Last weekend, I witnessed some of the sporadic street fighting that has been going on in Beirut for the last few weeks. The sound of automatic weapons has become uncomfortably routine on recent evenings as has the sight of tracer fire. But before describing my personal account of the the violence, a word on the Lebanese Army, which has been trying against all odds to keep the peace.
The convoy pictured above is one of half a dozen or so contingents deployed across downtown Beirut last week. Armored personnel carriers or APCs are not a new in the Lebanese capital, but the last few years have definitely seen a upsurge in their presence. Vintage as they may be, the 1960’s era vehicles (pictured third in line with barbed wire rings on front) are among the most valued assets of the Lebanese military, a technologically neglected force to say the least.
As tensions grow in Beirut, the APC is more frequently rolled out on intersections and street corners, often as a symbolic show of force in mixed Sunni and Shiite residential areas. But its effectiveness, and that of the much-deployed military as a whole, has been put to the test.
The army has been under attack since it quelled riots late last month that resulted in the fatal shooting of some 7 civilians. Despite a much-demanded investigation, which has called for the arrest of both officers and protesters, the military has been targeted by numerous grenade attacks. The army has also come under fire during small-scale clashes that have become a dangerously regular occurrence over the last two weeks. Last Friday a couple of friends and I were witness to one such eruption as we drove to through the city after dinner.
Violence across the street
Ever since I moved to Lebanon in the relatively peaceful 1990s, I wondered how easy it would be for people to start fighting again as they had in the previous two murderous decades. On Friday, I got a little closer to understanding.
I was pulling up to a major intersection, when I heard what sounded like a typical fistfight across the street near a posh nightclub called Casino. But instead of rowdy greased-up club goers, the combatants were young men pushing up against soldiers with riot shields. Suddenly as the shouting got louder, serious punches were thrown and the situation was obviously spiraling out of control. The crowd got bigger—about 10-15 young men wearing jeans—and the handful of shield- brandishing troops seemed to be on the verge of being pinned against the wall. On my right, on our side of the street, a small green army jeep (also vintage 1960’s style) was manned by an unarmed soldier, perhaps an officer. But as he stood watching the violence unfold, his shoulder suddenly fell back as it was pelted by a flying object. At that moment I realized rocks were being thrown and some soldiers appeared to be retreating to our side of the street. Meanwhile the officer type in the jeep began rummaging for something in the backseat, presumably a weapon. At this point, visualizing a rock crashing through my rear window, I swerved around the action and stepped on the gas. When reaching the other side of the intersection, a large one known as Bechara El Khoury, I noticed about a dozen other soldiers standing around in loose formation. This definitely wasn’t the cavalry and sure didn’t seem like ‘back-up’ either.
As I continued driving through the mixed neighborhood of Basta, I glimpsed yet another altercation on my left, eerily reminiscent of the previous. Soldiers were being forced back against a wall by angry young men. Then a checkpoint, the quintessential Lebanese security measure, appeared before us. I pulled in line behind a few other cars. On the dark, narrow streets to the right, a thin line of troops stretched deeper into the neighborhood. Their faces seem more anxious with every step.
When we pulled up to the checkpoint, a soldier quickly ran his flashlight over our laps, paying no attention to the backseat as he let us through. It seemed to be a search for weapons, or more specifically, to see if there were any lying in our laps. I drove on, but only two minutes later we were met by a second checkpoint. A few beat up cars had been pulled over this time, but we are quickly whisked through again.
Its important here to mention that I was accompanied by a female passenger, which usually means almost never getting stopped or questioned at checkpoints. Cars full of men, on the other hand, are almost always pulled over and searched. As we drove on, somewhat bewildered by the night’s events, I got a call from a relative watching the news. He said clashes had broken out across parts of the city. I know, I thought, recalling the worried looks on the soldiers faces and the seething hatred in the young men’s eyes.
With all the political crises Lebanon has undergone in recent years, the army has somehow survived, passing as the last symbol of national unity. That it has withstood this long seems remarkable, but provides less hope than its proponents so often suggest.