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photography

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“Listen you f**ks,” the man wearing military style pants and boots yelled at dozens of young male and female activists gathered in front of the environment ministry for anti-corruption protests last Wednesday (Sept. 16). He was advancing fast toward the crowd of #youstink activists, as a few police standing around looked on. “Anyone of you curses (Parliament speaker) Berri again and we will come down on you!”

“You are filming!? Stop filming you punk,” another of the men roared toward the end of the clip below, his eyes overcome with rage as he thrust his finger toward a cameraman.

Watch the video here:

Moments later chairs and tables began flying toward the crowd, as the men ruthlessly punched and kicked everyone in sight. Women are screaming, one falls to the ground. Others begin running and ducking. “They called us animals and whores,” one young woman complains, as she runs for cover.

Then projectiles began raining down. At first they were small rocks and bottles but then large pieces of concrete came twirling through the sky, launched indiscriminately at the crowd of peaceful protestors, many of them already on hunger strike.

See the video here:

Here are some stills from the video. At first people didn’t even realize what was happening:

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Then the concrete blocks started landing. One collided with the asphalt just a few feet away from where I was shooting:

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And just a few inches from a man’s leg and head:

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After several incoming volleys, one of the young boy protestors throws a couple of bottles and smaller rocks back. Amid the chaos, other protestors confront him, accusing him of being “one of them”.  But even as the young men argue, the blocks come raining down:

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And everyone runs for cover:

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The irony here is that during this wanton violence, dozens of heavily armored riot police were just standing only a few feet away at the entrance of the environment ministry, armed with shields and sticks . At about 1:30, I pan briefly in their direction. And other videos have emerged of the people literally begging the riot police to intervene. Yet only a handful of regular officers are begrudgingly sent over.

Even when a few police do arrive, they seem to do nothing to stop one of the violent men who continues to throw pieces of concrete at the men and women protestors:

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The officers are literally standing next to the man in black as he winds up to throw more rocks:

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So who were these men, ready to destroy dozens of people they did not even know? There was about 10 or 15 of them. They were largely middle-aged, clean shaven, button shirts and shiny sneakers. These were not the so-called “infiltrators” the young unruly protestors who broke glass and lit fires downtown, those claimed to be conspirators by many in the ruling class, eager to cast doubt on the movement. Many of those kids were understandably frustrated after police beatings and shootings of previous days and directed their anger toward the security forces, not the fellow protestors. They came from the slums, wearing ratty or cheap clothes and barely in their teens–none that I saw seemed to be over 20. On the other hand, those who attacked the protestors well groomed and dressed and appeared to be in their 30s and 40s if not older.

Amal movement, the party headed by Parliament Speaker Berri, has denied any involvement in the day’s events. Interestingly the television channel that supports the movement–NBN TV–did not cover any of the violence directly in its newscast, merely summarizing that clashes were sparked by the cursing and defamation of Mr. Berri. This is because minutes before the men came to attack the protestors, one of the activists had told a reporter with NBN that its patron would be the next target of the call for resignations. (The activists have already called for the resignations of the interior and environmental ministers for police brutality and failure to prevent the garbage crisis.)

Thus in NBN’s subsequent newscast, this clip is played repeatedly, followed by cherry-picked moments of confrontation between activists and police. No actual cursing of Speaker Berri is played–only a call for his resignation.

As the images run on screen,  the scripts read by reporters and anchors demonize the protestors as uncouth, uncivilized and immoral trouble-makers. The visibly angry NBN anchor then takes aim at Al Jadeed TV, (one of the few channels that has taken the side of the activists) and basically calls it a propaganda machine churning out hatred and sectarianism headed by a shady businessman. It’s no wonder considering some activists interviewed by the channel have been freely attacking senior Lebanese politicians, including Speaker Berri, over the state of corruption and chaos in the country.

But there is no footage of the fist fights and rock throwing of these men. “The police intervened and restored the situation to normal,” the NBN anchor reads nonchalantly from the teleprompter, no mention of the launching of projectiles that could have easily sent many to the hospital or worse.

Yet in reality,  as noted earlier, the riot police waited several minutes before intervening. Even though there were dozens of riot police in full gear standing only a few meters away, they barely budge as civilians are being beaten and targeted by concrete blocks being thrown by the mysterious men.

