BEIRUT: Celebratory gunfire has often gone awry in Lebanon, causing fatalities and serious injuries, with no strict preventive measures in sight.
The latest victim of such inadvertent violence was a 25-year-old Palestinian woman who was hit by a stray bullet over the weekend on Beirut’s Hamra Street.
“I was walking with a friend in Hamra when I felt something strike my back. There was no gunfire on the street at that time ... but there was elsewhere,” Bayan Bibi told The Daily Star. “It didn’t register, what happened, and my friend immediately took me to the American University of Beirut’s emergency department.”
Bibi’s injury resulted from the celebratory gunfire during a televised speech made by Speaker Nabih Berri.
The bullet entered her back and luckily missed her spine, but punctured one of her lungs and remains lodged between her ribs.
Bibi was discharged from the hospital Tuesday evening to rest at home and will undergo an operation next week to extract the bullet from her body.
“I never talk about the political situation, but it hit me, and it hurts,” the graphic designer wrote on her Facebook profile after the incident.
The woman, who was greatly admired by her friends for maintaining a positive attitude throughout the ordeal, said she had no hard feelings toward Berri and other politicians.
“I know people do this [fire shots] because they want to express themselves, their frustration or happiness, and some know no other [way] to express excitement,” she said. “What happened to me should serve as a lesson, that people should learn how to [express] their joy in a different way.”
Sources from Berri’s office said the speaker denounced such “militant” activity on any occasion and that he has issued several warnings against firing in the air for any reason.
The speaker personally called Bibi to express his regrets.
Sounds of rifle shots and automatic gunfire often resound in Beirut and other areas when prominent politicians, from various sects, make public appearances, whether it is to deliver a speech or attend a social event such as a wedding or funeral, and on some occasions, when students pass their officials exams.
The government often warns of the hazards of celebratory gunfire, with occasional reminders that the practice is in fact illegal.
However, no measures have been put in place to put an end to the widespread activity.
Former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud said that while no legislation was in place to punish instances of celebratory gunfire, authorities should launch a crackdown by simply enforcing laws prohibiting the use of unlicensed arms to fire shots.
“The problem lies in the proliferation of illegal arms among the Lebanese. Almost everyone possesses weapons. ... The state should work to control such violations,” Baroud said.
He added that in case of injury, or even death, caused by stray bullets, assailants could be put on trial for unintentionally causing harm.
“However, the source of fire is usually unknown if a group of people, and not just individuals, are opening fire into the air,” he said.
Fadi Abi Allam, the president of the Permanent Peace Movement, a local nonprofit organization, said that aside from celebratory gunfire, stray bullets are also hazardous during clashes.
“There were a lot of people who were harmed from stray bullets during the recent clashes in Tripoli,” Abi Allam said. “These people have nothing to do with the battles, they just happen to be passing by the areas of conflicts.”
He said his group was documenting injuries and deaths from stray bullets.
“I recall the case of Yusra Nashra, a mother of three,” he said.
“She was killed on New Year’s Eve by a stray bullet.”
In May 2012, a resident of the Beirut suburb of Shiyah was killed by a stray bullet when a man was shooting at empty bottles on the street for fun, said Abbas Kousa, a relative of the deceased man.
Hasan Wehbe, who died at the age of 37, was leaving his shop when the bullet hit him. He was hospitalized and died six days later.
His family took legal action against his assailant and the case is still pending in court.
In the late 1990s, the younger sister of Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh’s former wife died in Ehden after celebratory gunfire during a wedding struck an electrical cable.
The 14-year-old stepped on the cable by accident and died.
In 2009, after being re-elected speaker, Berri urged supporters to stop firing into the air after three people were killed and seven injured from stray bullets and fireworks across the country.
The incident prompted Lebanon’s top Shiite religious authority, the late Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, to issue a fatwa banning celebratory gunfire and setting off fireworks in pedestrian and residential streets.