Tayyouneh Clash stirs up sectarian anger in Echo of Civil War

He was only one year old when his panicked father came to pick him up and they fled with his mother the gunfire that shook their neighborhood. It was the day the civil war in Lebanon started 46 years ago. His family’s building in Beirut was on the front line.

Now 47, Bahij Dana did the same last week. He evacuated his wife and two of his children as shootings raged for hours outside the same building. Civil protection rescuers came to help his father and mother, trapped in the lower floors.

“History repeats itself,” said Dana.

Thursday’s battle lasted five hours between supporters of Lebanon’s two powerful Shiite factions – Hezbollah and Amal – and gunmen suspected of being supporters of a Christian party – the Lebanese Forces. It took place on the line between the neighborhoods of Shiyyah and Ain al-Remmaneh on the southern outskirts of Beirut, the same notorious front line that divided the capital and its suburbs into warring sections during the country’s dark civil war.

It wasn’t just the memories of the war that were sparked by the scenes of gunmen on the streets and schoolchildren leaning under desks. The fighting, which killed seven people, also fueled sectarian passions from this violent past, which the Lebanese had learned to dismiss without ever addressing the causes.

Add to that a failed government, hyperinflation and growing poverty, and the country of six million people turns into a powder keg on the Mediterranean.

Clashes erupted over the investigation into last year’s massive explosion at the port, as the political elite closed ranks in efforts to block it.

Despite calls for calm, the leaders of Shiite Hezbollah and the rival Lebanese Christian Forces maintained their heated rhetoric. They brought back the jargon of the civil war, speaking of “front lines” and “neighborhood defenses”, deepening the feeling that the pact which had maintained social peace since the war had come undone.

“We have reconciled, and now they want to pit us against each other again,” said Camille Hobeika, a 51-year-old mechanic and Christian resident of Ain al-Remmaneh.

Since the war, the sectarian warlords who fought it have shared political power, signing a pact in 1989 and decreeing an amnesty for themselves. Although rivals, they had a common interest in keeping the system rife with favoritism and corruption, and therefore generally maintain a precarious peace.

The new fighting has highlighted a generational divide that is at the heart of how the Lebanese deal with this heritage.

For those who experienced the atrocities of communal fighting between 1975 and 1990, the country is doomed to this system, even with occasional bouts of violence whenever the political leadership in place seeks to recalibrate the balance of power.

Dana sees the explosion of violence as a tactic proven by the leaders: when faced with problems, they fuel the fear of civil war, so that the supporters of each sect rally around their leader, considering him as their only protection.

For him, this is how things work, rooted in “zaim”, Arabic for leader, which offers his community jobs and services in exchange for the unconditional loyalty of his supporters.

“We’re used to it. We were brought up in an environment of war,” Dana said. “We don’t accept war. But I accept my country, my cedar, my family and my friends. Where can I find this?”

But many in the younger generation say they refuse to be pawns of the political elite. They tried to demonstrate, with nationwide rallies in 2019, but did little to shake the foundations of the ruling class.

Dana’s 22-year-old daughter Vanda, a university student, sees nothing to gain from management and no interest in staying in Lebanon.

Over the past three years, Lebanon has lost its status as a middle-income country, with more than 70% of the population falling into poverty and many skilled professionals leaving. Her father’s 25-year-old printing press has fallen into disrepair and the family’s money is stuck in the bank, inaccessible due to restrictions imposed during the financial crisis.

Now his bedroom windows are riddled with bullets.

“We learned and went to the best universities, only to experience it! Why ? Why must I be terrified now when a door slams? Why do I have to run to my father crying when there is noise? live this life, she said sobbing.

“My parents say they still have hope. But there is nothing left,” said young Dana. “Why should I plan a family here and put them through this? In 10 or 20 years the same will happen. It will always be that way.”

Some are placing their hopes in the legislative elections next spring to escape the grip of the leaders. But Lebanese politics are mainly sectarian. Party supporters are overwhelmingly from the same sect, and constituencies are gerrymandered to fit sectarian lines.

A few days after the clashes, many residents of the region have still not returned home. Newly bullet-riddled apartment buildings line the streets.

Army vehicles and barbed wire separate the predominantly Christian Ain al-Remmaneh and the predominantly Shia Muslim Shiyyah – bringing back the image of a West Beirut and East Beirut, a divided Lebanon rejected since the war.

In Shiyyah, the neighborhood is in mourning. All those killed were supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups. Posters for a mother of five killed on her balcony by flying bullets hang between the buildings.

“Hezbollah has always been targeted,” said Ali Haidar, a 23-year-old resident of Shiyyah.

With sectarian violence, each sect brings out its accumulated resentments against the other, imaginary or real.

Haidar said Hezbollah defended Lebanon against Israel and terrorism to meet hostility from internal enemies like the Lebanese Forces. When Israel bombed his neighborhood and other Hezbollah areas in 2006, he said “life was normal on the other side.”

On the other side in Ain al-Remmaneh, electronics store owner Sami Nakad blamed the Shiites for the violence on Thursday. Shiyyah bullets landed in his apartment above the store. He insisted that the residents of Ain al-Remmaneh, defending their neighborhood, carried only sticks.

When asked how he explained the deaths on the other side, Nakad said: “They committed suicide because they want to twist things.”

During the shootings on Thursday, Nakad, who is 70, hid with his wife and daughter for hours in a stairwell.

His employee, Shadi Nicola, 45, left when the bullets started flying, seeing no use in the fight. He called the clashes a “theater” of leaders losing popularity amid a crushing economic crisis.

“The elections will bring them back. These people … came by blood. They will only go with blood,” he said.

Elie, a 28-year-old trainer, has been sleeping with friends far from the neighborhood since the clashes. He has an upcoming interview for a job abroad and is ready to leave Lebanon.

“This (fight) is not our decision,” he said. The country is sliding into a mess, and the leaders “are not even making a 1% effort to fix things. They are taking us further.”

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