It was only after much of the damage has been done, the tents used by hunger-strikers destroyed, people beaten and rocks thrown savagely at the crowd that the riot police finally deploy, as seen in this video:

The police even made a couple of arrests. Here is one of them:

Many began to ask: why did they police wait around so long? Earlier in the day, police did not hesitate to rough up protestors and arrest some 40, many activist organizers with no justification. Most were released a few hours later. One, activist Aly Sleem, told me police had shoved him in a van, pushed his face into the floor and began threatening him with military prison or being sent to Syria. They drove him around in circles for two hours, claiming he had received foreign funding and had attacked police, both of which had no basis.

Here is my interview with Aly, shortly after he was released later on the same evening:

Were the men who attacked the activists also abducted, driven around and threatened by police or did they get off easier?

The story doesn’t end there. Four days later on Sept. 20, a group of some of the same men once again violently assaulted the protestors.

It all began when one of the activists held a banner denouncing corruption with the faces of some of the most powerful politicians. These included Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri. Beside this, the activist– middle-aged man wearing a bright vest–also held a picture of Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and the late Imam Mousa Sadr, dubbing the two as “symbols of respectability.”

Within minutes of raising the banner, two men run up to the activist. One says “Don’t you ever raise Nasrallah’s photo!” Ironically the activist was praising Nasrallah in comparison to other politicians. And yet he was hauled away as other partisan men began to fight those protestors who tried to intervene.

I ended this clip when one of the violent men wearing a black shirt and black hat is seen roaring wildly at those around him, sending many running. He then spots myself and a few other cameraman and begins lunging toward us. I put my phone down and then watched him walk passed me and punch, throw against a wall and then kick and beat two cameramen to the ground.

Suffice to say, there was very little filming after that, but thanks to the drone footage by Al Jadeed, we can see the rest of the fight continued in the clip below. Eventually the activist is dragged by his neck, his clothes ripped off and then beaten repeatedly by hand; then beaten repeatedly over the head with the megaphone he was holding.

After the activist is beaten, he is seen walking away from what appears to be a cordon of men who were keeping police out. The drone camera then follows the now bear-chested activist as he walks toward a few police officers to explain what happened. One officer waives him off as if telling him to get lost. (Literally adding insult to injury, the protestor is now being sued by Speaker Berri for defamation over his banner)

Later in the video above, we can see the violent men fall into a march formation, their numbers grow to about 30 as some join from the crowd. I notice several familiar faces from the previous attack at the environment ministry, including the man who kept throwing rocks at protestors despite the police presence. I watched as the men would stand around separately as if they didn’t know each other, circulate and then eventually join up together.  Once again, the riot police stand idly as the men pass defiantly in front of them.

They then began marching aggressively through the crowd, roughing up protestors and chanting loudly: “Berri comes after God” and “the revolution can have my dick.”

Thus the vulgar language, the rage in their eyes, and the willingness to commit fatal acts of violence seemed to be very similar tactics.  The men appeared to be part of a group, trained in how to operate discreetly in a crowd: fall into formation in a moment’s notice and then disperse back again and melt into anonymity.  There appear to be clear roles and objectives as only a few of the men engage in acts of violence while others weave through the crowd or stand close to the action without getting directly involved, seemingly to provide back up. There is often what appears to be a ring leader in his 40s/50s keeping the men in line, seen at the end of the Al Jadeed drone clip. Are we to believe these men gathered spontaneously? That they are a random sample of friends or neighbors?

And what about NBN TV and Amal’s version of events where no violence happens and the party has nothing do with the men attacking protestors?

Local broadcaster Al Jadeed did some investigating. It turns out two of the most violent characters on both days are indeed very close if not members of the party, according to this report:

Yet why are only two men investigated? What about the many others who were throwing punches or rocks at the crowd?

And what about the role of the police? Were they genuinely intimidated by these mystery men? How could the police take on thousands of peaceful protestors, arresting, tear-gassing and assualting dozens over recent weeks, and yet barely lift a finger to stop less than 10 or 20 men? Many were left wondering: which side are the police on?

Once again, who are these men? If Amal denies they are members, why are they so angry that someone cursed their leader or even simply called for his resignation? Could the men simply be average citizens who admire Speaker Berri? Then again, how many average men just sitting at home would feel they need to walk to a protest and physically harm as many people possible, with no ulterior incentive?

