.

"What were they here for?" I asked.

"For Siniora to go out", they answered smiling.

"And then what?" I continued. The boys paused, they did not know.

Coming up to another few men seated on the sidewalk, I asked one man where he came from this morning. "We are all Lebanese", he responded.

"Ok, but where from?" He started up again: "You are from America, we are Lebanese".

I told him I was from France, and Paris to be precise, and asked again, "Where was he from? " He went quiet, not knowing what to answer.

By this time a Hezbollah security guard approached telling everyone to stop speaking to me. The group, which grew in size became more tense. “No more talking” repeated the security guard, and these men seemed to have nothing to say.

The clothes and symbols we wear, the accents we have, our skin color are the inhibiting factors, which led to misunderstanding and silence.

Had I worn something different, would have they told me they were miserable about the unfinished construction; the bribes paid to Berri for ”security”; the laws which complicated reconstruction on illegal plots; the still sporatic electricity; the defunct roads and high unemployment? But rather defiant in their groups they had nothing to say.

Peeling away from the coast, Hamra was quiet. Most shops were closed. There was little movement except for the occasional tough looking motorcycle or scooter driving by. Stains of burned tires marked the street, but there was no more sign of protest.

The only neighborhood devoid of protesters pointed to Hamra’s effective overseer. Left over from civil war days, the monthly "protection" tax paid to the Mafiosi styled boss was obviously a dollar well spent.

Yet Hamra’s calm was misleading. By the time we crossed over to downtown, the tunnel to the airport road was filled with smoke. Youths with covered faced, walking across the littered highway, poked smoldering piles with metal bars.

By Sodoco, a yellow bulldozer pushed dirt across the street building a waist high blockade. Blockades were taking place all across the city, including in other regions of Lebanon.

Sitting on the sidewalk next to young men some of which were masked, the conversation began. "What are you doing here?" they asked.

I am looking at the beige of the dirt, and the black of the smoke. Behind this there is a tall unfinished new building which is beige and black, and behind it is the black poke marks in the beige sandstone war memorial.

"What are you doing here? I asked them.

"What do you think of the country?" they answered.

I think the country is beautiful, "What do you think of the country?" I retorted. “What do think of all this smoke?”

“We want to be given a chance, we want a new government who can give us a second chance”, explained Hussein.

Abdellah Khalaf standing next to Hussein: “We want real independence. Independence against the present government, which talks about unity, but maintains sectarianism at the root of its survival. It divides us. And they are thieves. At the end of the day we want equality between all the sects within the same country, and we want work.”

But the economy is bad and the Lebanese who can afford it are leaving in droves.

The men nodded, Hassan answered: “But they have to come back, we want them to come back. A new government will instill a new economic program which will be good for work.”

Another problem is "I am from the south”, said Hassan, “and the government did not help us this summer in our fight against Israel”.

Another youth joined in: “Now this war is over the government. We only get 2 hours of electricity a day in Dahiye where I live. I feel the government has abandoned us”.

Up at place Sassine in the heart of the Maronite neighborhood of Ashrafiye, Emile Moukarzel, a supporter of the extreme right Christian political group, the Lebanese Forces (pro-government) responds to the statements: “We don’t trust their politics.”

Sittting at Starbucks’ sunlit terrace, Emile wore black aviators and a midnight blue corduroy suit, over a black turtleneck. He explained: “Why do you think Electricity du Liban don’t to collect the electricity bill in Hezbollah neighborhoods. People there haven’t paid for electricity since the end of the civil war, why? It is because they have weapons. They say their weapons are for the outside, but they are for inside.”

“You see, us Maronites, we are Christians and we are Lebanese, we lean to the west. The Hezbollah, they are Muslims, they are Arabs loyal to the East. That is the difference between our national unity and theirs”, continued Emile.

Loudspeakers attached to the top of a white car drove by blaring out a military sounding song. Some people at the terrace stirred. “That is for the Lebanese Forces, it says that we are not scared” Emile said with pride.

“You know, in terms of demographics, we the Christians are smaller than the shias. They have more numbers, but in Lebanon is not based on politics of numbers, politics of pluralism”, emphasized Emile. “To solve this, Lebanon should be split into a federation”.

“But what happens with the split Christian community?” I asked.

The man sitting to my left spoke up: “Aoun is a megalomaniac who has his eye only for the presidential seat. Hezbollah is using him as a Christian cover to get more power in politics. The other problem is that Aoun and Hezbollah want to break the status quo but that is not possible”.

“You see Aoun has switched camps too many times, he was with America, France, and then he turned to for support for Syria and Lebanon. He made deals with president Lahoud, which increased the split along the Christians. No, really the man is a phenomena, he can’t be trusted”.

As we spoke, mobile phones beeped around the terrace announcing text messages. Skirmishes in the popular neighborhood of Corniche Mazraah had broken out between Hezbollah and the Sunnite dominated Hariri party. The army sandwiched between the rival groups was having trouble calming the tensions. Gunshots were reported.

The army was heavily deployed in Corniche Al Mazraah. Most of the crowd had dissipated, by the time we reached the area, however there was still a group of 80 young men, sticks in hand taunting the army. Along the street by the armoured vehicles, hundreds of shell casings littered the ground.

