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A test of wills

Sarah John

IT didn’t take long for onceboisterous Beirut to become a ghost town in the evenings. We were petrified. Night after night we sat at home dreading what might come.

And it came. The explosions ripped through an unsuspecting neighbourhood. Our windows shuddered and the doors rattled. My first thought was relief – a selfish thought. The bomb was not in our neighbourhood. We had been spared.

The series of explosions which rocked the country came as local and international pressure mounted on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. On 14 February, after billionaire-turnedpolitician Rafic Hariri was assassinated in a car explosion, fingers immediately pointed to Syria. Mass demonstrations all over Lebanon demanded the end of Syrian domination of Lebanese politics, the withdrawal of Syrian troops and their intelligence apparatus. The international community reiterated those demands. Finally, Syria began the withdrawal.

And the explosions began, too.

If the intention was to terrorize us, it worked. I took the children out only when necessary and practically ran past parked cars. One of them might explode any second. It wasn’t just paranoia; it was real fear. I had to stand in a queue to get into the supermarket as we all waited patiently for our cars and possessions to be searched for any kind of bomb. We placed identification cards on our cars and reported any suspicious vehicles. Several times, I grabbed the children and hid them indoors as the army swooped down on an unidentified vehicle parked in the neighbourhood.

In a reminder of the war days, each neighbourhood organized its own lookout group. Young men would spend the nights roaming the streets, scanning them for suspicious activities.

With every explosion, I embraced my two young children. ‘Please,’ I prayed, ‘don’t let them live their childhood like I did.’

I remember my own mother holding me as shells zoomed overhead and slammed into nearby buildings. I remember the screams of dying people, the smell of burning guns. I remember bidding a silent farewell to my sisters and parents each time yet another rocket exploded or a car detonated nearby.

Similar thoughts were obviously running in other people’s minds as talk of the civil war returned.

The newly rebuilt downtown area dotted with restaurants and cafés – everyone’s favourite hangout – was deserted. Some businesses were shutting down. The pedestrian area, usually filled with running children, was abandoned. I longed for things to go back as they had been just a few months ago.

It wasn’t hard to guess who was behind the explosions. The aim was obviously to re-ignite sectarian strife.

Television networks began to broadcast anti-war slogans: ‘We are not going back to 1975’, ‘We are united’, ‘Unite for the sake of Lebanon’. Images of a destroyed Beirut and a reconstructed one were repeatedly broadcast.

A National Unity Week was declared to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1991). Free events were organized in the downtown area. The idea was to get people to overcome their fears and return to normal life. Most of all, we were called upon to show solidarity for a united Lebanon.

And we emerged from our homes. Thousands of Lebanese of all sects made their way downtown. We participated in all the planned activities. Children painted the red, white and green colours of the national flag, made them into kites and flew them overhead. Restaurants filled up once again. Lebanese singers held free concerts. The area was jammed with people. Many held up Lebanese flags or had it painted on their faces.

‘They can’t scare us any more,’ said one woman. ‘If they thought that planting bombs would make us suspect each other and go back to war, they are wrong. So very wrong. We will never go back to war.’

As suddenly as they began, the explosions stopped. People are smiling again. Beirut is once again its old self and the city’s usually hopping nightlife has returned. There is still tight security everywhere. But there is also a strong feeling of patriotism.

Somehow we have made it through this period – together.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

New Internationalist issue 380 magazine cover This article is from the July 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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