All this raises important questions about the future of the #youstink protest movement in Lebanon, which has undertaken several unprecedented acts of civil disobedience over recent weeks. But can leaders of political parties be questioned without retribution in violence? How many groups of men sitting at home today are willing to harm or even kill anyone who insults or even questions their leader?  How will the protest movement deal with these individuals? What motivates their rage? Are they victims of the civil war themselves, suffering perhaps from PTSD? How can one reconcile with the reality that so many in Lebanon are still dealing with the war and or employed by its post-war political apparatus? What strategies of resistance to the state can activists take in Lebanon without inviting violence from party loyalists?

Finally, will such violence and indiscriminate arrests by police dampen the protest movement? Or will more people be even more motivated to stand up for their right to speak out?

After the police arrests and beatings by party loyalists on September 20th, later that evening thousands of non-violent activists still showed up. They defiantly filled the streets leading to parliament. They did not resort to violence, they simply sat on the floor and raised their hands until riot police finally relented.

 

“From this point on, every square is owned by the people,” shouted activist Assaad Thebian over a megaphone, surrounded by a sea of protestors.

“Today is a historic day, ” he added. “Today we have a future and we have hope. Today we announce a new political party, the party of the Lebanese people!”

The crowd roared. Then later sang patriotic songs and danced together. The feeling was electric that night. Now more than a week later, many will be watching what the movement does next and how it will cope with those violent individuals who do not want to see it succeed.

6

“I don’t mind sitting here,” I told the Hezbollah guard who kept watch over us in a run-down prefabricated portable office. “But I haven’t eaten all day and I’m hungry,” I added, not knowing it was already 10PM.

“Tell me, what do you want to eat,” he asked.

“What are you going to eat,” my friend replied, trying to inject some normalcy to the tense silence after our interrogation. “We’ll have whatever you are having.”

“Just tell me what do you feel like having,” the Hezbollah guard insisted.

“How about shawarma,” I said, thinking of the famous south Beirut shawarma spot we were driving toward before getting pulled over and brought to this shack in an abandoned parking lot.

“Beef or chicken,” the Hezbollah guard asked without blinking.

We had been detained for nearly three hours and my hunger only added to the unease of not knowing what would happen to us next, if the guards were being honest or playing mind tricks on us or how panicked our parents and friends would be if they knew where we were. Our cell phones and IDs had been confiscated and all I could do was stare at the rusted bolt of the metal door that the guard kept shut as he watched us in silence–his black baseball cap turned low over his eyes.

***

It all started early Friday evening after we had left Karout Grand Stores, a kind of Home Depot in South Beirut  that sells everything from power tools to lawn chairs. We bought a tent for cheap for our camping trip to Nahr Ibrahim (Abraham’s River). But we couldn’t leave without having one of the best shawermas in the city at Harkous Chicken. It proved to be a fateful last stop.

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The last photo I took in South Beirut at  Karout Grand Stores before being detained by Hezbollah.

Often referred to as a “Hezbollah stronghold” in the Western media, south Beirut is really just a regular densely populated working class neighborhood where the party is popular. One difference is a large number of checkpoints and draw bridges that have been installed at intersections following the raft of car bombings that happened there in 2013 and 2014. It’s an understandable measure that has pretty much ended the violence but also leads to huge traffic jams. As we we were waiting to get through an intersection, I saw an interesting insignia on a concrete road barricade.

It was similar to the ones seen throughout parts of central Beirut reconstructed by the massive real estate firm, Solidere:

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Concrete barricades in central Beirut deployed by Solidere

Deployed at construction sites, the barricades are branded and serve a marketing purpose. In this case bearing Solidere’s logo, with the word Beirut in colored font:

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And stamping it onto the barricades:

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Now what I found interesting was that Hezbollah also had established a reconstruction company after the end of the 2006 war, when Israeli bombs flattened an entire neighborhood and left some 20,000 people homeless. And in the rebuilding process, Hezbollah’s company “Wa’ad” (promise) also branded its logo on similar concrete barricades.

