By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 24, 2008
BEIRUT -- Abu Omar, a money changer and father of 11 who lives in Beirut, has bought at least 10 firearms since the beginning of last year. "Everything I can put my hands on and I can afford, I buy. I never sell," he said. "Now is a time for buying arms."
Many Lebanese, increasingly worried about the country's political paralysis devolving into violence, are preparing themselves in the same way. One measure of their anxiety is the price of small arms: An AK-47 that went for $75 to $100 a year ago now costs $600 to $1,000.
Even larger, outdated arms are gaining value, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers that were once considered the "garbage of weapons," said Ghassan Qarhani, a former fighter familiar with the arms market. Today, RPG launchers cost $500, up from $50, he said, noting that they are useful for street warfare.
Political tension has been rising in Lebanon since 2006, when opposition ministers resigned from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's cabinet. A stalemate between the government, backed by the United States and Europe, and opposition forces led by the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is allied with Syria and Iran, has rendered parliament unable to pass laws or elect a new president.
Lebanese fought a civil war from 1975 to 1990 that was fueled by strife between Christians and Muslims, but many people now worry more about the potential for conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Although few expect a conflagration on the scale of the last war, many are preparing for the worst.
Despite disarmament accords, many of Lebanon's militia members have retained their weapons. Supporters of newer groups, such as the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, and those loyal to Christian opposition leader Gen. Michel Aoun, appear to be buying weapons now.
Qarhani, who lives in the northern coastal city of Tripoli, estimated that half of the residents in the city's low-income Sunni neighborhoods now have weapons. A couple of years ago, "very, very few were armed," he said.
According to dealers and buyers, most of the weapons on the market date from the civil war and had been stored away. Now they are changing hands.
"There are more arms dealers in this country than there is hair on my head," said Abu Omar, who has long white hair and who refused to be named more precisely out of concern the government would take away his gun licenses.
"I buy from three different sources: a Syrian, a Palestinian and a Shiite from the southern suburb. I call them and tell them what I want, and they bring the pieces to me; sometimes, they call me when they have a special piece," he said.
Most dealers are part-timers who start as aficionados and then transition into trading until they become known for what they do.
"The government knows everything. They know who is buying and they know who is selling, and right now, the policy is to allow people to own guns, as long as they shoot only in the air and not at each other," Qarhani said.
The government appears unable to stop the widespread acquisition of arms. The state has not removed weapons from the country's Palestinian refugee camps or disarmed Hezbollah.
Events in January 2007 drove many Lebanese to invest in personal protection, dealers and others say. A strike called by the opposition was followed two days later by clashes between Shiites and Sunnis in the university neighborhood of Tarik Jadideh, leaving four people dead. The violence brought Beirut closer to civil war, with snipers on rooftops and tanks on the ground. Concerns about sectarian warfare compelled Lebanese leaders to restrain their supporters, but tensions persist between Sunnis and Shiites.
"Tarik Jadideh was a slap on our face," said Assad al-Sabaa, who belonged to a Sunni militia during the civil war. "It was the first warning; they burned our cars and threw stones at our houses. We realized that we have to depend on ourselves to protect our neighborhoods and our families and our properties."
"Beirut has its people, and we will not let them occupy it," Sabaa said of a long-standing Hezbollah tent city in the central part of the capital. "Should I wait until they occupy my house?"
Clashes usually happen over banalities, such as when a supporter of one group insults the leader of another group or tries to remove another group's poster or slogan. Walls and even the airspace between buildings in Beirut are filled with giant portraits and banners exchanging threats and accusations.
In the neighborhood of Bourj al-Barajneh, a poster shows the prime minister in the garb of a pilgrim to Mecca and then hugging Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Since the end of the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the opposition has accused Siniora of being an American puppet.
"Everybody has guns; you see all these houses, there isn't one of them that doesn't have five or six rifles. If you don't believe me, just wait and see what happens every time a leader is speaking on TV," said Abu Atef Alawiyeh, 50, a resident of Zaroub al-Tamlis, a small neighborhood in the overwhelmingly Sunni Tarik Jadideh area. Men frequently shoot their guns in the air in a show of force and support every time their leader is on TV.
Hezbollah supporters insist that the group's weapons will never be used against other Lebanese, but the movement's members also note that they have traditionally been deprived of power.
"The party is everything to us. Do you think they know how to fight?" said Hussein, a Hezbollah supporter in the Shiite area of Zoqaq al-Blat, referring to the government's backers. "In a real war, they wouldn't last half an hour," he said.
The need to buy guns is felt by rich and poor. Nada, a resident of the upscale Clemenceau neighborhood, said she was surprised when her father first gave her a gun and asked her to keep it in the house. Now, she's used to it. Like Hussein, she declined to give her full name.
"This is history repeating itself. When people feel unprotected and they fear the other, they seek self-protection, they buy guns, and from that moment on, the road is very slippery," said Assad Shaftari, a former leader in a militia that fought during the civil war. Shaftari said he remembers very well buying his first gun, from a Palestinian. "He was my enemy, and we both knew it, but business was business," he said.
"It was an amazing feeling, carrying a gun," he said. "It makes a person feel more manly, more protected, but once you own a gun, you start treating it like a baby, you clean it, you take care of it, and wait for the time to use it, you want to see how it works.
"And then you use it, and it uses you, you find yourself in a war, just like that."