Foreign Policy Blogs

Letters from Beirut (I)

I want to thank my friend, Dr. Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous for allowing me to publish his letters.

Three Days on: A Report from Beirut

09.May.08 / 10:00 AM

On the third day of what seems to be the beginning of a new civil war in Lebanon, I guess I owe you a personal account. I’m not going to bore you with the political details, which you can follow in The Daily Star ( or other news outlets. As a political scientist I’m tempted to compare this situation to the attempts by the CIA to use yellow labour unions to create an unstable situation and thus prepare a coup against a democratically elected government, as in cases such as Chile in 1972/73, or the ongoing attempts to undermine the Chavez government in Venezuela , only this time around the imperialists are the Iranians and the government under attack is pro-Western , but I’ll leave that for another day.


Last night was the worst so far. From where I stand, watching Lebanese and Arabic TV with my wife from the relative security of our new home in the predominantly Christian hillside suburb of Hazmieh, it is clearly an attempt by the two Shi’ia militias, i.e. Hezbollah and Amal, to illustrate that they can stage a successful coup if they so choose. At the moment they are allowing the army to stand between them and the population in the predominantly Sunni parts of town. NB: the predominantly Christian parts of Beirut, the Shi’ia suburbs in the south and the rest of the greater Beirut metropolitan area haven't yet be touched by the violence. The government buildings in the city centre have not yet been stormed.

Last night the Hariri own “Future TV” stations, both terrestrial and satellite, were stormed and taken by the Shi’ia militias and forced off the air. Hariri's radio station and daily newspaper are also closed down. Hezbollah has threatened to dynamite the buildings if they go back on air. The pro-government Maronite dominated “LBC” has returned to regular broadcasting, almost completely ignoring the fighting; obviously to avoid Future's fate. The only live TV news is now coming from the pro-Iranian Lebanese stations and Gulf based “Al Jazeera” and “Al Arabia” satellite TV. All pro-government newspapers are not in the newsstands today. One silver lining is that the to-date pro-Iranian, but Sunni owned and operated “New TV” has shown signs of switching sides, perhaps in this case identity politics is playing a role. The Gulf stations are also expressing solidarity with “Future.”

The Sunni population, to which I must count myself, having married into a traditional, middle class Beiruti family, is hunkered down, hoping that this phase will end soon. Please note that the pro-government parties and militias have not yet begun to fight. So far they’ve only , largely unsuccessfully , attempted to protect their residential neighbourhoods. Basically the Shi’ia militias are taking these residential and commercial areas, one by one, and either turning them over to the army for “safe keeping” or patrolling them themselves, these young men wearing clear militia markings on their rag-tag uniforms for identification. If people in the occupied areas resist, e.g. broadcast or distributed leaflets against the occupation, the militias have threatened to return and destroy their property. I’ll stop here in order not to go off on a rampage of polemics myself.


Finally, just a brief report on how our family is doing. Dima and I have stayed home since Tuesday evening, only venturing out to stock up on supplies for the duration. We bought a month's worth of baby food and diapers for our 6 month old daughter, Nour, and a week's supply of beer for me; this war better be over soon! ;-)

We are planning to stay home today, Friday, and over the weekend. I hope that the army has secured safe routes to the north by Monday so I can go to work. Otherwise I will attempt to teach via the computer based “Blackboard” ( virtual classroom that we have been using so successfully at my uni for several years. Dima doesn't need to go to the office at IWSAW ( till Tuesday.

Watching TV yesterday and this morning is like a nightmare. Our old neighbourhood of Ras al Nabeh, and in particular directly around the apartment building in which we lived from 2000-2003, was in the heat of the battle. Dima's aunt and uncle still live in the same 8 story building in Mohammed el Hout Street. The family fled the fighting early on and are now internally displaced refugees along with many other Sunnis from the parts of town which have been occupied by the Shi’ia militias. Many have summer houses or apartments in the mountains (largely inhabited by Druze and Christians) and have take refugee there. The weather is unseasonably cool and these places don't have heating as a rule, but it's better then being in the thick of battle.

Our old part of town, Mossaitbeh where we lived from 2003 till January 2008, and particularly our immediate neighborhood, just off Mar Elias Street, was a battlefield last night and is now completely occupied by the militias. We watched this main shopping street, and the side streets I know so well from walking my dog, turn into sniper infested shooting alleys. Please note that many of the Shi’ia in our old neighbourhood have lived in peace with their Sunni, Christian and Druze neighbours for decades. As is so often the case, many of the “trouble makers” were shipped in from out of town. Dima's parents’ family business is located in this street as well and is obviously off limits to her pro-Harari dad and two brothers.

Finally, Dima's father and mother were actually pinned down by sniper fire for over two hours last night. Her dad is a real survivor, skills he acquired during the last civil war, so they got home safe. Her younger brother's family was “only” sitting at home in Hamra terrified by the machinegun and RPG fire on the residential streets below. Her older brother's family watched as Shi’ia militia successfully stormed their neighbourhood, just off Mar Elias Street, and established order, only to move on to take the next Sunni neighbourhood. Please note that the predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods are not ghettoized as is the case with many Shi’ia parts of town, but mixed and many Christians and Druze live here, as well as many peace loving Shi’ia.

In conclusion, what we have seen is only round one. The Shi’ia militias, after occupying the Sunni residential areas and the heart of the Beirut, will now have to administer these vast areas of this great city. We’ve seen how difficult that is in Baghdad and the major cities of occupied Palestine.

As a pacifist and a Christian, I notice that my character is not only to side with the oppressed and feel rage towards the aggressor, but also to want to fight. So I guess I’ve got my Jihad (struggle to follow the will of God) cut out for me. It's one thing to preach peace and altogether another to practice it in a situation such as this.

My heart goes out to the friends and relatives who were preparing to return home to Lebanon from business trips, study abroad or vacation and are stuck outside the country. We are all in this together!