 

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Wa’ad logo

 

A major difference is that Solidere, established by Lebanon’s late billionaire prime minister, turned old Beirut into a luxury playground catering to the rich, erasing much of the past social fabric of a mixed income city center, while Hezbollah’s Waad rebuilt the neighborhood for the working class families that lived there and encouraged them to move back. I thought a picture of the Waad and Solidere logos– in the form of concrete blocks– would make an interesting image for a further comparison. So I quickly snapped a picture of the barricade next to my car without even sticking the camera out the window.  My passenger says he didn’t even see me take the photo, but someone else did. About a minute later as we finally got through the intersection, I heard a voice shout out, asking me to pull over.

Immediately, a man approached: “Please step out of the car. Give me your license and registration. Give me your phone,” he said calmly.

“I will erase the picture, no problem,” I offered, still holding on to my cell.

“Give me the phone!” he repeated sternly. Two other men circled around the side and I handed it to him. As I tried to explain why I took the photo, another man appeared on a scooter. The men ranged from late teens to middle-aged, all wearing civilian clothes: jeans, pants or T-shirts.  The man on the scooter carrying our phones and IDs in one hand, asked us to follow him. As he took off, I was still trying to explain to one of the younger men standing there. He held onto my arm as we pulled away and said “don’t worry, you guys will be fine.”

We followed the scooter for just a few blocks and were told to stop and park near an abandoned lot. We waited in the car for a few minutes until summoned and asked to come out. As we walked up to the parking lot, a steely eyed man with a dark brown complexion and wrist tattoo greeted us coldly. He asked us to follow him to some old portable offices stacked up in the corner of the lot. My friend, who has mild anxiety was beginning to panic. “I’m not going inside,” he murmured as we followed him. But our minder led us straight into the little compound and pulled back a dirty old curtain to reveal what looked like a storage/junk room; it was dark with no lights.

“Wait in here,” he ordered.

“I don’t want to go in there,” my friend–we’ll call him T– said.

The minder insisted that it was just procedure and left us. So we sat on the edge of the dark room, refusing to go inside. T popped an anti-anxiety pill, as a precaution if things got worse. Suddenly I felt horrible for taking the picture.

About 15 minutes later I was called in to one of the portable offices. A middle aged man with a baby face and  glasses asked me to have a seat. He wore a plaid button shirt. We will call him Hajj 1, because Hajj- a term of respect, was used by the men among each other as well as to address us . Hajj 1 began filling out a standard form and asked me usual questions and some extra ones:

-Name

-Occupation

-Father’s name

-Mother’s name

-Grandfather’s name

-Family registration number

-Residence

-Where are you from — i.e. my father’s village.

Then there was one more question:

“What are your politics?”

“How can you ask me that,” I said. “I don’t know how to answer you.”

He sighed and said: “This is Lebanon. You know everyone has politics.”

I said I don’t belong to a political party and that I was a critic of the political system and that I thought all  Lebanese politicians worked together. I told him how I cover real estate development and why I was interested in the sign. I told him I have criticized Solidere so much that people think I am pro-Hezbollah. (The late prime minister’s party and Hezbollah are political rivals.) I told him I write about internet and ancient ruins, also. He listened patiently. He asked when I had come to Lebanon, since earlier I said I had lived abroad.

“Do you want me to tell you my life story,” I said sincerely.  I looked at T who was waiting outside and he rolled his eyes. Haj 1 asked what other countries I had traveled to. “All of them,” I asked, jokingly. He didn’t flinch. I said many countries in Europe, like Italy.

Hajj 1 was flanked by the stern-faced young guy that let us in. We’ll call him Hajj 2. Both stared at me quietly and intently as I spoke.

Hajj 1 got up and began photocopying my documents on a small scanner and then made a phone call and left the room. Hajj 2 stayed and now acted reassuring. “We have trust in your story,” he said. “These are just procedures.”

Hajj 1 came back. He said it would only be a few minutes. I told him we were just going to eat sharawma at Harkous and that they have a buy two get one free special offer. He said: “Are you hungry? We can order whatever you want.” I declined thinking it would be over soon. Hajj 2 interrupted. “Soda? Juice?”

I kept talking, trying to convince them I was innocent. I even remembered the names of some Al Manar (Hezbollah TV) staff I had met before. I even once applied for a permit at Hezbollah’s media office when working on a documentary for Danish TV about the destruction of the 2006 war.  “All my information is already with Hezbollah, I said.

Hajj 1 nodded in silence. He looked at me and said: “Are you scared?” I said no. He added: “Are you comfortable?”

“Well….”

