Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Disturbances in Damascus and Beirut

I was walking in downtown Beirut with my nephew Jad on Saturday night when my cellular telephone rang. I picked up the phone and found that it was my boss. "How are you today? Can you go to Syria now?" he asked?. When I ask what is going on there he said that demonstrators have already burnt the Danish and Norwegian embassies and are marching toward the French mission.
"The situation is developing very quickly. If you want to go you have to do it as soon as possible," he said.
For days there have been demonstrations in Muslim countries protesting a caricature offensive to Islam's Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper.
I took Jad to his parents house then drove home packed quickly and took a car to Damascus. It was my first trip to Syria since Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in April 2005. Less than two hours after leaving Beirut there I was in the Syrian capital. I was surprised that crossing the border is still as simple as it was in the past.
I asked my colleagues what was going on and they said the demonstrators were not able to enter the French Embassy because of tight security. It was quiet when I arrived.
An hour later I went to the Danish Embassy in the posh Abu Rummaneh neighborhood and saw the four-story building totally burnt. Not many people were in the street apart from few policemen.
¶ After having a dish of lentils soup at my favorite restaurant in Damascus, Sit el-Sham, I went to the hotel at about 2 a.m and went to bed.
I woke up early Sunday and went to the office. As I was reading the news I saw that the building that houses the Danish Embassy in Beirut was attacked. The last thing I imagined something like that would happen in Beirut. Before I left to Syria on Saturday, my colleague Dalia told me a demonstration was planned in Beirut for Sunday morning. I told myself nothing will happen here like what is going on in Syria. I was wrong.
Hundreds of demonstrators not only attacked the building in Ashrafieh but also attacked two nearby churches and damaged many cars in the area. Some 30 people were injured and one of the demonstrators that stormed the embassy building died inside it. Assafir newspaper had a front-page photograph showing one of the demonstrators jumping from the second floor of the building after begin surrounded by fire. He was injured and rushed to hospital.
What happened in Beirut was scary and thank God it did not turn worse. A friend called me from Beirut screaming: "They have attacked two churches. They are attacking Christians."
¶ Some Lebanese newspapers said the army took positions later in the day at what used to be the green line that divided what used to be east and west Beirut. The last thing we want in this country is to go back to this dark period that killed 150,000 people and wounded some 180,000.
What appear to have helped in cooling things down during the riots is what Christian leaders, such as Lebanese Forces Secretery-General Samir Geagea said. He told LBC television that the target is the embassy and not the Christians. Leaders were scared the situation could get out of control.
Every one in Lebanon was in shock. Who were these people? Who sent them? Why did they do this? Why weren't these enough policemen to protect the building?
Hopefully we will know soon after the more than 300 detainees are questioned and after an investigation is done.
After finishing work in Damascus, I took a car and headed back to Beirut. After crossing into Lebanon it was clear that the country was not normal. Several army checkpoints asking for IDs and searching cars.
At 9:15 p.m. I arrived at my friend Donna's house where she had some friends, all of them journalists, for dinner. We stayed there until about 11:30 p.m. talking about, in addition to gossip, Iraq, Hamas, Syria and of course the riots in Lebanon.
There I knew that Interior Minister Hassan Sabei had resigned because of what happened.
These two days were not the best for me as a journalist. I arrived in Syria when the riots where over and returned to Lebanon missing the big story.
What I hope in the end is that such disturbances don't happen.

Bassem Mroue
Beirut
Monday February 6, 2006.

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