24 hours in Beirut - Thursday



 
MENASSAT'S Alexandra Sandels describes the day all hell broke loose in her new hometown.
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
Beirut Airport road 080508.jpg
BEIRUT, Airport road. © Samer Mohdad / arabimages.com

Thursday

9 am: I make my way down to the office. Make sure to stock up on a few MTC cards at Place Sassine just in case I ran out of credit. 'Good luck today, dear', says Sherbel at the kiosk stand. 'There will be things happening for you journalists', he grins.

10.30 am: On the phone with Hezbollah's media office. They confirm that Nasrallah's conference is on and instruct journalists to make it down to Haret Hareik to register by 3 pm.

2 pm: Making my way through the road blocks over to Daheye and Haret Hareik. Kudos to AFP for the ride.

2.30 pm: At Hezbollah's media office.  Reporters are greeted and checked. It's busy in the waiting room. A mix of Lebanese and foreign journalists are sitting on the couches anxiously waiting for clearance.

2.45 pm- Reporters from the Iranian news agency gives us a ride the hangar where the conference is expected to be held.

3.30 pm - Identity and press cards checks once again. The room is filled. Guards in suits with ear pieces are watching the front door. Water is being served by conference organizers and a video outlining the history of Hezbollah and its achievements is being aired on the video screen. Those interested in participating in the Q & A session are invited to put down their names on sheets of paper. Green and yellow posters reading 'Lebanon will be a country for resistance' and ' Iman Mugniyah left you thousands of prepared fighters who are ready for martyrdom' are being projected on the screen and the walls. It is announced that the conference will start on time.

4 pm- The screen makes a few flickers and then turns black for a moment. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah makes an appearance.  "Is the sound ok", he asks the audience. Then he proceeds by delivering fierce statements against the latest decisions taken by the government, saying that the decision of the national authorities to shut down Hezbollah's telecommunications was a direct a "declaration of war". "This decision is first of all a declaration of war and the launching of war by the government... against the resistance and its weapons for the benefit of America and Israel,".

5 pm- The conference comes to an end. Lots of celebratory gunfire can be heard from surrounding rooftops. Reporters are smoking cigarettes and chatting with their bureuax. One woman was reportedly in Haret Hareik by shrapnel from the 'happy shots'.

5.30 pm-We're driving through Hamra. The streets are completely empty. All shops are closed.  One of the few living creatures on Hamra street  is a lonely cat nibbling on leftovers from a container. It's completely dead. My driver Mustafa agrees. "It's only you and me out here", he laughs. We turn down on the corniche. One or two joggers can still be seen exercising on the Corniche.

5.45 pm- We make our way towards Sodeco and the office.  My editor calls. Telling me there is not only 'happy gunfire' but also 'happy RPGs' firing in the area. Downtown is blocked by army blockades. A soldier demands us to stop as we cross over towards Ashrafiyeh. He pokes his head and gun inside the car asking where we're headed. 'Al-Mathaf'. He winks us through.

6 pm- Ear piercing sounds of gunfire and grenades welcome us to Sodeco Square. A troop of soldiers are standing next to a tank. BOOM. 'Back, GET BAAACK', they shout. There is fear in Mustafa's bright blue eyes. The few people still out on the street are hurrying into nearby buildings with their food bags.

6. 05 pm- Albergo Hotel around the corner from Sodeco Square is still open for business. "Bon soir, Al Dente restaurant," answers the manager amidst the deafening sounds of rocket launches coming from Corniche al-Masraa and Ras el Nebeh. "This street violence. It's worse than the air raids. It hasn't been as bad as this since 1990, " Albergo's waiter tells me. Tonight he is serving no one but a malplace journalist.

6.30 pm- The phone lines appear to be out. The few calls that come through get cut out after a few seconds. Albergo's manager turns up the volume on the TV. LBC shows pictures of a ravaged Corniche al-Masraa and surrounding areas. He offers me a cup of Nescafe while I'm fiddling with my phone trying to get a hold of friends and colleagues. "Don't sit too close to the windows, dear.  Shrapnel might land outside the building, you know', he says smiling.

7 pm- My colleagues are calling. Gun fire nearby the office. There are bullet holes in our door they say. 'We're taking a chance. We're going to try to get out of here'.  Heavy artillery and gunfire is heard around all areas.  A nun on her way home stops by to have chat with Albergo's lonesome security officer. "What is going on here. Are they shooting here too?", she asked surprisingly with a question mark on her face.

7.30 pm- On our way to Mar Mikhael, driving at high speed. It takes us less than five minutes. News from a friend in Hamra. "They are shooting at each other everywhere in the streets. Not really sure who's shooting at who'. Another friend in Hamra is hiding in the bathroom. Just like twenty years ago.

7.45- It is as if we have come to a different country. In Mar Mikhael the corner shop is still open and there are people walking on the streets. we buy some nuts and drinks. Another colleague calls. They're having drinks at Torino in Gemmayze.

8.30- Watching TV and working. Chatting with the Swedes. Lebanese journalists in Helmets and bullet proofs vests are reporting from Corniche Al-Masraa and Ras el-Nebeh. Gun fire, smoke, and shouts surround them.  A tired-looking  Saad Hariri is a holding a press conference, pleading to both sides to withdraw their weapons "to save Lebanon from hell".

9 pm- Beep beep. Message from the SMS news service Libancall. Continued clashes everywhere in West Beirut..... Raouche, Hamra, etc. Jumblatt appears on TV in a casual shirt and jacket looking just as tired and destroyed as Hariri.

11 pm- A few phone calls here and there. Friends in Hamra are being shelled. They're sleeping in the corridors, they're saying. 'We're not going close to the windows". Reporters are still at Corniche al-Masraa and Ras el-Nebeh. They've taken their helmets off.

2 am- The weather Gods decide to get involved in the war fare. Boom boom. Then a bright light. Not only gun fire and RPGs, but now also thunder and lighting are striking Beirut. People across the street are waking up, start taking their washing inside. The sounds of TV and radios can still be heard around the neighborhood. Apparently not that many sleeping.

7 am- Beep beep. Good morning message from Libancall. The offices of Future TV and Future News Agency have been stormed. Alsharg radio is also off the air.