Hajj 1 smiled at Hajj 2 and then a third man showed up, also wearing jeans and an embroidered button shirt. We’ll call him Hajj 3. He greeted Hajj 1 with a kiss and a handshake and I thought he was just a guy passing by off the street to say hi. But Hajj 3 turned out to be a more significant player.

Hajj 3 asked my friend and I to follow him.

Without warning, he whipped out a small digital camera and told me to stand against the wall. I smiled and then I was serious. This was not a driver’s license photo. He brought the camera about 5 inches from my face. I later learned he had just done the same with T, having interrogated him in another room.

Hajj 3 then led the two of us into another portable office. To the right there was a small barracks with two army cots stacked up like a bunk bed. Hajj led us into a third room the size of a large closet with two chairs and a desk. He closed a rusted metal door behind us as I saw a man entering the barracks with a Kalashnikov rifle slung around his shoulder. He was not wearing a uniform either. Hajj 3 shut the door and sat behind the desk. T and I looked at each other. Things seemed to be going well but now we were confined to a drab claustrophobic space behind a metal door. Hajj 3 didn’t talk to us much. He sat behind the desk and appeared to be writing notes.

I tried explaining my story again, but Hajj 3 kept his baseball cap over his eyes, and the high desk blocked his face from me. He nodded.

Could we call our friends and family? Hajj 3 said, “I will talk to the Hajj”–meaning Hajj 1. “It should only be a few more minutes.” Finally Hajj 1 popped in the door. He asked T some questions and then left again, assuring us it would be a few minutes. Another hour passed by.

T and I tried to keep talking. T looked at Hajj 3 and asked. “So who are you guys? Does your division have a name? For example, if someone wanted to present you with a commemorative plaque, who would it be addressed to?”

I laughed and said, come on, “it’s known.” Hajj 3 cracked a half smile. “Really, guys I can’t tell you anything.” I kept talking. I told him about my investigations about telecom and ancient ruins being cleared, how the coast was literally being sold off to private companies. At some points he looked up and seemed to be curious. T said, come on, this guy has other things to worry about than corruption scandals. Hajj 3 cracked a smile briefly.  So T kept asking him.

“We want to know what you are concerned about. You know the situation in Lebanon. What do you think is going to happen?”

This time I rolled my eyes at T. Hajj shook his head and half smiled. But T kept going. “I mean, how does someone even apply for work with you?” I laughed. Hajj 3 got up. It seemed we were driving him nuts. “I’m sorry are we bothering you,” I asked. “No not at all,–Walou” Hajj 3 said as he stood up and opened the door. I joked that he was going to go home tonight and tell his family that some guys they detained asked him all these questions. He cracked a smile again, only briefly, turning away to hide his expression. I hoped we would get home to tell the story too, but as time passed by, I grew increasingly unsure about that.

It had now been over two hours. Earlier Hajj 3 repeatedly said it would only be a few minutes. Our friends had been waiting for us at the chicken restaurant. Hajj 3 sat back down behind the desk. “It’s taking a long time, ” he said. That didn’t sound good. I couldn’t think straight. I literally had eaten all day. I had back to back meetings then I had to pick up T from the airport. All this happened during his first few hours in Lebanon. I pleaded again to Hajj 3. He offered the food again. I told him I want Harkous chicken, he smiled and said: “What if I get you chicken and write Harkous on the receipt?” He smiled. “What about chips? Pepsi? Hajj 3 had already offered us water and cigarettes. I felt confused. One minute everyone was nice and wanted to help–the next minute there were long silences and no food ever arrived. Was this a psychological game? Where will they take us next?

Finally after nearly three hours, Hajj 1 showed up again with our IDs and phones in hand. He gave me a piece of paper and asked me to write down the website where I would write the article about comparing Wa’ad with Solidere. Now he was smiling. He then asked me to write down any other papers or media I work for. He handed our phones back and asked me to unlock mine to delete the pictures of the barricade. I protested but he insisted and I think T was about to kill me. I obliged and Hajj said I could apply to the Hezbollah media office to get that picture.

Finally, as we were getting up, T tried one last question as Hajj 1 stood before us. “So if our friends ask us, where should we tell them we were?”

Hajj 1 smiled. “At Hezbollah.”

Before we left, and now that I had my phone back, I wanted to show Hajj 1  a video a local TV station produced about a blog post I wrote that forced the New York Times to correct an article misquoting Hezbollah leader Nasrallah. As we walked out into the parking lot, I tried to open the video several times in vain.

