So the worst nightmare years may have begun again. There were thousands of them - Christians fighting Christians north of Beirut, Sunni and Shia Muslims in the capital, a rain of stones, shrieks of hatred and occasionally even gunfire - that turned Lebanon into a sectarian battleground yesterday.
At the corner of a street off Corniche al-Mazraa, I watched what historians
may one day claim was the first day of Lebanon's new civil war, huge mobs of
young men, supporters and opponents of Fouad Siniora's government screaming
abuse and throwing tens of thousands of rocks at each other as a wounded
Lebanese soldier sat next to me and wept.
Lebanese soldiers attempt to separate a fight between pro-government and opposition-supporting stone throwers in east Beirut, January 23, 2007. REUTERS/George Maroun
For the army of this tragic country is now the thin red line some actually
were wearing red berets that stands between a future for Lebanon and the
folly of civil conflict.
After 31 years in this country, I never truly believed I would see again
what I witnessed on the streets of Beirut yesterday, thousands of Shia and
Sunni Muslims, the first supporting the Hizbollah, the second the government
once led by the murdered ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, hurling stones and
hunks of metal at each other. They crashed down around us, smashing the road
signs, the advertisement hoardings, the windows of the bank against which
seven Lebanese soldiers and I were cowering. Again and again, the soldiers
ran into the roadway to try with a desperation all of them understood, and
they were brave men to drag the youths from each other. Some of the Shia
men, Amal members, loyal (heaven spare us) to the Speaker of Parliament,
wore hoods and black face masks, most wielding big wooden clubs.
Their predecessors perhaps their fathers were dressed like this 31 years
ago when they fought in these same streets, executioners-to-be, all
confident in the integrity of their cause. Perhaps they were even wearing
the same hoods. Some of the troops fired into the air; they shouted at the
stone throwers. "For God's love, stop," one young soldier
screamed. "Please, please."
But the crowds would not listen. They shrieked "animals" at each
other and obscenities and on one side of the street they produced pictures
of the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and of Michel Aoun, the Christian
ex-general who wants to be president and is Nasrallah's ally, and on the
other side of the street, the Sunnis produced a portrait of Saddam Hussein.
Thus did the cancer of Iraq spread to Lebanon yesterday. It was a day of
Across Lebanon came reports of dying men two according to one, six
according to another, and at least 60 wounded and the country's leaders
were last night writing their narrative of Lebanon's modern history with
predictable speed. Nasrallah, hero of last summer's war with Israel or so
he likes to think demanding the resignation of the government while
Siniora and his colleagues, trapped in the old Turkish "serail"
downtown, called this an attempted coup d'état by the forces of Syria and
It is not that simple. The Shias are the downtrodden, the poor, the
dispossessed, those who have always been ignored by the dons and patriarchs
of the Lebanese government for in one sense this is also a social
revolution and on the other were the Sunni population so beloved of Hariri
and the Druze and the Christians still loyal to the Lebanese forces who were
Israel's allies in 1982 and who massacred the Palestinians in the camps of
Sabra and Chatila, as well as a majority of Lebanese innocents who voted
Siniora's government into power.
Thus north of Beirut, Aoun's Christian forces tried to block the roads and
were set on by Samir Geagea's thugs. In Tripoli, supporters of Hariri's son
Saad were fighting Alawite supporters of Syria. In Hazmiyeh, it was Shias
versus Christians and in Corniche al-Mazraa, it was Shias against Sunnis.
No, as Nasrallah would be the first to say, this is not necessarily a civil
war and it has to be said that the Hizbollah's tens of thousands of
fighters were by far the most disciplined men on the streets of Beirut but
it was he who called a general strike yesterday on the eve of the Paris
economic conference that is supposed to save Lebanon's economy and who
blocked all the main roads of Lebanon with burning tyres and concrete blocks
and pipes and rubble from last summer's war.
My driver, Abed, and I tried to reach the airport but vast swaths of black
smoke poured from the burning rubber on all the approach roads. I walked
three miles to the terminal, only to find the Hizbollah protecting both the
airport and the Lebanese troops who were guarding it. When we turned round,
Abed tried to drive over the burning tyres but trapped one beneath our car,
the flames curling up the sides of the bodywork, desperately reversing to
clear our wheels as Hizbollah men screamed abuse.
Siniora condemned it all last night, demanding an emergency session of
parliament. He still plans to go to the Paris summit. But how will he get to
the airport? "We will not be scared," Nasrallah said yesterday. "
We will not retreat ... We will not be dragged on to the streets [of civil
war]." But he should have been on Corniche al-Mazraa. All across
Beirut, the Hizbollah, most dressed in black trousers and shirts (for this
is the holy month of Ashura, is it not?) had closed the roads, and the army
stood and watched. It is a largely Shia army, for it is the Shias who are
the largest community in Lebanon, but in the streets they were forced to
fight. As I sat with the soldiers amid the crashing stones many of the
projectiles hurled into the street from the roofs of eight-storey apartment
blocks I watched them wilt under the pressure. One knelt down and vomited;
others were almost overcome by their own tear gas, fired uselessly at the
vast crowds. For these were not Belfast-sized riots or Gaza-sized
The mobs were there in their thousands, chorusing their hatred for those who
lived across the other side of the boulevard. There were few officers. But
after an hour, a Lebanese colonel ran down the street, a smartly dressed
man, not even wearing a flak jacket, who walked straight into the highway
between these two great waves of angry people, the stones banging off his
helmet and body and legs. And the soldiers around me stood up and ran into
the road to join him between these two enormous forces.
I don't like journalists who fall in love with armies. I don't like armies.
But yesterday it seemed that this one man was a lonely symbol of what stood
between Lebanon and chaos. I don't know his religion. His soldiers were
Sunnis and Shias and Christians I had checked, of course all dressed in
the same uniform. Could they hold together, could they remain under his
command when their brothers and cousins, some of them, must have been among
the crowds? They did. Some even grinned as they hurled themselves at the
hooded men and youths too young to have known the last civil war, pleading
and shouting for the violence to end. They won. This time. But what about
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited