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Bearing Witness in Beirut

Eyewitness Beirut
by PaulaG and the Indy Collective
As reports come in from Lebanon, an correspondent is sending in on the ground, first hand reports.
Creative Commons image of Beirut - May 9,2008

The General Strike started on May 7th when unions called for a strike to increase the minimum wage from 300,000 Lebanese pounds to 960,000 due to inflation in food and fuel prices. That's an increase from $200 per month to just over $600 per month, the Government offered a mere $100 of an increase.
It was then revealed that Hizbollah had their own telecommunications network and the government demanded that they shut it down.
There was to be a big demonstration for the 7th but there were rumours that pro-government militia snipers were going to attack the demonstration and protests at the airport road, so the unions backed down. However the strike went ahead and the usually intensely manic streets were empty of traffic.

Roadblocks appeared all over Beirut formed by opposition groups including Hizbollah and Amal forces. The worst fighting happened along a main artery into Beriut at Corniche al Mazaraa and at Rasa al Nabeh, (we got caught in some of the gun battles there).
The opposition militias are incredibly organised and have armed men on nearly every street corner of a contested site. What is incredible is the absolute lack of control the government has. On one side of a roadblock would be youths and the other Lebanese army forces with tanks but the army is not interfering.
Checkpoints can be police, army, Amal, Hizbollah or Harriri supporters but they all wave you through. Being Irish, and not American, is a real bonus. The normalcy of life is continuing on in some areas; binmen are still collecting some bins, rubbish piling up in other areas.

The second day of the strike, government militias came out and also formed roadblocks, and now with all the roadblocks it doesn't seem possible to get out of Lebanon.
The airport is closed, although flights were still coming in, none were leaving.
The port is closed and the roads to Syria blocked off by March 14th supporters, another name for the government.
Fighting was intense in Hamra last night with pro-government militia coming out onto the streets. Nasrallah, leader of Hizbollah, gave a press conference yesterday refusing to dismantle the telecommunications system saying it would be like cutting off his hands. We watched it in Hamra with a largely westernised group of Hizbollah supporters, as this was a crucial witness to see how things would escalate or not.
There had been intermittant gunfire all around, during and after the speech. We got a lift home from a kind stranger. At one point an armed man in a balaclava gave us advice on how to minimise the number of checkpoints to go through. He pulled up his balaclava to explain better! So polite in giving directions, with a machine gun in his hand. The machine guns are held by all groups so calling on anyone to decommision is a no brainer.

We saw the speech given by Hariri and he looked like a man without control, but as we don't understand Arabic the content was translated and I understand that his speech was speaking to westerners, while Nasrallah was speaking to the local population.
Today we saw the smoke plumes coming out of Hamra in West Beirut where Hariri's TV station was all but destroyed; his radio station was also closed down.
There are talks of Lebanon descending into crisis and a military coup taking place. The next few days will be testing, Bush may come in to back the government militarily; they have thus far denounced Hizbollah but Both the Israeli gov and Hamas have issued statements that the matter is an internal one to Lebanon and they will not interfere.
Hamas has also said that the 400,000 Palestinian refugees [in Lebanon] should not get involved as they are not Lebanese citizens, and should still struggle for the right to return to Palestine.

I came to Lebanon to focus on the humanitarian stories in the Palestinian Camps and the challenges that their communities face with the 60th anniversary of Nakba or forced exile out of Palestine.
I'm not sure if that documentary can be made due to the current situation. It is impossible to take photos without being threatened; sticks and stones may be one thing but I'm not a fan of live ammunition.

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