BEIRUT: It’s been four days since the Lebanese opposition took over West Beirut. An uneasy calm has settled over the city. The masked gunmen and rocket launchers have disappeared from the streets, giving way to the more familiar sight of grocery shoppers and joggers. But in the otherwise bustling Hamra district of West Beirut you can’t miss army tanks and roadblocks.
Meanwhile, the outdoor cafes at Place Sassine ten minutes away in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh are buzzing with patrons sipping coffee, internet surfers, and sunbathing weekenders. The relaxed mood is, however, interrupted by a tank positioned outside Starbucks and a few army patrols.
But East and West Beirut are like two different countries.
On Saturday the Hezbollah-led opposition announced its withdrawal from West Beirut shortly after the army declared an overturn of a government decision to remove the head of Beirut airport security and investigate Hezbollah’s land communications network.
The opposition welcomes the army s decision and will proceed with the withdrawal of all its armed elements so that control of the capital is handed over to the military, read a statement from the opposition.
Meanwhile, fierce clashes between members of the opposition and the majority have erupted in Tripoli, in the north, leaving several dead, bringing the number to about 34.
The riots and clashes were indeed expected following last week’s decisions by the government. But the magnitude of violence that Beirut witnessed on Wednesday night and over the following days shocked many.
Residents of East Beirut watched the news in despair as they saw their neighbors in the nearby Western parts being attacked by gunfire and rocket launches.
A few minutes away from the living rooms of East Beirut, residents of West Beirut took refuge in bathrooms and slept in hall ways just as they did 18 years ago, a sad flashback of past violence and bloodshed for the people of Lebanon.
“It was hell. They were firing RPGs from under our building. We could hear them. They were shouting, laughing and playing with their guns, Rana, a translator living in Karakol El Druze, told Daily News Egypt.
Lina, an NGO worker living in Hamra, had gunmen all over her street on Wednesday night.
“We have been sleeping in the corridors and keeping away from the windows. There has been lots of gunfire on my street. I am not even sure who’s shooting at who anymore, she said.
All of a sudden there were no more strollers along the Corniche and the cafes of Hamra were deserted. One of the few living creatures on Hamra street on Wednesday at 5 pm was a stray cat nibbling on leftovers from the containers. People knew what was coming.
“I hate them all. Everyone who has a gun. Everyone who makes us unsafe at home. What else do you want me to say? They are not thinking, says Rana.
They were many who had gathered in Beirut’s Daheye districts earlier that same afternoon to attend Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s live video conference.
Crisscrossing through roadblocks and army check-points, we arrived at Hezbollah’s media office for registration just in time for the conference. Lebanese and foreign reporters were sitting on the couches smoking, anxiously waiting to receive their clearance.
Water bottles were handed out inside the conference room by the organizers and sheets of paper were passed around for those reporters interested in asking Nasrallah questions. A video outlining the history of Hezbollah and its achievements was aired on the screen in front of us.
Green and yellow posters erected around the room read “Lebanon will be a country for resistance and “Emad Mugniyah left behind thousands of prepared fighters who are ready for martyrdom.
When the clock hit 4 pm, the screen flickered for a few moments. When Nasrallah appeared excitement spread among the audience.
Nasrallah announced his three main discussion points for the day, namely the decision of the government to probe Hezbollah’s communications network, the reassignment of General Shouqier as head of airport security, and the political crisis that is currently plaguing the country.
Celebratory gun shots rang out from nearby buildings. The decision of the government to cut the communications network, one of Hezbollah’s “major weapons, was a direct declaration of war, said Nasrallah.
It was not hard to figure out that the fiery speech would spark security concerns. Ear piercing sounds of celebratory gunfire could be heard throughout Daheye immediately following the conference.
Soon, however, the ‘happy gunfire’ turned to ‘happy RPG firing’. The army had set up roadblocks throughout the city and people were hurrying back to their homes holding bags of food and necessities.
At 5:30 pm, the sound of grenades welcomed us to Sodeco Square. Soldiers were standing behind a tank. “Back, get back, they warned. Mostafa behind the wheel backs up quickly. There is fear in his bright blue eyes.
Luckily Albergo Hotel around the corner is still open for business. Mobile phone lines are out and no one seemed to know what’s happening. We sat down for a coffee.
The landline of Albergo hotel buzzes. Bon soir, Al Dente restaurant at Albergo, answers the manager amidst the deafening sounds of rocket launches from Corniche El Masraa and Ras El Nabeh.
Albergo s waiter is angry and distressed.
This street violence. It s worse than the air raids. It hasn t been this bad since 1990, he mutters in a low tone.
Down the street my colleagues at Menassat -a website promoting press freedom and free speech in the Arab world – are evacuating our offices, which are located near the former Green Line.
They had been caught up in the general chaos of an opposition-led operation into neighboring Ras El Nabeh.
Only a few weeks before, we had been the driving force behind a reconciliation hip-hop concert with Lebanese and Palestinian rappers as part of an art installation called, “Haven t 15 years of hiding in the toilets been enough?
Apparently not. They hid in the bathroom to keep safe from the incoming gunfire that left bullet holes in the building.
In fact, media organizations came to play a key role in the mess, serving as a catalyst for further sectarian and political turmoil.
On Friday, the offices of Future TV, the news channel owned by the Sunni MP Saad Hariri, were raided by gunmen from the opposition and subsequently went off the air. On Saturday, journalists demonstrated against the shutdown and marched to the station s offices in the city’s Kantari neighborhood.
Media institutions owned by pro-government factions and extremist factions have played a big role in widening the sectarian divide. We support the freedom of the media and condemn what has happened with Future media, regardless of what we have suffered because of them, said Lebanese former Premier Omar Karami.
Nidal Ayoub, one of Future TV’s news anchors, told Daily News Egypt that the station’s offices remain closed and that the army is guarding the building.
“I have no idea when we will be going back to work. It’s a political decision that hasn’t been taken yet, said Ayoub, adding that the raid was ‘unexpected’.
On Friday night, Samer Mohdad, photographer and Director of the Arab Images Foundations, took a drive through West Beirut.
The young gunmen sitting in the corners, the abandoned streets, and odd calmness made him travel back in time just like the neighborhood residents.
“It was exactly 22 years ago when I used to go to Hamra and the green line to photograph, Mohdad told Daily News Egypt.
Camera technology has developed over the years though and Mohdad was subject to more censorship than ever before.
“They ask you immediately to see their picture. It’s very important for them that their faces are not shown. They ask you to erase the picture if they’re not happy with it, he added.
Beirut may have been under siege, but that didn’t stop people from going out. At midnight on Friday, Torino bar in Gemmayze was flooded with thirsty guests. Bob Marley was played full blast, journalists
debated amongst themselves who had come closest to the RPGs, and one woman started dancing on the table.
Two army tanks are seen driving by. Bar guests raise their glasses, waive, and do the V sign.
Then they step out into the quiet night and make their way home through a ghost town.