After the bullets come down: the perils of Beirut’s celebratory gunfire
BEIRUT // It always starts the same way. There’s a call from a friend, a glance at a rushed, inconclusive news report and, sometimes, a reverberating boom from across town shakes the air. A bomb may have just gone off.
What follows are frantic phone calls to anyone who might have a better vantage point, as well as scrambles onto rooftops to scan for a telltale column of black smoke that will point to yet another deadly car bombing in Lebanon’s capital.
This familiar scene played out again last Saturday – twice. But Beirut was lucky: no bombs went off and nobody had been assassinated. Rather, mourners at a funeral for Hizbollah fighters – killed in clashes with militants on Lebanon’s border with Syria – had fired rocket-propelled grenades into the air, scaring civilians into thinking that another round of bombings had arrived in Lebanon. Once it became clear that this was not the case, however, things quickly calmed down and got back to normal.
Firing RPGs is just the more extreme version of Lebanon’s long-standing pastime of shooting automatic weapons into the air — mostly under the umbrella of celebratory gunfire.
People shoot in the air for all sorts of occasions. Your child did well in their high school exams? Empty a clip from a Kalashnikov from the balcony. Favourite politician speaking on TV? Same thing. Weddings, funerals and holidays are other favourite occasions that people use as an excuse to open fire at the sky.
Like the political deadlock, the lack of a president for more than a year, the horrible Beirut traffic jams or the straining electricity grid, celebratory gunfire is just accepted as part of life in Lebanon. Most of its citizens pay little notice when the staccato rat-tat-tat of gunfire breaks out – at least once its been identified as celebratory. They just continue on with their day.
The RPGs fired last Saturday appeared to cause no harm but sometimes people get hit.
In August 2013, Bayan Bibi, now aged 26, was walking with a friend along the main street of Beirut’s bustling, upmarket Hamra district, in front of a shop that prints trendy customised T-shirts, when she felt a strange sensation on her back.
“I felt as if my spine was cut and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. It was “as if a big rock came to my back”.
As Ms Bibi was visibly in pain, her friend and passers-by began searching to see if a large object had fallen and hit her, but found no culprit on the pavement. Her friend Rania went to examine Ms Bibi’s back and found a tiny hole with blood coming from it.
A bullet fired in celebration from a nearby neighbourhood had crashed through Ms Bibi’s shoulder, missing her spine by less than a centimetre. The bullet continued through her flesh, cutting through a lung before coming to a stop between her ribs.
“Because it’s Hamra you don’t think that it might happen, you know?” said Ms Bibi. “Because it’s safe [in Hamra] ... This stuff doesn’t happen usually here in this street.”
Nabih Berri – a former warlord who heads the Shiite Amal movement and who serves as Lebanon’s speaker of parliament – had been speaking on television to mark the 34th anniversary of the disappearance of Shiite religious leader Musa Sadr when Ms Bibi and her friend were strolling through Hamra. Excited by their leader’s presence on television, some Amal supporters had taken to the streets, firing in the air.
In Beirut, men who are shooting into the air will often try to arc their fire so that bullets land in rival areas, home to sectarian and political groups they oppose.
Mr Berri picked up Ms Bibi’s hospital bill, she says, as a show of goodwill.
Today the bullet hangs on her chest as a necklace. Engraved on the projectile is her name, along with the date and time of when she was shot.
Ms Bibi says that she hopes to launch a campaign against celebratory gunfire this summer and distribute bullet necklaces as a sign of protest.
Blogger Elie Fares, who writes about social issues in Lebanon, believes the celebratory gunfire phenomenon stems from the country’s “live as if you don’t have a tomorrow” mantra and an overall desensitisation to violence in the country.
During Ramadan in 2013, Mr Fares was sitting on a balcony in Tripoli after enjoying an iftar at a friend’s house, when Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni-backed Future Movement, came on TV. Men started driving around the city on mopeds, firing ammunition from their automatic rifles into the sky. One of those bullets landed on the balcony where Mr Fares was sitting, ricocheting off some plants before coming to a rest.
“If I had been sitting a few centimetres closer, it could have hit me,” he said.
And then several months ago, Mr Fares found bullets that had landed on the balcony of his home in a generally calm part of east Beirut.
But stopping or even reducing celebratory gunfire is no easy feat.
As New Year’s Eve approaches every year, Lebanon’s security forces put out statements vowing to arrest anyone who engages in celebratory gunfire.
And then the big day comes: looking down on Beirut from the hills around the city, tracer rounds illuminate the sky alongside fireworks and the thuds of automatic weapons of different calibres reverberate everywhere.
“The government cannot stop the gunfire because its power is extremely limited,” said Mr Fares.
The most success in this area has come when major politicians – like Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – tell their followers to stop firing their weapons in the air. But the calm only stays for so long.
Given that Ms Bibi is trying to launch a campaign to protest against celebratory gunfire, she is more optimistic than most about the likelihood of minds being changed. If those who discharge their weapons into the air stopped to think about the damaging impact of their actions, she says, they might be less enthusiastic about their pastime.
“If they think about it, they will not shoot,” she said. “Maybe I wasn’t walking in the street that day. Maybe it’s his cousin or his father. He didn’t think about that.”
Updated: June 10, 2015 04:00 AM