Tent Citizens

Today’s slide show: Images from Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square

Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square acquired its name in 1916 in honor of Lebanese nationalists killed by their Ottoman overlords. In the 1950s the city built a statue to the martyrs. In the 1980s the civil war combatants ravaged the area around it, but the martyrs are still there as sculpted: two standing, another reaching up to them, and another lying twisted below. Now, though, they are scarred with bullet holes.

Today this statue serves as town center to an impromptu village of tents that has sprung up since Feb. 14. That was the day a bomb blast killed Rafik Hariri, the country’s former prime minister and a rebuilder of the war-torn city. Syria is the new overlord to be thrown off and Hariri the new martyr of Martyrs’ Square. A stone’s throw from the tents sits a dignified memorial to his life and death, housed under a long canopy.

If, from the tents, you threw a stone in another direction, you would hit a Virgin Megastore, which seems entirely appropriate. The visitors to the memorial are mourning, but the mood in the encampment is youthful exuberance. The blue Mediterranean is visible from the better-situated tents. When I visited, longhaired boys barely out of their teens milled around holding lunches on paper plates, some taking shelter from the sun in the shade of the pockmarked martyrs. The walls of the small concrete plaza around the statue have been completely covered with graffiti in recent weeks, in European languages as well as Arabic. Jesus and Gandhi are quoted. Statements like “we love you” and “you won’t be forgotten” are imposed one on top of the other in a jumble of scripts, mixed in with sketches of cedar trees. The stickers of the new movement also dot the walls, saying, “Your blood won’t go in vain,” and “Independence ‘05,” and, simply, “The truth.”

The tens of thousands of protestors who flooded Martyrs’ Square after Hariri was killed have been reduced to a core of a few hundred, but they show no inclination to go anywhere. Walking along a dirt path running between the red, blue, and green tents, I met Ramzi Sarieddine, who at 31 is a sort of elder statesman of the camp. He was sitting on a plastic chair under the awning of a tent, from which he distributes food at mealtimes and water and juice throughout the day.

Sarieddine estimated that only 100 to 250 people now sleep in the camp at night. He knows because he figures each person eats two breakfast sandwiches, and he gives out 300 to 400 every morning. But an enormous number drop in, coming when they get off work or out of class. In the evenings, he said, the crowd can swell to as many as 2,000, and the balance tips from mostly boys, as I saw at midday, to mostly girls. With many restaurants in Beirut closed since the assassination and two subsequent bombings, the camp has become a compelling place to go at night. Sarieddine is employed as a mechanical engineer, but he isn’t giving much time to his work these days. “That was my boss who just called,” he said. “He knows where I am. He comes here at night.”

I asked him where the camp gets all its juice and its tidy plastic fencing. The good people of Beirut, it seems, the ones who can’t come in person, are giving to the cause. Companies donate food, equipment, and pallets of bottled water. If someone wants to give money, it goes into the camp bank account, which is drawn on to make up shortages in sleeping mats or twine.

Sarieddine and other tent citizens told me what had to happen before they would consider breaking camp. First and foremost, the Syrian army and intelligence services must leave Lebanon. Syria has promised a full withdrawal before April 30, and while the United States and other governments have expressed skepticism, many ordinary Syrians and Lebanese are taking this promise at face value. In any case, withdrawal will be easier to assess than the other things they are waiting for here in the camp: the truth about the Hariri assassination—and peace. “If I don’t do this, I’m a dead man walking,” Sarieddine said. He talked about there being a big change coming soon, about Lebanon being an oxygen pump for the Syrian people, and about expressions of solidarity from other Arabs. “My friends from the Gulf are calling and saying, ‘Stay there, we want to come and be with you.’ “

I inquired as to the religion of a random sampling of four people; three were Christian and one a Sunni Muslim. The latter, Mohammed Ghadieh, is a second-year student of interior design at Lebanese University and had been in the encampment since the beginning, when they had no tents, though he goes home to shower and visit his mother. “All of the Lebanese societies, religions, and classes are here,” he assured me, Christian, Muslim, and Druse. He paused and then said, “There are not so many Muslims here, but there will be.”

The problem he hinted at is the sticking point in the wave of national unity that has swept Lebanon since Hariri’s assassination. The area that surrounds Martyrs’ Square, roughly on the old front line between East and West Beirut, is now a glossy downtown-on-the-sea. Away to the south, though, parts of the city are still governed, de facto, by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia-turned-political-force. “The police don’t go there,” one camper told me. Hezbollah commands respect and loyalty among many Lebanese Shiites, who also tend to be poorer and more radicalized than their fellow citizens. While Muslims are thought to make up about 60 percent of the population, no one knows how many of them are Shiite, since no one has taken a census in Lebanon since 1932. No one knows how many supporters Hezbollah might turn out in the next crunch, but on March 8 it turned out hundreds of thousands in a pro-Syria rally.

When you are 20 years old, though, and have watched your government fall because you took to the street and demanded it, and the Syrian mukhabarat seems about to leave for good, and Lebanese flags are flying, and the sun is shining over the sea, you have more of a right to optimism than just about anyone.

“Look, I want to tell you something,” Ghadieh said. “People are sick of sectarianism. Before, our leaders played politics on us. They told us these other people had done terrible things to us, had killed and raped our people. They made us fight. Now, we’re not following our leaders. Our leaders are following us.”

He asked me to write down the word “martyr” and pronounce it, so that he could be sure he had it right in English.

“Rafik Hariri didn’t tell us to fight. He gave us the weapon of education. He was our teacher, our hope, our future,” Ghadieh said. The least he and his friends can do is make the man’s death worthwhile. “This is not a camp, it’s a revolution.”