This was one of many flare-ups of violence, which had broken out throughout the country.

A taxi drove up: “Where are you going?” the old taxi driver asked. “Raouche” we answered. “That will be tough, the roads are closed. Where else do you want to go?”

Dropped off near the house, we walked a little more along the Corniche, completing a loop from this morning.

Bored youths were busy hitting street signs with their sticks. Others sat by looking blank. A block away from home, a crowd had amassed in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken, rhythmically thumping the exterior fa├žade of the fast food restaurant.

As we made our way to the apartment, the streets leading to it were filled with crowds of chanting men and soldiers keeping the groups separate. But as groups filtered through different entrances, rioters rushed throwing stones. Within minutes the gunfire had broken out.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Back to Lebanon

Beirut - October 25, 2006

It is Wednesday, the day after the two day holiday, Eid al Fitr which ended the month long fast of Ramadan for the Sunnis. Over the eid holiday, which as important as Christmas or Easter for Christians, I went north with friends to the mountain town of Bcharathe found at the foot of the tallest mountain in Lebanon which rises over 9000 feet.

There is still no snow up top, yet fall is here. The leaves of the fruit trees are turning yellow. The smell of the damp soil of the terrace gardens is carried in the chill ascending wind flowing up the valley in cloud mist moving upward toward the
descending clouds coming over the peaks and down. By four in the afternoon, the moutains disappear in the fog and cloud.

The Palace Hotel, a place run by Edmundo, a Lebanese of Bcharra who returned after 30 years spent working in Venezuela to build his dream hotel for fruitfull times to be reaped in a stable Lebanon is empty.

The heat is not on, and will not be on. "It isn't cold" he says, yet after listening to our pleas, he explains he can't afford to turn on the heat at this point. It is expensive and this summer's war broke the bank. Not only the country's, but also each
individual's.

Most people I have spoken to in their twenties and thirties have plans to leave. From cab drivers, university students, young entrepreneurs having recently come back, NGO workers, young families, businessmen, professors, engineers, teachers, PR
workers, all that I have spoken to have applied for jobs outside.

This past summer's war seems to have dissipated whatever was left of the hope the Lebanese felt in 2005. Hope has been replaced with suspicion.

Rumours have been hard at work again, speedily transfering news from one street to another. Apparently, Nasrallah broke his pledge to Saad Hariri: he said that he would not attack until October once the tourist season was over.

"The attack was meant for October" explained a young fiefighter still in disbelief from the summer war, who on his time off sold mobile phones. "This wasn't supposed to happen this summer."

At first, the firefighter's comment is off-putting. Once again, my brain goes into over-drive trying to make sense of what I am hearing. Am I privy to a conspiracy? Is this a rumor which has taken on real life dimensions? It is hard to tell.

Yet, looking at the rumour and firefighter statement closely, a few things are revealed: the Sunni, Shia trust has suffered from the Hezbollah leader breaking his word to the Sunni Hariri...

It is also telling of two other aspects found in Lebanese discourse: 'Yes we support you against Israel as fellow Muslims or Lebanese, but if your attacks happen during the high tourist summer season then you are targetting us and betraying us by hurting our interests'.

Betrayal leads to fragmentation; infighting takes place; Lebanon is vulnerable; weak and fragmented is it a matter of time before the Syria "stabilizing" force comes back on the scene? If so, the next question is can the cylce be broken? Can Lebanon
overcome its difference enough to reach sovereignty?

It is hard to know because so much of what keeps the country split apart is deep seated in the psyche of the individuals that live in this country: fear of the other. It is hard trust anyone beyond your family and your family ties to your community, especially after experienced 15 years of civil war.

One feels the lack of trust when walking around Bchara. Three foreigners walking in the street of the village and those down the road get scrutinized.

Old ladies sitting outside on their upstair balconies stare down at us without smiling. You guess that questions like: "Who are these people?", "What are they doing here?", "What do they want?" and flash through the villagers mind.

The ruggedness of the landscape and harshness of the winter climate appears in the mannerisms of the inhabitants. But maybe so does the memory that 31 years ago, about 40 kilometers west, down the mountain side toward the coast Maronites and Sunnis participated in genocidal behavior.

And the village sandwiched between the high peaks and the deep Kadisha valley below - an expectional mountain canyons with precipitious waterfalls, and monastaries and ermitages built in cliff walls- sits on the watch from the invaders, protected by the extraodinary and somewhat impenetrable landscape.

The demeanor of Bchara in the region of the Cedars embodies suspicion at times extremely felt between Lebanese communities which have been connected to the land for over 600 to 700 years.

The aloofness and fortresslike aspect of the area is what makes me go back. It is foreign to me, which is why I am drawn to the place, but it is also an essential reflection of one apsect of the Lebanese Maronite community.

Unable to secede from Lebanon, this isolationist faction within the Maronite community, cannot escape the impact of actions taken by other Lebanese communities such as Edmundo who suffers the loss of revenues at the hand of the Hezbollah fighting the Israelis this summer.

But it isn't only Edmundo, it is the Sunni firefighter who thought war might have occured after the summer. These two, beyond confessional differences find themselves in the same boat; these two are paying the price for the individualism which undermines a national Lebanon.