“You are trying to open a video,” Hajj 1 said with a chuckle.  “God help you! The coverage is terrible here. You’ll wait an hour to load it. Once again, notoriously slow Lebanese internet would haunt me.

“Don’t worry about it, ” Hajj 1 said. “We’ll check your website. He apologized for the inconvenience and said “Nice to get to know you” and “If you ever need anything, give us a call.” T actually asked Haj 1 for his number and he gave him this strip of paper as a ‘business card’:

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Even reticent Hajj 3 was suddenly more talkative and mustered some broken English: “God-a blesss you.”

We shook all their hands and got back into the car.

Looking back at the experience, I have to say Hezbollah treated me far better than the corporate real estate developers that twisted my arms behind my back until I erased pictures of ancient ruins I saw on their site or the masked young hoodlums that belong to a Western-allied political movement who ran after me. Or the Lebanese government official who ripped away my voice recorder after our interview, erased all my audio files and threatened me in numerous ways. Yet in the South Beirut “Hezbollah stronghold”, never once did anyone shout or curse at us, threaten us with weapons or any sort of physical violence.

But it still wasn’t fun. Having your phone and personal data confiscated against your will is invasive and unnerving to say the very least. I’m also not sure it was the best use of my time or Hezbollah’s time to stop anyone who takes a photograph. On the other hand, with so many car bombs and regular threats of war from Israel, it’s not hard to understand why they might be a little bit paranoid.

Was my experience unique? A couple of weeks ago, a woman taking a photo in south Beirut claimed to have had it much rougher. She said the Hezbollah men had threatened and shouted at her, even put a gun to her head. At first I was horrified by the piece, but now I wonder if perhaps there was more to the story. Did she challenge the security men more than I had or more than she told the news channel, which convienently is staunchly anti-Hezbollah?  Was I treated better because I was a journalist? One journalist working for a major Western news organization claims to have been beaten and tortured by Hezbollah.

I can’t be sure why these accounts differ so greatly from mine. But amid all the wars Hezbollah is involved in, both T and I emerged with a sense of appreciation that things didn’t go worse. Moral of the story: Don’t take pictures in South Beirut. Is that good for journalism and transparency? Definitely not. But these are not ordinary times either.

 

1

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The Lebanese and International Red Cross are currently exhibiting a series of images, recordings and interactive installations chronicling the devastation of Lebanon’s multiple wars and relief workers role in reacting to them.

The exhibition features both unseen Red Cross archives as well as the work of prominent local photographers who lived through the fighting such as Jamal Saidi.

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Jamal told me he shot the image above in the 1980s near Mathaf. He also shot this image below of two militiamen around the same period.

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But Jamal and some of the other photographers would not say which militia these men belonged to, explaining that they could be found on any street, from any of the parties that were tearing up the country.

Such anonymity was also a theme of the exhibition with few of the images containing captions that describe the time or place of what was shown in the picture.

For example, in the series below, many of the images come from the wars of the 1970s and 1980s yet the bottom left image from the 2006 war:

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One of the organizers said the idea was to emphasize the ubiquitous violence experienced in Lebanon over the past 40 years, which is not confined to one geographic area, group or time period.

This photo near downtown Beirut was particularly haunting.

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As well as the looks on these young captives faces:

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Abbas Salman

 

I was also able to meet Red Cross worker Abdul Raouf Salem, who points to the ambulance he was ridding in as they passed through rubble strew streets of a Palestinian refugee camp that was nearly flattened in the fighting.

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Abdul Raouf told me the story of how one militiaman put a gun to his head while driving the ambulance when he was stopped at a checkpoint. It was only a few days later that he found himself saving the life of the same militiaman’s mother. “He didn’t even recognize me,” Abdul Raouf said.

The rescue worker was also eager to share his family heritage of service, with an image of him and his daughters also on display:

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The exhibition features some 40 images as videos and recordings, testimonies of survivors and rescue workers:

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Among those stories is that of the ambulance hit with an Israeli shell during the 2006 war:

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You can explore more of the images and stories over the next 10 days at the exhibit which is being held at Villa Paradiso in Gemmayze, itself a restored fragment of a troubled past:

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Check out the Facebook page for more details and directions. It runs from April 17-26.

