Living in Lebanon is like watching a dramatic thriller unfold. At times it’s exciting, at other times heart-wrenching or just petrifying. The Lebanese people endured 15 years of civil war between 1975 and 1990 that cost around 150,000 lives and left the capital, Beirut, in ruins; but in the 1990s they seemed to be moving into a new era of peace and stability. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by a car bomb in February 2005, however, Lebanon’s stage has been set to a ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery.
The assassination was widely blamed on neighbouring Syria (which had dominated Lebanon politically since the civil war). Hundreds of thousands of angry Lebanese took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. In response to this ‘Cedar Revolution’, Shi’a Muslims, most of whom support either Hizbullah or the Amal Movement, held a counter-demonstration of support for Syria. The tit-for-tat demonstrations went on for a while until Syria – under immense national and international pressure – withdrew its forces.
For a while, it looked as if peace had prevailed. But the euphoria was short-lived. There was a rash of late-night bomb explosions in Christian neighbourhoods. A series of assassinations began, most of the victims being anti-Syrian journalists.
And then, in July 2006, Hizbullah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers at the border. In retaliation, Israel launched a war by air and sea. The entire country was targeted but the south bore the brunt. Over 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed – a third of them children under the age of 13. The attacks lasted for 34 days and ended as suddenly as they had begun. A UN peacekeeping force was deployed along the border.
Once again, a certain sense of peace began to prevail. But not for long. In November, pro-Syrian cabinet ministers, including all the Shi’a, walked out of the Coalition Government, claiming that they were being marginalized. A few days later, leading Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was shot dead.
Photo: ALFREDO CALIZ / PANOS
In December, thousands of opposition demonstrators in Beirut demanded the resignation of the Government and set up tents in the city’s busy downtown area – effectively shutting it down. The ‘tent city’ remains to this day. Nerves were tested again when, in May 2007, an al-Qaeda-inspired group fought a three-month battle with the Lebanese army in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon. More than 400 people were killed and 40,000 refugees were displaced before the army finally gained control.
Meanwhile, the assassinations continued. Two pro-government MPs were killed by car bombs in June and September 2007. The numbers of pro-government MPs were dwindling. With MPs required to vote in a new president soon, many of the anti-Syrian legislators moved into a heavily guarded five-star hotel in central Beirut, hoping to stay alive long enough to elect a candidate of their choice.
Lebanese people watched this drama unfold in fascination. Who would be next? It was all anyone could talk or think about. At the beginning, people would stay home for a few days after every explosion. But by the fifth or sixth assassination, they waited a few hours for the roads to be cleared, then went about their usual business.
With the MPs in hiding, the targets changed. In December, a senior army general was assassinated. In January, a US diplomatic vehicle was targeted, killing three passers-by. The latest assassination was that of a Lebanese counter-terrorism officer who had reportedly been working with a UN team to uncover the killers of Rafik Hariri.
Ironically, Lebanese _joie de vivre_ continues. Nightclubs and cafés remain full. After all, where else can one discuss and analyze the latest events in the Lebanese murder mystery?