Beirut has been my home for ten breathtaking if at times terrifying years. Lebanon has been my story for even longer than that – twenty five years in all. It is where I first saw a dead body, that of an unknown man who had been shot during the Civil War in the early 1980s.
Lebanon is where I was shot and wounded, caught in a burst of heavy machine-gun fire in the village of Damour, south of Beirut in 1983. It is a country where I have faced at least a dozen life threatening experiences that leave me fortunate to be alive. Lebanon was once known as the terror capital of the world and Beirut was a divided city, Muslims on one side, Christians on the other. I was sure the country would never be able to recover fully from the vicious self inflicted wounds and re-build, let alone turn into a country I could one day call home.
So when CNN agreed to re-open the Beirut Bureau back in 1997 some six years after the civil war ended I was thrilled. I unpacked my bags in what was still called Muslim West Beirut as the capital started to rise from the proverbial ashes.
I began to both live and work alongside the Lebanese – the Sunni Muslims, the Shiaa Muslims, the Druze, as well as the Christians. The old green demarcation line that divided Muslim West Beirut from the Christian East came down. With snipers gone, long disused roads soon re-opened. Underpasses that once hid heavy weaponry were cleared and traffic flowed through them. It seemed that the ghosts of the past were being laid to rest.
The real estate market boomed, and tourists rediscovered Lebanon under the unwavering stewardship of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. Lebanon enjoyed a surge of self confidence.
A newly constructed Downtown Beirut sparkled with gleaming boutiques selling high-end ladies fashion like Chanel, Dior and Versace. Expensive restaurants rubbed shoulders with the hubbly bubbly crowd drawing clouds of apple-scented smoke from banks of water pipes at places like Grand Café. The well-ordered streets were filled with cool cafes, tourists flooded back and once bombed-out central Beirut became a sought after destination for both the well well-heeled and the adventurous.
Prime Minister Hariri often walked around the area late at night like a proud father watching the growth of a new-born child. The new commercial centre was the jewel in his re-construction crown and it was where he sipped his last espresso coffee on Valentine’s Day two years ago, minutes before his armored motorcade was blown up in a massive bomb attack. Many blamed Syria for having at least a hand in the crime but nothing has been proved beyond reasonable doubt in any court of law.
After Hariri’s death Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians were swept away by the so-called Cedar Revolution. A string of unsolved murders of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists followed. I saw at first hand how many of them were killed or maimed, the victims of bombs planted under their cars or cold-blooded killing by silenced pistols in broad daylight. Smiling faces of the dead stared out from giant billboards along main roads. I knew many of them personally in the same way that I have also got to know most of Lebanon’s leaders of political groups and religious sects over the years.
But now, for the first time since the end of Lebanon’s civil war some sixteen years ago, the specter of a renewed conflict has reared an ugly head. The area around my sixth floor office in Downtown Beirut has turned into a front line of sorts. Heavily armed Lebanese troops with armored personnel carriers are entrenched in the streets below. It is hard to imagine that just a few months ago Lamborghinis, Porsche’s and Ferraris of the region’s rich and famous queued up for valet parking to enter the Buddha Bar.
On one side of Beirut stands the Western-backed government of Fouad Siniora who filled the huge political vacuum left by his friend and mentor, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
On the other side of the great divide sits a well-organized opposition group that has occupied Downtown Beirut since last December using hundreds of tents. It is led by Hezbollah and is predominantly Muslim Shiaa in nature but also has the support of Christians and some Druze as well.
As I move around the country I often get asked the same question by almost everyone I bump into. ‘Hello Mr. Brent. How is the situation?’ Of course most people already know my likely answer and nod before I have even spoken a word. The situation, I say, is ‘bad’.
‘It smells like garlic’ says Khalil Bedeir, the owner of a barber shop, summing up his post-war analysis of the situation. Mike has run his hugely popular business at the end of Bliss Street close to the sea for over forty five years. He has been the eyes and ears of this area all that time. ‘When I say garlic I mean it’s a smell that won’t go away easily and it makes me worried.’ explains Khalil who is far better known as Mike the barber.
The trouble with Mike’s life and that of every one living is Lebanon is that the country is once again on a collision course with itself. ‘I was shocked when I heard stories about Shiaa customers switching to Shiaa-run businesses and Sunnis doing the same. It seemed that it was the start of something we don’t want.’ he adds,
Mike’s sensitive finger was recently on the Lebanese pulse when he registered an irregular heartbeat long before deadly sectarian clashes broke out in and around the capital in January, triggered by the dangerous political deadlock that exists today.
Like the opposition, Prime Minister Siniora’s Government is also backed by Christians and most of the Druze community. The battle for power is being fought in a labyrinth of complex alliances with ruthless zeal over a key issue; the creation of an International Court to try suspects in the Hariri bombing.
Pro-Government politicians claim the opposition is trying to de-rail the legal process to protect Hezbollah’s ally Syria. While Siniora’s political foes have accused his Government ministers of hogging power and trying to railroad the country into a politically motivated Hariri trial that could harm Lebanon.
Last month hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured onto the streets of Downtown Beirut to commemorate the anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s death. Tension was so high that the Army deployed in such force that it worried many who watched. ‘We all want the truth, nothing but the truth and we will never let these criminals get away from their crime,’ said Lama Ghalayini whose father Abdul Hamid was one of twenty two others who perished when the Hariri bomb went off.
Although Hariri’s name towered over the tragedy often forgotten victims of the Valentine’s Day attack understand that if the truth behind Hariri’s assassination is eventually revealed it will close their files too. And, as I discovered reporting for this month’s edition of Inside the Middle East, ease some of their pain.
In the meantime all of us who live in Lebanon are having a hard time trying to predict how ‘bad’ it might get this year. What backlashes threaten triggered by Middle Eastern politics. Can Lebanon live and prosper? People are no longer sure.
* Brent Sadler is CNN’s Beirut bureau chief.