Street Notes 12 May 2008
In the lower Chouf village of Choufeit with its panoramic view of Beirut’s closed airport (which will likely stay closed for 4 or 5 more days as a Hezbollah pressure point on the Bush administration to achieve a settlement that it views as fair and just), Dahiyeh, Sabra, Shatila and Burj Barajneh Palestinian Refugee Camps; Pentecost Sunday started in a somber mood for the few remaining Christians and dominant Druze population of this picturesque, rugged, hilly and ancient village.
The reason was that virtually the whole village was in attendance at a 9 a.m. memorial service for two supporters of the Druze Lebanese Democratic Party, 18 year old ____ and 22 year old _____ (names withheld at the request of family pending notification of family members living outside Lebanon) who were probably shot as they drove too fast through a newly setup check-point on May 10th. (The exact circumstances and who exactly was responsible are not clear given the myriad explanations one receives depending on who one talks to in this tight-knit village.
Perhaps only in American black communities has this observer witnessed such a large turnout by the local population at funerals for a neighborhood member who was felled by violence. Parked cars snaked for nearly one mile in all directions alongside the winding roads. Hundreds of Druze women dressed in black with white scarves around their necks and some men in traditional black baggy Druze garb with knitted white caps mournfully gathered along their former enemies, the Christian population.
Once more, a Mt. Lebanon village united in mourning at dawn would be killing the neighbors sitting next to them at a memorial service hours later in the afternoon. Choufeit has never been more split than it is this morning. “If Jumblatt ever comes to Choufeit we will kill him,” said a town butcher from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who fought hard for five hours yesterday against Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).
The killing of these two Druze young men did not directly cause yesterday’s intense violence in Choufeit but it definitely affected the tenseness and ferocity of their revenge seeking friends, family and community.
Chief among those blamed is Walid Jumblatt, known as “the weather vane”, given his history of changing his political stance depending on the current power alignment, and who is expected to seek a deal with Hezbollah in a bid to keep some position in the coming new government. It was just 36 months ago that Jumblatt was praising Hezbollah as the legitimate Lebanese Resistance and he may return to that position as he appears ready to give up his role in the Welch Club and try to save his leadership role in the deeply fractured Druze community. Hezbollah will now dry up Jumblatt’s power and shut him up. The Party will very likely force him to reconcile with the — as of this morning — much stronger Druze leader Talal Arslan, Hezbollah’s ally, who is getting credit for arranging last night’s ceasefire and presumably saving many Druze lives.
Hezbollah support in the Druze community is growing rapidly this morning. Its current major task now being worked on is to improve its relations with many seething in the Sunni community. As St. Joseph’s University gifted Professor Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous recently commented, (I paraphrase) when trouble starts in Lebanon the religious confessions look to their own, no matter what they were pontificating just hours before about “one Lebanon — one people de-confessionalized.”
As of 6 a.m. this morning, Choufeit is deeply wounded and the main street is littered with hundreds of 5 inch 50mm heavy machine gun casings as well Kalashnikov and M-16 shells, RPG casings, 107mm mortar rounds, broken glass, many patches and trails of of blood, a few burned out cars, and a few damaged shelled apartment houses. The house of Jumblatt’s deputy was shelled and burned around 5 p.m. yesterday — it was still burning this morning as no one has bothered to put it out. The power lines to Choufeit have been cut and main cables are on some roads. It is unknown how long the village will be without power.
“We killed 56 terrorists and they killed four of us”, town lawyer Khalil Juridi who practices law with his brother and sister as Jurdi, Jurdi, and Jurdi in the Jurdi Bldg in Choufeit. (The casualty numbers are not verified yet. This morning as I passed by Choufeit’s Kamal Jumblatt hospital, a nurse told me she thought about 10 were killed.)
I was surprised to see Khalil heavily armed as I returned from Hamra around 12:30 yesterday. As he kept warning me and others to stay inside, dozens of towns people, virtually all of whom had been at the young men’s funeral hours before they gathered with their weapons on the streets. This was a motley group to be sure but steeled and ready to die if need be to defend their village. Some left to help friends fight in Toumat Niha, Mresti and Jabal el-Barouk. Fighting also raged in of Kayfoun, Qamatiyeh, Bchamoun, Aytat, Shweifat, Baysour, Ras el-Jabal. The difference in Choufeit is that it was largely a Muslim intra-Druze fight.
This observer at first discounted what Khalil was saying yesterday early afternoon about the pro-Hezbollah Talal Arslan Druze group, many of whom lived in our neighborhood and who Khalil had grown up with, advancing up the hill on Choufeit because I was distracted thinking about my morning is Hamra. Plus, one gets inured here sometimes by so many rumors difficult to pin down.
