Lebanon News

Celebratory gunfire takes heavy toll of Lebanese

Jocelyne Zablit

Agence France Presse

BEIRUT: The frequent celebratory gunfire in this heavily armed city is killing Beirut, literally, as one man's burst of joy turns into another's mourning. The parents of 14-year-old Ahmed Ali al-Sahili know this all too well - they lost their son when a bullet pierced his skull as he played outside their home in the capital's suburbs.

And Sonia Saade, 49, thought her ulcer was acting up when a pain so sudden and sharp knocked her off her feet as she walked to a pharmacy. She didn't learn it was a bullet until emergency room doctors spotted a small stain on her T-shirt and ordered an X-ray.

The two are among a growing list of Lebanese falling victim to celebratory gunfire that rings out across the capital and other regions when one of the country's feuding political leaders makes a televised speech.

No sooner does Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri or another high-profile figure take to the air than the rat-tat-tat of gunfire reverberates through Beirut.

Supporters of the Western-backed ruling coalition and the Hizbullah-led opposition seem locked in a race on whose leader can draw more celebratory shots or even rocket-propelled-grenades when he appears on television.

"This is an uncivilized reaction and reflects Lebanon's unstable political situation," General Achraf Rifi, head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, told AFP, referring to the long-running crisis between the country's government and opposition camps that has left the country without a president since November.

"Our children are dying for nothing in a barbaric fashion," said Rifi. "We must all bear responsibility, especially after the death of this young child."

Sahili was hit by a stray bullet fired during a speech on March 28 by Fouad Siniora, the Western-backed premier who was addressing the nation on the eve of the Arab League summit in Damascus. The bullet shattered the boy's skull and lodged in his neck. He died on Thursday, never regaining consciousness.

Another teenager, 19, died in March, also from a bullet to the head during a speech by former Minister Talal Arslan, a member of the opposition.

Saade, meanwhile, was hit in the chest by a bullet fired during a recent speech by Nasrallah, whose group is locked in a fierce political struggle with Siniora's ruling coalition.

Doctors who treated her called her survival miraculous, largely thanks to the fact she was steps away from a hospital. The bullet entered neatly through her chest and plunged straight down to stop near a kidney, causing massive internal damage.

"She was barely conscious when she got to the hospital and was operated on by three surgeons for four hours," said Fayez Abillama, one of her doctors. "She is lucky to be alive."

Rifi's office said that since February of last year, when police began keeping statistics, 12 people had fallen victim to celebratory shots. "The political leaders need to act to put an end to this situation," he said.

There are also numerous reports of stray bullets hitting cars and buildings.

The Saudi Embassy in Beirut said the car of one of one of its diplomats was hit recently, as was a convoy for former Premier Selim al-Hoss.

Siniora, in a statement Thursday, also condemned the practice and urged all political and religious leaders to appeal to their followers to express their support in a more civilized fashion.

Parliament Speaker and opposition leader Nabih Berri, for his part, has vowed not to make any more live television appearances, in light of the volleys of celebratory gunfire that explode each time he speaks.

Security officials say that although the practice is banned and police are out in force when one of the leaders speaks, they have made no arrests, in part due to the fact that some areas of the capital are off-limits to them.

"There are areas, such as the Dahiyeh (the southern suburbs of Beirut that are largely controlled by Hizbullah) or the Palestinian refugee camps where my forces cannot enter," Rifi said. "So politicians need to start acting responsibly and impress upon their followers that this has to stop."

Saade, who was released from hospital last week, said she never imagined that the celebratory shots she heard each time a leader spoke on television would almost kill her.

"Unfortunately, I don't think it will change," she told AFP. "It is up to us to take cover in our home when one of them speaks."

Ali Krayem, general manager of the hospital where Sahili was transported, said he was outraged that a young boy who had been playing soccer with his friends would fall victim to Lebanon's political crisis.

"We've had about six people hospitalized in the last six months because of this," he told AFP. "The politicians should either shut up or leave this country because people want to live in peace."





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