BEIRUT (AP) — At a Beirut hospital ward, five Lebanese protesters with bandaged eyes and faces huddled in a circle, their arms wrapped around each other, and they vowed to be back on the streets soon, despite their wounds from recent clashes with police.
“We are coming back,” said one of them, 20-year-old Charbel Francis.
Such resolve by some protesters signals that demands for sweeping government reforms won’t be squashed easily, even as security forces throw up cement barriers and resort to more violent means of crowd control, such as rubber bullets. But the recent descent into clashes after three months of peaceful protests has also triggered introspection and divisions among the demonstrators about their next moves.
More than 500 people, including over 100 security forces, have been injured in confrontations outside the parliament building in downtown Beirut last month.
Most of the injuries occurred on Jan. 18. For hours, protesters hurled stones, firecrackers and flares at police who responded by firing tear gas, water cannons and shooting rubber bullets. More than 150 people were injured that night, many of them struck in the head and eyes.
It was a shocking reversal for a popular uprising against a corrupt political class that started in mid-October and had been characterized by its striking peacefulness — particularly compared to the bloodbath in Iraq, where a similar uprising has resulted in the death of more than 500 protesters since October, most of them shot dead by security forces.
The violence in Lebanon has ebbed since then, particularly since a new government was formed on Jan. 21 and protesters take stock. Although they reject the new Cabinet, some protesters believe it should be given a chance to enact urgent reforms to avoid complete collapse amid a crippling economic and financial crisis. Others have been discouraged and disgusted by the rioting and the violence.
As banks increase capital controls and the economic situation worsens, most agree it’s only a matter of time before the protests ignite again. For wounded protesters, their injuries have only increased their resolve.
Francis considers himself lucky. A tear gas canister hit him above his left eye at a protest last month, and he required 120 stitches. “One of the security forces looked me straight in the eye. He was 3 meters away, he pointed at my head and fired,” he said.
Lina Labake, his mother, was at the emergency room with him Wednesday for an appointment to remove his stitches. “May God forgive them. Would they allow this to happen to their kids?” she said, holding back tears.
Not everyone was as lucky. With him in the same ward were four other young men, each with an eye bandaged over, waiting for word if they would keep their sight.
One of them, 17-year-old Abdurrahman Abdul-Jabbar came to Beirut from his hometown in the Bekaa Valley with a couple of friends on Jan. 18 unbeknownst to his parents. He was shot in the right eye by a rubber bullet.
Doctors gave him only a 10% chance of keeping vision in the eye. Even if he loses his sight, he hoped doctors don’t remove the eye — “I hope it stays as a decoration,” he said.
He said it’s worth losing his eye “for the nation” and was keen to return to the streets. The crumbling economy has hit him hard: he dropped out of school because his family couldn’t afford tuition, and the struggling restaurant where he worked fired him.
“I’m trying to change something. I am asking to live with dignity,” he said.
Francis and his mother debated over whether he’d go back to protests, but she soon relented. Resigned, she forced a wry grin and nodded, “He will return.”
He patted her back and said, “It was a really tough scene for her, something no mother should witness. But she knows we have no other choice. We want electricity, clean water, to marry and live normal lives — is this too much to ask?”
Under a tent in the rain at the epicenter of the protests in downtown Beirut, Abboud sat in a plastic chair, a New York Yankees cap on his head and his arm in a sling.
The 22-year-old used to manage a snack shop in the northern Akkar district, but his salary plunged from $1,200 a month to $500. Despairing, he quit and came to Beirut to join the protests on Oct. 17. As arrests and assaults by police grew in December, he became convinced the only way to be heard was through force.
On Jan. 18, he confronted police at a roadblock on a major highway linking Beirut with the south. At the front lines of clashes, he was shot twice in the leg by rubber bullets. Falling to the ground, he noticed a bomb rolling in his direction.
“I thought it was a tear gas bomb so I grabbed it to try and throw it back, but it was a sound bomb. It exploded in my hands and my finger flew off,” he said. “I didn’t feel anything but just grabbed my fallen thumb and held onto it.” He spoke on condition he be identified by first name only because he is sought by the police.
Just 10 minutes before he was hit, his girlfriend had sent him a WhatsApp message with a sad face emoji, writing, “Please take care of yourself. You don’t have to be there.” He disagrees, insisting that sacrifices need to be made for revolutions to succeed.
At the nearby “restaurant of the revolution” tent, Bilal Allaw apologized as he turned back a tray of macaroni that was served to him. “The painkillers I’m taking fill me up and make me want to vomit,” he said. A nose splint and a black eye marked his face.
Since the uprising broke out, Allaw has become a familiar face, known for his unmitigated temerity in confronting politicians and police. On Oct. 17, he was one of the protesters who punched and kicked the car of the education minister as he passed through downtown Beirut.
The 25-year-old left his job as a chef in the coastal city of Byblos to join the movement. Now he sleeps in a tent downtown.
He has been injured four times in the past month.
“The first time, an officer slammed his helmet on my head. Three days later, they shot me with a rubber bullet in my leg. Then, I was hit with a rock,” he said. Just over a week ago, anti-riot police threw a rock at his face, breaking three bones in his nose and cheek.
He said he initially believed the protest movement needed to remain peaceful, but now believes violence is the only way the government will listen.
“This is a revolution not a carnival. They need to face the consequences.”
By A.J. Naddaff
Image: In this Jan. 27, 2020 photo, anti-government protesters, who were injured during clashing with riot police, pose for a group picture after a check up with an ophthalmologist at a hospital in Beirut, Lebanon. The five pledged that they’ll be back in the streets soon. Such resolve signals that demands for sweeping government reforms won’t be squashed easily, even as security forces resort to more violent means of crowd control, such as rubber bullets. (AP Photo/A.J. Naddaff)