In Hamra, on Pentacost Sunday morning things were much clearer. Contrary to the BBC report, Hezbollah has not completely withdrawn from West Beirut. They are manning the cut and block of the main Corniche road just diagonal from the Bay Bank in front of Bay Rocks. They advised that they will stay there pending a fair settlement with the ‘ruling team’.
The reality in West Beirut today is that even if every Hezbollah member but one withdrew, Hezbollah would still be in control of Lebanon’s capitol. He does not even need to have a weapon. All that is necessary is for it to be known that he is present. The Lebanese Army is increasingly deployed but its role is determined by the Bay Rocks barricade.
One faculty member of the American University of Beirut (AUB) explained that if someone from Hezbollah handed the US Embassy gatekeeper a polite note asking the Embassy to close up shop, it would be done within hours this Monday. This observer agrees with an increasing number here that in critical ways, Hezbollah is now Lebanon and the American era is teetering. Whether the damage done by the Israeli lobby controlled Bush administration Middle East policy is reversible, anything soon is unclear. Comments such as the one by US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe on Saturday blamed Hezbollah for the fighting saying: “They continue to be a destabilizing force there with the backing of their supporters, Iran and Syria.” The immediate future is not encouraging until the current US administration indicates a willingness to engage with Hezbollah on the basis of mutual respect, free and open dialogue, and commitment to solving the regions problems, including a just solution to the Question of Palestine.
Two blocks up to the right of the continuing Hezbollah position are 10 or more Christian National Syrian Socialist Party (NSSP) groups of heavily armed fighters. Unlike the Hezbollah guys they would not agree to photos but did proudly take this observer’s photo of their handiwork outside the burned out Hariri Future TV complex first started in 1993 and which developed recently into not just the mouthpiece of the pro-Bush Administration March 14 group but as the broadcaster of reputedly excellent programs popular around the Middle East.
The NSSP and the army are both posted in close proximity of Queitem, the Hariri mansion where Saad is in some ways under house arrest this Monday afternoon. Yesterday, Amin Gemayel rushed back from Paris, against the advice of some, to try to prevent Samir Geagea from staging a putsch and replace Amin as head of the Phalange Party.
“Amin’s tough problem is that Geagea learned more from Amin’s brother Bashir than Amin did concerning how to deal with rivals for power. Ask the Frangieh and Chamoun families”, a former deputy to George Hrawi of Lebanon’s Communist Party recently commented. Jumblatt not Geagea (this time) is a prime suspect in Hrawi’s 2005 assassination.
Geagea is meeting with Siniora this afternoon and earlier reported rumors are resurfacing that Geagea may be cannoned the Welch Club future Christian leader of Lebanon.
The Arab League delegation arriving in Beirut is expected to achieve more than a vague general ‘feel good’ declaration before it departs. The reality is that the League also is deeply split with dramatic increase of support for the Lebanese Resistance.
Returning to Choufeit where I was staying, I had become used to descending the three floors underground in pitch blackness, sometimes using my mobile phone for a little light.
Returning around 2pm yesterday I was very surprised to find around 35 people outside my flat door in the stairwell. I did not see or hear them until I stepped on one. As I opened the door we could see each other and one mother explained that they were all afraid to stay in the upper floors because they have lots of windows and they are afraid of snipers. As she spoke the children (who they later told me they held their breaths as I came down the stairs in the dark because they thought I must be the ‘enemy’) resumed their crying and wailing. The flat is large with two baths but little furniture and they all moved in. As I left this morning around 6am some were still asleep on the floors.
Getting solid information here is sometimes tough unless you do the digging yourself.
Some of the best I got recently was last night from 12 Aya, a precocious Lebanese charm of a young lady. Three times Aya came to where I was sleeping and woke me up “to see if you were ok”.
Later she admitted that she “needed to talk”. After explaining that her family felt abandoned by their father who was still in Dubai and was supposed to arrive last week, Aya offered valuable insights in response to some questions I posed.
As only a parent of a 12 year old young lady can possibly understand, Aya speaks clearly and to the point. Part of the conversation went something like this:
“How are you now Aya, are you ok?”
“I am scared.”
“Well, everything is fine now, the fighting is over”. Five seconds later there was a huge blast nearby. Aya just stared at me.
“Honey, doesn’t be worried. Things will be fine.”
What are you afraid of?”
“Of dying, they want to kill us.”
“Who are your enemies?”
“I don’t know. We have so many.”
I tried to change the subject and I mentioned my 12 year old daughter in the States. I told Aya how much I missed her and wished she could come to Lebanon and the girls could be friends. “And you could teach her more Arabic and show her around your beautiful country and you could do fun stuff.”
“I have a better idea,” Aya said. “Why don’t I just go to America and stay with her for awhile?”