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Demolition works today in Gemmayze. Source: Save Beirut Heritage

Despite a cessation order posted yesterday by Beirut’s governor, demolition works have continued today at a historic Art Deco building in Gemmayze. One activist with Save Beirut Heritage sent me these pictures and told me he was threatened by the site’s foreman today for taking them.

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Save Beirut Heritage

According to the SBH activist, the foreman began by cursing his mother and sister– with the typical vulgar references. Then he recalled that he had seen the activist–who frequently documents heritage demolitions for SBH– at another historic building being torn down in Furn el Hayek, also documented on this site.

He said: “I wish we would have put you in a van when I saw you there. We should have taken you somewhere and beat you up,” the activist recalled.

The SBH activist said the altercation began when he took a picture of this artist conception of what the new building will look like. The image shows a completely different building that appears to have retained nothing of the original structure. The height has also been changed from the current 4 floors to at least 10 floors:

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Save Beirut Heritage

 

Such an image appears to contrast the brief bit of jubilation among citizens and activists yesterday when the governor posted the cessation order on his Facebook page after coverage of the demolition, both by The Daily Star and this blog.

But how could the old structure be protected if an entirely new– and much larger– structure is to take its place?

The activist I spoke to was not the first to say he was harassed at this site. A licensed architect had reportedly visited the Deco building recently and went to have a look at the demolition orders posted on its outer walls. The architect told this story:

“The foreman asked me to leave when I was looking at the papers. I refused saying anyone has a right to read demolition permits posted on a building, particularly a licensed architect and member of the Lebanese architect’s union. The foreman asked for my ID and tried to grab it. Soon after, I got a call from the union with the foreman claiming I threatened a union action against the building!”

Can you imagine how much power this developer must have to get a bureaucratic Lebanese union to react so quickly?

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Tiles removed from art deco building today. (SBH)

 

A close read of the Governor’s cessation order indicates that work on the “eastern” part of the plot must be stopped. However works on the western part were allowed. This means the building is actually composed of two parts. The corner section–which activists say dates back to the earlier part of the century– and the section left of it on Rue Gouraud, which is apparently a later addition from some time around the 1940s.

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SBH

Here’s a closer view of the Western section:

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SBH

Yet when I visited the site last weekend, both buildings were cloaked in green demolition nets and barricades have been put around the sidewalks and curbside parking of both buildings. And once again, the artist conception doesn’t appear to preserve either part.

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Metal barricades extend around both buidlings

Activists and citizens will have to stay vigilant on this issue to make sure the corner building is not demolished. But who will hold the owners accountable in case they threaten people for taking pictures or reading legal permits posted on the building?

It’s actually not surprising to hear about developers harassing journalists and photographers. I was physically assaulted last year for taking pictures at a major construction site that concealed ancient ruins. How long will Lebanese developers remain above the law?

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Interior shot with Deco stairwell. (SBH)
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Old tiles still untouched on this floor. (SBH)

***

Update: The architect who was harassed agreed I could use her name. She is Abir Saksouk-Sasso.

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There has been an ongoing dig for quite some time at the beginning of Gouraud Street–the main street in Gemmayze–just across the street from the Sacre Coeur school.

Recently a truck was parked in front of the site, with a small ramp feeding into it. I’m not sure if this was for the removal of ruins or construction materials. I noticed a small gap in the canvas and went to check it out.

Below I found some workers or archeologists. The first to look up and spot me began yelling–“No photos!”

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I decided to come back the next day, when the workers were gone, to get a better look:

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An activist told me the site could have been a water channel, possibly during the Roman period, but this is yet to be verified.

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From the number of blue crates stacked up next to the site, it seems quite a few artifacts were discovered. Hopefully the new concrete wall and columns did not affect the excavation, though they were built very close to the ruins.

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I wonder if this dig will reveal more about Roman Beirut, an extraordinary city in the empire, as I have covered in the past, despite repeated harassment from developers and ministry of culture employees. Unfortunately many of the ruins of ancient Berytus, including the Roman hippodrome, are now being dismantled to make way for luxury housing.

Incidentally, I visited this same site almost two years ago. At the time it was a garbage swamp:

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This plot seems awfully tiny for a tower. Wouldn’t it have been great if they kept it as a small garden with ruins? God knows, we could all use some breathing space in this city.