Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lebanon: Fear stalks Beirut’s Shia suburbs

Photo: Toufic Chebib/IRIN. Bomb attacks, like this one in 2007, are not new in Lebanon, but the recent escalation has raised fears

Source: IRIN

BEIRUT, 26 March 2014 (IRIN) - A wave of bomb attacks in the last nine months in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where the Shia Hezbollah movement have a strong following, have left residents fearful of a fresh round of conflict and insecurity.

There have been nine bombs in southern Beirut since July 2013, killing more than 70 people, almost all civilians, according to the Ministry of Health.

Hezbollah has responded to the bomb attacks by strengthening its presence on the streets: Men in civilian clothes from the Hezbollah security service give orders on their walkie-talkies, and the few cars parked near a local mosque are scanned with a bomb detector.

Recently, new gates were erected in the area around the most important mosques. Vehicles are banned during prayer times - seen to be a particularly risky time.

When IRIN visited Dahyieh suburb earlier this month yet another bomb scare had people nervous. “Today, the security is reinforced. It's rumoured that there are two booby-trapped cars in the neighbourhood, they're trying to locate them,” said Fares, a resident of the area. Such bomb scares are now a normal part of daily life in the area, he said.

Jihadi Sunni groups are accused of deliberately targeting civilians in Dahyieh, a largely Shia district in south Beirut, in revenge for Hezbollah’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria. Hezbollah has a strong support base in Dahyieh, a suburb which groups together several areas including Haret Hreik, Bir Assan and Bir el Abed. Other attacks have taken place in central Beirut and other Shia areas of the country.

A sign of the new escalation in violence and fear has been the use of suicide bombings in a third of these recent attacks, something last seen during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). One of the deadliest in Dahyieh was a car bomb on 15 August 2013 which killed more than 20 people and injured at least 200.

For Lokman Slim, a political analyst and resident of the Haret Hreik area of Dahyieh, the attackers have altered the mood in the suburbs. “This suburb was seen as a high-security stronghold. Now, the adversary comes and explodes itself at its heart. He conveys a message: he's not afraid of dying for his ideas. The terrorists have imposed fear as a way of life.”

Fatima, 42 and a mother of two children, says the fear is palpable. She lives in a flat facing the main mosque: “Bomb attacks have become a habit, but it gets more and more difficult to get over them. I feel a profound weakness in the area; we never know where they could come from.”

Her husband decided two weeks ago not to send their children to school, after the director told him the school was threatened. The Lebanese Ministry of Education could not confirm this threat, but these kinds of rumours are increasing - an indication of a growing community psychosis.

Many residents told IRIN they were consciously limiting unnecessary travel. Fatima's flat overlooks the mosque street, which used to have a lot of people walking around. These days, it is almost empty.

Fewer customers

Shop owners say they have started seeing a drop in customers. Mohammad, the manager of a tobacco store, has lived in Dahyieh since 1986: “Ever since the summer, sales have decreased. Before, people used to come from outside Dahyieh to purchase local products.”

According to Lebanese economist Bachir El Khoury, economic decline in Dahyieh following the attacks not only stems from the decreasing number of visitors from outside: “The greater part of the clientele is from within the area. But with the regional instability, people’s purchasing power has strongly decreased.”

To reassure buyers, and protect themselves, shopkeepers are trying to adapt, with sandbags placed near the front of the store, parking bans, and extended opening hours.

“We decided to open the shop until 9pm,” said Omar, the owner of a jewellery shop, “because the customers prefer to come when it's night, when there are no explosions. But even with all the safety measures set up by the army and from Hezbollah, we don't feel 100 percent protected.”

Some inhabitants have already made a decision to leave. “I'm waiting for Mothers’ Day [21 March in Lebanon] and then I will move out,” said a local florist.

According to Slim, this trend could increase at the end of the school year: “Some families will probably settle back in South Lebanon, from where they originate and often still have a family house. Those who have jobs in Beirut would do daily round trips. This is what happened during the 2006 war.”

But Ahmad and Youssef, two 20-year-old barbers, are determined to stay: “Yes, we are worried when we see a car which seems suspicious. But this won't change what we think, or how we live.”

“We won't leave. Anyway, the insecurity is not only affecting Dahyieh. We're unfortunately expecting something much bigger to happen that will impact all Lebanon.”