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Lebanese on edge after latest attack

Recent spate of killings has many concerned what 2014 will bring for Lebanon.

Last updated: 01 Jan 2014 11:38
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Former finance minister Mohamed Chatah was killed with seven others in a bomb blast last week [Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon - As the world moves into 2014, many people in Lebanon are wondering if they are in for another bloody year, or if it will finally bring peace.

People all over Beirut woke up Friday morning to calls and text messages asking if they were safe, after a downtown car bombing killed eight people, including former finance minister Mohamed Chatah.

It's a question all Lebanese have grown accustomed to over the years. Those living abroad ask: "Are you safe?" Those in Lebanon try to reassure them that they are, indeed, safe.

The question was asked as recently as late November, when a double suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy killed 22 people in the south of Beirut - an area considered to be a Hezbollah stronghold.

On the surface, Friday's bombing appeared no different from that of November 19. But the latest attack was a targeted hit on Chatah - a member of Lebanon's March 14 opposition group - who was known for his criticism of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his allies inside Lebanon. 

Spillover from the civil war in neighbouring Syria is intensifying in Lebanon. But to classify the latest attack that killed Chatah and the others as sectarian would be far too simplistic.

Friday's bombing took place at the scene of a massive regeneration project, spearheaded by former prime minister Rafiq Hariri after the end of Lebanon's civil war from 1975-90. The project transformed the area from a combat zone to a hub where families go to walk and shop, and where banks and government offices are located. People of all sects and religions mix there.

But despite the revitalisation, the area also holds memories of tragedy: In 2005, Hariri - a friend and colleague of Chatah's - was also killed in a car bombing in the vicinity.

Lebanon holds funeral for slain ex-minister

Moving out?

The assassinations in recent months have left many Lebanese with a sense of quiet discomfort, a fear that permeates their once again unpredictable daily lives. 

Hiba Safieddine, a 30-year-old business owner, says she is now used to living with uncertainty.

"It's scary when you know that it could happen anywhere at any time - and that you could be one of the victims," she said. "But you cannot live indoors all your life either."

Lebanese have long been known for their resilience in the face of violence and war. Nevertheless, every assassination leaves behind a lingering unease, as if a countdown has started to the next one. Some Lebanese have found their patience is running out. 

Christina Khoury, a 35-year-old bank manager, says she plans on leaving Lebanon for good.

"I have given up hope. There is no longer a sense of unity among people," she told Al Jazeera. "The once prevalent ideology of acceptance and co-existence has been replaced with one of intolerance and defeatism."

Khoury, who like many of her generation returned to Lebanon to help rebuild the country after the civil war, says she has lost faith in those in power, and plans on building a life elsewhere. This sentiment has become more common among her peers. "I am no longer the exception, I am the norm," Khoury says.

Vowing to stay 

For those who choose to stay, maintaining a sense of normality is their only coping mechanism. 

Alice Bahoushy, a retired 65-year-old business manager, returned to Lebanon 30 years after fleeing the war. She says she refuses to let the surrounding violence dictate her life.

"How much more can we take?" she says. "I left once, I can't do it again. This is home. We have to continue living, we switch to autopilot and end up living in denial."

Since March, Lebanon has been unable to form a new government. Parliamentary elections held in June were postponed for 18 months, and the current caretaker government has no decision-making powers. The lack of an established government has left many Lebanese with a sense of helplessness - not knowing who is responsible for their safety, or whom they can trust with that responsibility. 

There is also growing international concern over Lebanon's volatility. Britain's ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, called on Lebanese politicians to challenge the status quo, and for citizens to end the defeatist ambivalence many have developed towards their leaders.

Beirut car bombing kills top politician

"I hope this won't be another Lebanese murder where everyone condoles and blames, but nobody is held to account. It is time to end the brutal and broken form of politics of which Mohamad Chatah was an eloquent and decent critic," Fletcher wrote on his blog following the attack.

"I hope his death makes people more intolerant of intolerance," he wrote of Chatah, who was one of the few politicians advocating for a national reconciliation government including all factions. 

'Lucky to be alive'

Chatah wasn't the only one killed in Friday's attack. Seven other people also lost their lives, including Mohammed Chaar, a teenager who happened to be in the area and who died of his wounds the following day. He has become a symbol across Lebanon of innocents caught up in the violent struggle for power in the country. 

Hadi Ballout, a 31-year-old expatriate in Beirut for the holidays, says he had driven past the scene of the attack just five minutes before the car bomb went off. "I felt lucky to be alive. I just escaped by a few minutes," he says.

Ballout later met up for drinks with friends in nearby Gemmayze, a bar strip only a few hundred metres from the bomb site.

"It's funny how people just forget in a moment the day's events, and continue with their lives as if nothing happened, drinking and partying while everything is crumbling around them," Ballout says. "It may be the right thing to do, but it feels strange."

Meanwhile, those whose lives were spared - who were fortunate enough not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time - carry on living the best way they know how: day by day.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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