New Violence in Lebanon Resembles Civil War Days

Lebanon hoped to never again find itself in the grip of a civil war after a 15-year civil war there ended in 1990. Today, it is staring at that very possibility. Fighting on the streets in Beirut, the capital, is the worst since the end of the war. Hezbollah gunmen are now in control of most of the Muslim part of the city.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Lebanon is a country that hoped to never again find itself in the grip of a civil war after its 15-year-long civil war came to and end back in 1990. Today it's staring at that very possibility. There's fighting on the streets in Beirut, the capital, the worst since the end of its war. Hezbollah gunmen are now in control of most of the Muslim part of Beirut. We go now to NPR's Deborah Amos, who was there. Good morning.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What is going on where you are?

AMOS: At this moment we have been hearing pretty fierce gunfire. Now, let me back up a minute and tell you that earlier this morning we heard the same thing. And then it got very quiet where I am in the city, which is on (unintelligible) Street. And Hezbollah militias had come into the city overnight. The fighting was pretty tough this morning. People started to come out on the streets. There were a couple of markets that had opened. I could start to see cars. So we thought it was over. The idea was that all the positions that Hezbollah had taken over would be turned over to the army, and at least this phase of this fighting would be over.

But it's been a surprise late this afternoon that there's been such heavy gunfire, because we just had reports, as you may know, the airport has been closed, closed by Hezbollah, and the army was on its way out there to begin to open the airport again.

So we've had mixed reports of this is over and it's not.

MONTAGNE: As you've indicated, Deb, this fighting has been going on for days. What triggered it?

AMOS: The trigger was a phone network. The government accused Hezbollah of having a private telephone network that goes from the south of Beirut to the south of the country, and they said it was illegal and they wanted Hezbollah to take it down. Hezbollah said no, this is part of our right to have weapons in the country to fight Israel, and the phone line is part of it.

AMOS: This is Hezbollah, in a sense, versus the government, but how much of it is also Hezbollah Shiite versus Sunni?

AMOS: You know, both sides want to say that that's not what it's about, and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, made leader clear that this is not a sectarian war, but once you look on the streets, it is. It's really hard to say that it's not, which is dangerous here and in the region. You know, Iraq has helped to open that schism between the two sects of Islam, and so it does get fought out in those terms here. I think both sides would rather it not be that way, but unfortunately it is.

MONTAGNE: And what is being done to end this fighting? There is an army, of course, in Lebanon. What is it doing?

AMOS: It is essentially standing in the middle. Part of the plan that is coming out is that the army will take over those offices. The idea was not for Hezbollah to take over West Beirut. The idea was to show that it could, that this was a show of force, a checkmate to the government. And that's what we thought would happen. And apparently it is in some places.

The army has tried to stay neutral. It is the only institution in the country besides the central bank that is still functioning, and if it took sides in this conflict, it might split apart, because the army is made up of all of Lebanon.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, Deb, civil war - you know, what's the feeling there?

AMOS: You know, I would have said three days ago that no one in Lebanon wanted to go back to the civil war, that people have memories and it was a horrible 15 years and the country was recovering from it. But in the past couple of days it is all the signs of the old civil war - you know, militias on the streets, men with guns, I have to say, because I was here in the '80s and I saw what it looked like then. This is a different version. But it has that feel, and I think that Lebanon has to look very, very hard at itself and ask, do you want to go back to this?

There are young people who are on the streets who don't have that memory, certainly not as strong as their parents. You know, the problem with wars, Renee, is they are much easier to start than they are to stop, and that's what it feels like this morning. How does this end?

And neither side is giving the other a graceful way out. They have been fighting verbally for, you know, more than 18 months. Remember, there hasn't been a president here for almost six months. There hasn't been a full cabinet for more than a year and a half. Parliament hasn't met (unintelligible) votes to try and find a president. All of those things add to the tension here. And it feels like a very dark time. Whether they go back to a civil war I can't tell you, because it's hard to say on a day like this.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos speaking from Beirut. Thanks very much.

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