Alex Potter, one of Matador’s Fall 2012 Glimpse Correspondents, was in Beirut over the weekend to witness the aftermath of the bomb that killed Lebanese Internal Security Forces’ intelligence chief Wissam al Hassan and sparked clashes between police and protesters. Here’s her story.

Scenes from Beirut

On October 19, 2012, a bomb exploded in the largely Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh, Beirut. Seven people were killed in the explosion, including Brig. Gen. Wissam al Hassan, an important security figure and very publicly opposed to the Syrian regime. Around 3pm that Friday, a car parked and exploded between two buildings in Ashrafiyeh, shattering widows and storefronts for blocks around.


Scenes from Beirut

For many people in Lebanon, this was a cruel reminder of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The explosion came as a shock to residents of Beirut, especially with political tension mounting as a result of the war in Syria. Many feared this was the start of the neighboring conflict crossing the border into Lebanon. Later at night on October 19, Beirutis gathered near the site of the explosion for a candlelight vigil. Everyone was tense, but, in the character of the Lebanese, still managed to joke around with each other.


Scenes from Beirut

The public funeral for Wissam al Hassan and his bodyguard was held in downtown on Sunday, October 21. Lebanese came from all over the country in solidarity, and thousands of people filled the area of downtown called Martyrs Square, near the grave of Rafic Hariri. Nearly everyone carried a flag. Though there are dozens of political parties in Lebanon, each with its own flag, the only flags visible were those of complementary parties, and the official Lebanese flag. Thousands carried the light blue flag emblazoned with a sun -- the flag of the present regime party, Al Mustaqbel (The Future).


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Scenes from Beirut

After the official funeral, the protest began. The youth wanted the Prime Minister to resign -- they believed he was pro-Syrian. Though he offered his resignation, the President did not accept, saying Lebanon needs unity. So when someone yelled to storm the Grand Serail (a historic building near Parliament), hundreds ran forth with sticks and stones towards a well-protected political building.


Scenes from Beirut

The youth started with sticks and stones; the police and internal security responded with tear gas and projectiles like mini-fireworks. Each time the tear gas would land, someone would throw it back towards the security forces. Some were colored red to cloud the air further, but it did not deter the protesters.


Scenes from Beirut

Tear gas does not make for a pleasant experience. It burns the throat, clouds the eyes, and makes tears pour forth unabated. It turns eyes red and closes off throats in minutes. I ran into the midst to get closer photos, but after a few minutes, like the others, I ran to an adjacent street to breathe.


Scenes from Beirut

To deter the effects of the gas, or to wake those who had been knocked out by other means, the people poured water, held onions to their noses, and tied masks around their faces. The security forces were stationed behind railings, fences, or barbed wire, all with heavy body armor; the civilians had nothing. But then again, they threw the first stone.


Scenes from Beirut

However, nothing can stand against certain projectiles. The army started firing into the air (whether real or rubber bullets, I do not know) and some people were hit. As soon as shots were fired, people ran. I was in the middle of the street. I ran to some adjacent stairs and was knocked down by a stampede of people. I covered my head (though I was really more worried about the equipment in my bag), but someone lifted me off the ground and we ran.


Scenes from Beirut

The protest went on for about two hours. Elsewhere in the city things were much worse. The whole time this protest was going on downtown, opposing political groups fought in the streets -- with real guns and real bullets -- as well as in the northern city of Tripoli. No one was killed in downtown Beirut, but those in other areas were not so lucky.


Scenes from Beirut

The people threatened to stay overnight. Those who remained (maybe 30) set up a tent and mattresses. Eventually, a member of parliament came out and sat with youth in the tent. The President told everyone to go home, and the amazing thing is -- they did. Some fear this may lead to further conflict, the beginning of Syria in Lebanon. But for now the people followed their زعيم, their leader. Conflict right now is in no one's interest.

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