"This country is like a person with liver failure who continues drinking," L. said, her head in her hands, as news of the day's first casualties broke.
At around 4pm this afternoon, dozens of men--mostly followers of Nabih Berri's Amal Movement-- gathered near the Mar Mikhael Church in Chiyah (in Beirut's southern suburbs) to protest electricity shortages. Riots over living conditions have been an almost daily occurrence in recent weeks; some neighborhoods outside central Beirut receive only 2 hours of electricity per day.
When the impromptu rioting broke out, the army routinely moved in to clear the burning tires from the road and disperse the angry crowd. They were met with a barrage of rocks. A scuffle between soldiers and protesters ensued; and then-- sniper gunfire from an unknown location. A local Amal leader shot dead. On TV later, continuous rounds of gunfire could be heard; panicked soldiers ducked and elbowed their way along the ground as protesters tried to flee the scene.
We had been at R.'s house in Mar Elias earlier that afternoon and had just left to go to a cafe in Clemenceau. R.'s mom called and insisted she come home immediately; she called back five minutes later and told her not to come home at all that night-- the protests had spread to their neighborhood and other areas. On TV we watched a mass of young men light garbage cans on fire just a few feet from her house. One young man interviewed on New TV yelled, "Let's see whose stronger now. Sunni or Shia!" Everyone gathered around the TV set gasped. "Why are they showing this? Can't they edit it out?" S. complained.
Outside Mar Mikhael church--more wounded, more dead, amidst reports that the army had retreated under fire. The violence continued into the night. I finally decided to take a cab home. R. and S. took down the driver's name and told him to take me straight home to my front door. The driver and his friend-- who was riding shotgun-- were on their way to Casino du Liban for a night of gambling. They invited me to join; I politely declined.
At home, more bleak news: a grenade attack wounded 5 people in the Christian neighborhood of Ain el Rummaneh. An RPG was fired in Chiyah. Just before midnight Hezbollah security finally stepped in to help the army control the situation. Snipers were apprehended and arrested. The tally-- 8 people killed, and more than 22 wounded.
S. works in Burj al Barajneh -- originally a Palestinian refugee camp that now is also home to many Shia, poor migrant workers from Syria and southeast Asia. That area has barely received any state-supplied electricity and so most people are forced to subscribe to power supplied by a generator. The man who supplies the generator power to her building-- a Sunni Beiruti merchant, as she describes him-- was mobbed by dozens of angry residents last week when the electricity went out every five minutes. He was reportedly stabbed five times, but survived the attack. J. reports the same from the southern coastal city of Tyre, where his local generator supplier was shot after he announced a hike in prices. "Our standard of living only seems to decrease here," L. laments.
Prime Minister Saniora just declared tomorrow--Monday-- a "national day of mourning". All schools and universities will remain closed. Yesterday was also a national day of mourning, in honor of the 10 victims who perished in a car bombing the previous day. It seems we now have a day of mourning, followed by events that warrant a further day of mourning. "One day yes, one day no," to borrow from my first Beiruti landlord-- a phrase she employed to describe the erratic supply of potable water.