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Fear, panic and anger grips Beirut residents who want to see accountability

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lebanon just observed a day of mourning after violent clashes left at least six people dead and injured dozens of others. The violence took place amid a protest over the investigation into last year's deadly explosion at the Port of Beirut. The militant political group Hezbollah had called for Thursday's demonstration. They were demanding the removal of a judge who was investigating Hezbollah's political allies in relation to the port explosion.

But the recent violence was just the latest turmoil in a country that has experienced so much loss. The country is still reeling from last year's explosion, which leveled huge parts of the capital Beirut, but it's also been dealing with a worsening economic crisis. And all of that has had a profound effect on people's daily lives. We wanted to focus on that part of the story, day-to-day life, people who are just trying to get through it. So we called Rami Rajeh. We spoke with him last year just after the explosion at the Port of Beirut, and he's with us once again.

Welcome back. Thank you so much for talking with us once again.

RAMI RAJEH: Thank you for giving me this opportunity, Michel.

MARTIN: So like we said, Lebanon just observed a day of mourning for those who were killed in Thursday's attacks. Would you just help us understand, like, what's the mood in the city right now? What have you been seeing and feeling over the last couple of days?

RAJEH: Well, let's start with Wednesday night. There was quite a bit of tension. There were a lot of WhatsApp messages but mostly voice notes that were going viral. And they were initiated by the sides that were calling for the protests. And they were not really, you know, shy to invoke fear in anybody who happened to listen to these voice notes.

So there was some fear that started building up on Wednesday. And then with Thursday, things escalated quite quickly and as a result, the escalation, the skirmishes, panic, fear and then the news starts to trickle in. And you realize that people are dying, people's homes are being shot at, people's shops are being shot at, destroyed. So there's, you know, fear, panic.

MARTIN: You know, you grew up during the civil war, you were a child then, and you grew up during that period. And in this country, the press is drawing a parallel to that era in part, that's because the clashes took place between a Shiite Muslim neighborhood and a Christian neighborhood. But does that analysis sound right to you?

RAJEH: Not really. I mean, on the surface, yes. Geographically, yes. But today, the struggle or the shape of the struggle is not really a religious struggle or a sectarian struggle or - nor is it a - if we want to draw parallels back to 1975, it's not sectarian militants taking on regional agendas and trying to settle the score on Lebanese soil. It's not really the case. There has been a movement. The movement began right after the forest fires that erupted in October in 2019, and the basis of this movement is accountability. This is the people versus the elite who have been in power for a few decades, who have never been subject to any form of accountability over the years.

MARTIN: When we spoke last year, you were telling us that your children were starting to notice, like, you know, why the streets seemed dirtier. Like, why is the electricity out for hours at a time? Why are things so expensive, just like common, like, treats, like, you know, popsicles, you know? What about now? Do they still ask those questions?

RAJEH: Well, now, we've moved into, you know, another dimension. It's no longer about an affordability; it's more about availability. So - and when I'm talking about availability, it mostly has to do with electricity because in any modern society, a lot of things depend on electricity for you to have them, for example, the internet, which, you know, most kids have some sort of access to at least an hour a day; TV, you know, how much food is in the fridge and why, sometimes, you don't replace something because you know that you haven't had this much - the fridge has been on for so long. So there are no more luxuries in our lives. It's very much a day-to-day, you know, struggle. Honestly, I think it will serve them well that they - they're living through this.

MARTIN: You know, why do you say that? I remember when we spoke last year, it's your decision. It's your choice to raise your kids in Beirut. I mean, I'm sure you have other options.

RAJEH: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you were telling us last year that it was your decision to continue to raise them in Beirut because you wanted them to learn that not everything in life is easy and that struggle is part of the - sort of the transformation of - the transformative process of a country. You still feel that way?

RAJEH: Yeah, I do. I'm hoping the struggle shapes them into more, you know, challenged and challenging human beings because even people in more advanced economies and more developed nations - they're suffering from climate change, so it's - the struggle's there. And I hate to say this, but most of the times, the reason is very similar. It's greed. And whether you - you're resisting it here or in California because of the forest fires, the root cause is pretty much aligned, but the scale is very different.

MARTIN: Do you see yourself as optimistic, would you say? How would you describe your own state of mind about the future of the country?

RAJEH: It's difficult to be optimistic in a place where, for example, if you have an air conditioner in your apartment that you didn't turn on for the whole summer, you'd be a bit delusional to feel, you know, optimistic that a lot of the things that you do have, you do not use or your income is a tenth of what it used to be. Your purchasing power is continually depreciating.

There's nothing to be optimistic about, but there's something that's feeding this - you know, this struggle, which is the realization that people do have a say. And it's just about persevering to carve out some sort of difference

MARTIN: That is Rami Rajeh. He is a father of two who lives in Beirut. Rami, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us. We sure do appreciate it.

RAJEH: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.