Falling celebratory bullets are a danger Lebanon must deal with
Beirut - There seem to be a million and one ways to die in Lebanon and many zealous individuals seem keen to help.
Death for the Lebanese can come from sectarian conflict, a roadside bomb intended for a politician, disease that is rampant due to the country’s failure to manage waste or the occasional stray bullet that descends from the skies like lethal rainfall after celebratory gunfire.
Despite the dangers and official warnings, falling bullets have claimed the lives of hundreds of men, women and children as Lebanon’s laws take second place in the minds of many to the country’s ingrained system of patronage and the lawlessness such clientelism inevitably fosters.
To outsiders, the time-honoured Lebanese tradition of firing weapons into the sky in celebration must appear utterly alien. However, most Lebanese will admit to feeling obliged to fire the occasional bullet to either celebrate, mourn or simply express solidarity or frustration over any global or local affair.
The only snag in this archaic practice is that, with Newtonian predictability, what goes up must come down. Given the increasingly crowded conditions on streets below, falling bullets risk killing those standing in their path.
Instances of celebratory gunfire increase every year with the July announcement of the school examination results, when proud parents celebrate either with fireworks or by ripping apart the tranquillity of the streets with celebratory gunfire. Despite endless official warnings, this year tens of people have been seriously wounded, including a 7-year-old girl who has since slipped into a coma.
Successful prosecutions of gun-firing incidents are rare. Farouk al- Moghrabi, a Lebanese barrister and adviser to the minister of state for human rights, said the country’s law on firearms and ammunition clearly penalises anyone “who discharges their firearms in public and in a crowded space and is punishable by jail time ranging from three months to three years or a fine or both and the confiscation of their weapon.”
However, this law, which was amended in 2016 to curb this favourite Lebanese pastime, has found itself foundering due to ingrained patronage systems that frequently run counter to legal norms. It has “failed to act as a legal or even moral deterrent,” Moghrabi said. “These stray bullets have further exposed the government’s powerlessness to protect its people.”
While patronage systems and the interference they breed thrive across Lebanon’s religious spectrum, concerns over opening sectarian wounds have deterred commentators from pointing out that the majority of those detained by the security services are typically Muslim and living in areas controlled by Hezbollah, to which they owe their patronage.
As often as not, the more powerful the sponsor, the less the respect those living under its control extend to the state and its systems of governance. In Lebanon, few were surprised to hear about a civil defence unit being forcibly prevented from entering a burning building in the southern village of Qana or that a Red Cross emergency response team was attacked in the town of Choueifat while on duty.
Volunteer first responder Kareem Issa Zreik said he experiences events such as these regularly. “Living here is risky enough and so I think we have a right to walk freely on our streets without having to also worry about bullets raining down upon us. It’s insane we even have to make such a point,” he said.
“EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) and firefighters, most of whom receive no pay, are public servants. Our only job is to make a bona fide attempt to make people’s lives easier in any way that we can. We are here to help. The job is already dangerous enough. With limited resources, it only becomes more dangerous. When we, first responders, become the victims ourselves, who will be left to help you and your loved ones?”
While celebratory gunfire and assaults on firefighters might appear unrelated, the underlying lack of logic closely ties the two. Most Lebanese cannot comprehend that many of the rules and regulations that govern modern life are there to protect rather than punish them. If pleading with people not to fire guns because it might kill their neighbour or that assaulting a firefighter whose only wish is to protect them from harm is legitimate, then nothing beyond that point can make sense.