Chaos in Beirut

I can’t stop thinking about what one of my former security advisers from Iraq said to me in a cafe here in Beirut just two days ago: ‘It’s quiet now Cal – but this is Beirut… at any moment, within 24 hours, the city and country could be thrust into complete chaos.”

Government loyalists added tyres to a burning barricade outside Beirut. Today, chaos is what happened.

The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech in the afternoon, reacting to what the government had said about Hezbollah’s telecommunication network (a private network used by Hezbollah for communication). It was exactly as expected – a fiery speech in which he said the government’s actions were tantamount to a declaration of war against his group.

After the speech, we headed out into the streets to tape a brief ‘piece to camera’while it was still light outside. Within minutes, deafening gunfire broke out all around us. A group of Lebanese Army soldiers started yelling at us to come towards them and take cover behind a large building. The rounds were snapping close to us as we ran behind the building.

Cameraman Christian Streib, who has lived in Beirut for a decade, snapped into action – immediately filming. We tried to do a ‘piece to camera’but with all the gunfire, I could hardly hear my own voice. I found myself screaming at times, and gave up pretty quickly.

The firefight was raging when Christian spotted gunmen on a nearby rooftop. He remarked that he’d got it on film – something I still cannot believe. I kept telling him he was making me nervous as he filmed, but the truth is he’s as seasoned as they get, and it was the simple gunfire, now coupled with large explosions from rocket-propelled grenades, that was really making me nervous.

For the Lebanese Army, gunmen on rooftops is a nightmare. Snipers are tantamount to death in gun battles, and it almost assured that no one was going to brave this street.

After a short while we made the decision to make a dash to our car, and try to get back to the bureau. With no medical gear or security, and the city getting dark, we had to go. We ran to our car… all the while rounds snapped close. In the car, I could hear our senior international correspondent Brent Sadler, who, to me, is the most knowledgeable person on Lebanon, remark that he had not heard RPG fire in Beirut in years. Not a good sign, I said to Christian.

As we drove around the city to avoid the neighbourhoods where the fighting was continuing, we passed a restaurant which was full of people. Less than a mile away from a raging gun battle, people were eating dinner – as we drove by in our flak jackets!

Such is Beirut – a place where it’s quiet… until it’s not.

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