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An American in Beirut: 'We Hurt Each Other, Then We Do it Again'

This is the eighth installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native New York resident who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

July 30, 2006

"Sunday Bloody Sunday"

Iman's phone rang at 1 p.m. today. It was her father. He woke up early, turned on the news and found reports that the U.N. building in downtown Beirut had come under protest. Things were getting ugly, he said, adding that under no circumstances were we to go anywhere near the U.N. building anytime soon.

We heeded his warning and made the shorter and safer walk out to our balcony. It's about a mile-and-a-half from the U.N. building. And just then, rising over the noise of passing cars below, over the roofs of buildings that obstructed our view, was the sound of a bullhorn. A voice, angry and loud enough to be heard a mile and a half away, was on the other side of it.

After about 15 minutes, the voice died down and I went about readying myself for another day in Beirut. The power was out, but I didn't need it to do the normal stuff: Eat breakfast, shower, get dressed. All the while I couldn't help but feel anxious about this new escalation in tension. The U.N. building coming under attack would seem a bold sign of frustration, showing itself in the form of chaos.

About an hour later, I headed to an Internet cafe on the other side of town. I've already written about another cafe where mostly local youth hang out, do a fair amount of socializing and play video games. By comparison, this is a serious place. It bills itself as a business center and people generally come here to do work. In several trips, I've never once heard music playing.

Today, this was not the case. I pushed opened the cafe's swinging door and was hit with the familiar melody of U2's famous tune, "One." It was the recent version, a duet with Mary J. Blige. I'd like to think that the owner of the cafe had something in mind when he put it on. After all, it is a song about conflict and reconciliation — and it seems this part of the world could use a little bit of the latter. But my hopes were soon dashed when an unrelated and trivial song by Eminem was played next. No, it apparently was a mere coincidence.

Early this morning, an Israeli airstrike hit a building housing refugees in the Southern Lebanese village of Qana. Israel has since said it was aiming for a nearby Hezbollah position, but this time it would seem its aim was off. As of my typing this, 54 civilians have been reported dead; 37 of them were children. Many of the children were in their pajamas and sleeping. Some of the children were handicapped. Click here to read more about the attack on Qana.

Qana has history. Many believe that it is where Jesus Christ performed a miracle, turning water into wine. More recently, however, events in Qana have been anything but miraculous. In 1996, Israel shelled a U.N. base in the village that was housing Lebanese civilians. More than 100 people were killed in that attack, and another 100 were injured. Now 10 years later, unbelievable tragedy has again come to the people of Qana.

Perhaps the dead of Qana provided the bass in the voice of the man on the bullhorn. Perhaps his words were given extra volume by the images of mangled children or the pained expressions of relatives who were left digging through the wreckage with their bare hands.

To be sure, this morning's protest on the U.N. was both disordered and misdirected. The images are disturbing, but where is the order in a country where disasters like that of Qana are taking place? And when calls for a cease-fire by the Lebanese government go unacknowledged by the involved parties that matter the most, where else is there to direct the frustration, sadness and anger of those caught in the middle?

Whether the owner of the café knew it or not, from where we sit, Bono's words have rarely seemed so appropriate:

"Well, did I ask too much, more than a lot? You gave me nothing, now it's all I got. We're one, but we're not the same. See we, hurt each other. Then we do it again."

July 31, 2006

"A Day's Worth of Objection"

Yesterday was a busy day here in Beirut.

Within hours of receiving news of the tragedy that had befallen the southern city of Qana, Lebanese located hours away gathered outside the U.N. House in Beirut. The meeting was rumored to be spontaneous, not organized by any particular political party or group, but rather bound together by a common sense of helplessness and anger. With only these feelings to draw on, the assembled crowd became enraged and soon transformed into a mob.

Doors were pushed in, windows smashed, U.N. staff frightened and at the end of it all, we still had a war here in Lebanon. Why had this happened? What could possibly push otherwise decent people, to do such strange things, ransacking a building and destroying property with whatever would do the trick? What was the point?

In talking to people here, it seems to circle back to a sense that the international community has been uncaring and extremely slow to push hard for a ceasefire. We're now coming up on 20 days of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Each new sunrise carries the news of mounting deaths of civilians, the loss of their homes, the creation of more displaced people and the deepening of challenges that Lebanon will face after the smoke clears. Each day there are more people caught in the middle whose feelings will harden and whose willingness to forgive will become less likely.

Yesterday, thousands of Lebanese acted on this desperation. People feel trapped in this situation and they urgently want help from people outside of it. And so, with few other means at their disposal, they irrationally lashed out at a symbol.

The crowd, in part, was dispersed by a Lebanese Army, the same army that has been fired upon by Israel and has taken casualties but, of course, can't enter the fray. After all, the fight is between Israel and Hezbollah. So the Lebanese Army has yet to return fire, again highlighting the impotence of the Lebanese government and the weakness of its armed forces. It was a helpless crowd being dispersed by a helpless army.

Yesterday morning's mayhem was followed by other demonstrations in Beirut, each organized by a different group. As the day wore on, the protests took on a more reflective tone. It was as if the day's grief and instinctive anger were settling in and thought and calm were needed to take its place.

Iman stopped by a candle light vigil in downtown Beirut after the sun had gone down. Here, unlike outside the U.N. building, silence and maybe even a dash of hope prevailed.

Afterward, Iman and I met up for dinner, went home and found out that Israel had called for a 48-hour break from airstrikes in the South. Yet, planes passing overhead seemed to come with the breaking news. They were closer, louder than they'd ever been. We decided it was almost as if they were announcing, "We may be gone for a few days, but we'll be back." Many here in Lebanon have little hope that anything but more grief and anger will be the result.

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If you've been reading these reports, I'd like to hear from you. Send your comments, suggestions and questions to witte.spencer@gmail.com

Part I: "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches"

Part II: "Much Has Changed Since That Family Photo"

Part III: "The New Beirut Nightlife, Airstrikes as a Snooze Button"

Part IV: "People Leaving War-Torn South Ask, 'Which Way is Safety?'"

Park V: "How I Got Here and Why I Haven't Left Yet"

Part VI: "Lebanon on a 'Helpless Walk Through Time'"

Part VII: "War Doesn't Stop For the Weekend"