BEIRUT: The tragic bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs and Tripoli have raised the war-time specter of car bombs once more, and added a sinister element to the capital’s already congested traffic. Dozens of suspected car bombs have already made the news, with the Internal Security Forces receiving an average of 1,000 such reports a day over the past month, a security source told The Daily Star.
As a result, the ISF issued a statement last week asking drivers to leave their name and contact number clearly displayed in the windshield of the car so that security personnel can avoid breaking into the vehicle by force.
In the Malla neighborhood of Beirut, signs recently appeared warning drivers to display their contact information “or the door and glass will be broken, if [the car is left] for even a second.”
Mohammad Atiq, 50, a local resident and shopkeeper, said that the signs were a necessary measure taken by the mukhtar.
“What if someone leaves their car for three days and then there is a bomb inside,” he said. “We need to take care of ourselves, and protect Lebanon, because there are some who would plant bombs and this doesn’t just hurt people, it hurts the homeland as well.”
But some say vigilance is giving way to hysteria and security is becoming a cover for personal vendettas or anti-Syrian prejudice.
Some owners of cars that were damaged during such operations have reportedly been forced to sign waivers promising not to seek compensation, while others complain the authorities made no attempt to contact them first.
Yasmin Sabra, a native of Aleppo, has been living in Lebanon with her Lebanese husband for six years. Her parents and brother recently joined her in the Beirut neighborhood of Tallat al-Khayyat after the security situation back home became untenable.
Two weeks ago, Sabra and her mother were returning from picking up her daughter from school when they found their street had been sealed off by security personnel. Neighbors told them a car bomb had been found.
When they drew closer, however, they saw that the car being torn apart belonged to Sabra’s brother, who had brought it from Syria a year ago and left it parked outside a nearby salon a week before, just before he traveled.
“They totaled the car,” she said. “They removed the cover, broke the glass, opened all the wiring in the headboard, and they were being really mean to my mom and dad, who both have very strong Syrian accents.”
Sabra insisted that not only was all the paperwork for the car up to date, but everyone in the neighborhood knew that the car belonged to her brother, who had been parking it there for a year.
“All the neighbors know us, they see us going and coming,” she said. “The street is full of Syrian cars because all the people who are renting are Syrians ... Nobody spoke up. They all pretended they didn’t know.”
Sabra said that when her husband arrived and began speaking with the security personnel in a Lebanese accent, “their whole attitude changed” and they even apologized and informed him he could file a complaint with the ISF.
But when he went with Sabra’s father to do so, she said, they were told not to waste their time.
To make matters worse, the salon owner who reported the car allegedly told Sabra’s mother: “If you don’t like us, why are you in our country?”
“My brother’s fiance goes to that hairdresser, and he [the owner] was just upset because we parked the car in front of his shop window,” said Sabra.
Shortly after the incident, Sabra left Lebanon to join her husband in Jordan. Although the move had been planned for a while, Sabra said she “sped up” the process because she “just wanted to get out.”
She also blamed the authorities for spreading panic before eventually confirming that the car was not suspect.
“They were telling everyone, ‘There is a car bomb and it is being deactivated,’ not even ‘a suspected car bomb,’” she said. “There was no reason to doubt the car except that it was a Syrian car ... Frankly I was extremely upset.”
The ISF source defended the protocol in place for suspected car bombs, but would not comment on specific cases.
“If we don’t know who the car belongs to, sometimes we are forced to open it by any means necessary,” the source said. “People need to take responsibility, especially in these conditions, by placing their name and number. We get 1,000 calls a day and we don’t open every car.”