Beirut, bullets and breakfast

AS OFTEN happens in this strange world, it was my water turtle Jerry who brought home to me the tough choices we make in times of war.

By Rami G. Khouri (International Herald Tribune)

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Published: Tue 13 May 2008, 11:52 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:31 PM

This happened on Friday morning, when bullets and rocket-propelled grenades were exploding all around our apartment near the Hamra area of west Beirut, during the latest episode in Lebanon's long-running civil strife and political showdown.

We went to bed Thursday night amid repeated rounds of automatic rifle and handgun fire, punctuated by the occasional roar of a loud explosion that was probably a rocket-propelled grenade. The fighting stopped around 1 am, soon after a serendipitous spring rainstorm engulfed Beirut.

The fighting resumed in the early morning. One of our balcony window panes shattered just after we woke up at 7.30am, pierced by a bullet or a ricocheting stone. A few minutes later, as we prepared coffee in the kitchen that we thought was shielded from the shooting in the streets below, a bullet hit the balcony above us. Shattered stones fell past our balcony to the street below. We ducked and quickly got out of the kitchen, but with our coffee in hand.

Jerry the turtle was in his water tank on the balcony, and had not been fed since the previous night. We knew we had to feed him soon, but wondered whether it was safe to go on the balcony, from where the gunmen along the large street junction, 25 metres away and four stories below, could clearly see us.

The trouble was, we had no idea who was fighting whom, or whether any actual battles were taking place. Some neighbours thought that heavily armed fighters were simply asserting their presence and control of the neighboumrhood.

This was the third time in a generation that I lived through armed conflict in Beirut, including the early months of the civil war in 1975, the war with Israel in summer 2006, and now this battle — both a local test of political strength and a proxy battle for the wider ideological war pitting United States-led, predominantly Sunni Muslim Arabs versus Iranian- and Syrian-led, heavily Shia Muslim Arabs.

The regional and global confrontation translated this past week into who controlled a few buildings and streets in West Beirut.

Our home is near two key buildings owned by the family of the late Rafik Hariri and his son Saad Hariri, who essentially heads the government coalition — his home in Qoreitim district and the Future television station. Pro-Hariri armed young men had always occasionally patrolled our neighbourhood, given our proximity to Hariri installations. This city block had much symbolic significance.

Hezbollah and its allies decided on Wednesday and Thursday to make a show of force by quickly taking control of and closing Beirut's airport and seaport, and then shutting down all the Hariri-owned media (television, radio and newspaper). The message was clear: Hezbollah could take over all Beirut at any moment it desired. This was probably an inevitable moment, when Hezbollah felt it had to show the government the real balance of power between them.

The fighting on Thursday morning saw Hezbollah, Amal and smaller Lebanese leftist allies quickly take over Hariri-owned facilities, and then just as quickly turn them over to the Lebanese Army, which is still seen as a national institution working for the unity and security of the country.

Hezbollah may have been making the point that it did not want to conquer Beirut or run all Lebanon, but rather that it wanted to push the government into making a negotiated deal that would recognise and institutionalise the real political and military power of Hezbollah and its allies.

On Thursday evening, both the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the Future Movement leader Saad Hariri had made television statements in which they insulted each other, but also offered proposals to end the clashes and reach political agreement.

The two principal political leaders in Lebanon were doing what they have always done: protecting their own communities' rights and wellbeing, asserting their willingness to fight if necessary, relying on foreign powers for whom they often acted as local proxies, insulting each other with mutual accusations of serving Israeli or American interests, and, finally, offering proposals that comprised a political opening for dialogue and negotiations.

All of this happened in the span of 12 hours, during which my water turtle Jerry had not been fed. In his own little water tank world, he was getting anxious, as were all the Lebanese people who were becoming fed up with their leaders' inclination to perpetuate civil strife.

In the context of the new political balance of power in Lebanon, our stepping out on the balcony to feed Jerry might have risked our lives. I told my wife Ellen I would kneel down and do a semi-crawl to the balcony, reaching Jerry and his food without being seen by the gunmen whom we could see from the corner of our window.

I was overruled by the prevailing balance of power in our home, when my wife insisted she could do the crawl more safely and swiftly. I concurred, and as she prepared to feed Jerry, I held my breath.

I also thought then that the situation might be changing. The gunfire was slowing down and becoming more sporadic. Every 10-15 minutes or so, a burst of shooting or a loud explosion would rattle our windows. It seemed that whoever was emerging on top was asserting his control of the neighbourhood. Ellen timed her feeding expedition with one of the lulls, and all went smoothly.

An hour later, the situation seemed to change. The rumble of Lebanese Army armoured personnel carriers on our street signalled that the pro-Hezbollah gunmen had turned the neighbourhood over to the army. The shooting and explosions stopped.

Neighbours ventured out onto their balconies for the first time in 18 hours. We and Jerry seemed to sense that a new situation was coming into being — in Lebanon and the entire Middle East. Where it would lead was not clear, but by the next feeding on Friday night we would probably have a better idea.

We decided to leave Jerry on the balcony, assuming that reaching him would not be dangerous. We shall soon find out.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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