Wounded Lebanese protesters undeterred after weekend violence
Mahdi al-Burji, 18, says he was shot at close range on Saturday night [Farah Najjar/Al Jazeera]
Beirut, Lebanon – When he woke up on Saturday night after surgery, Mahdi al-Burji stared straight ahead and found that the hospital wall was blurry. His vision felt “uncoordinated”, he said.
Earlier that day, the teenager had lost an eye after being struck by a rubber bullet during clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in Beirut last weekend.
Two days later, although his left eye remained covered in gauze and a plastic patch, he said he could not wait to return to the streets.
“My eye is not my life, I will still fight,” the 18-year-old told Al Jazeera from his hospital bed.
Burji was one of hundreds of people who were wounded as anti-government rallies turned violent in the Lebanese capital on Saturday and Sunday, the final days of what had been dubbed by protesters as a “week of rage”.
Demonstrators are demanding the formation of a new cabinet led by independent experts to steer the country through its spiralling economic crisis. The country has been led by a caretaker administration with limited powers since Saad al-Hariri resigned on October 29.
Burji said that on Saturday, he joined a gathering of protesters a few hundred metres away from parliament, as the demonstrators prepared to march to the front doors of the heavily guarded institution.
“I thought I was more than 100 metres away from security forces … I was on the phone and had my back to them. The minute I turned around I saw one of them pointing a gun to my face,” Burji said. “The next thing I know everything turned dark”.
Demand for change
Protesters first took to the streets in mid-October after the government announced plans to increase taxes, but the demonstrations quickly escalated into a nationwide, youth-led revolt against corruption among the ruling elite and the country’s confessional poitical system, where power is apportioned among ethnic and sectarian groups. Protesters have also demanded better public services, including infrastructure and education, as well as relief from a spiralling economic crisis.
Burji said he dropped out of high school last year when he was unable to find a job that did not clash with his class hours. He had started a new job as a security guard in Beirut the week before he was hit in the eye.
His mother, Lamis Shreim, is concerned about upcoming expenses needed to pay for treatment of Burji’s fractured cheekbone.
“There’s a huge dent under his eye, this is the price he paid for demanding his rights,” Shreim told Al Jazeera, fighting back tears of anger.
The mother of two said she was unable to work while she attends to her wounded son and her seven-year-old daughter.
School an ‘expensive’ dream
Medics said that more than 460 people were wounded over two days of violent clashes between security forces and protesters. In addition to rubber bullets, security forces fired tear gas and water cannon against protestors, some of whom attacked security forces with tree branches and metal bars and fired flares and fireworks, as well as throwing stones.
Abdulrahman Jaber had travelled from the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon to Beirut in order to take part in the protests on Saturday. He did not expect that, like Burji, he would also be badly wounded and end up losing an eye.
He said he arrived in downtown Beirut at around 3pm, after a two-hour bus ride, and was keeping his distance from the frontline of the protests.
“Scuffles broke out hours after we had gathered in the street leading up to parliament,” Jaber told Al Jazeera, speaking intermittently while laying on a hospital bed.
“After they started spraying people with water cannon, I tried to reach the far corner where my friends were,” the 17-year-old said.
“I looked at one side to see how far I was from a bunch of security forces pushing back protestors, they must have been 25 metres away,” he said.
“The next thing I know I was hit in the eye.”
Jaber thought the tear gas had tainted his eyesight after seeing clouds of smoke engulf the area where he was standing.
It was after reaching for his eye in the midst of the chaos that he realised the severity of the injury.
“I felt blood run down my face, but I didn’t feel any pain … I was in shock,” he recalled.
Until September last year, Jaber regularly attended school while also working as a waiter at a restaurant in the evenings.
He told Al Jazeera that he would like to dedicate his time to school work, but said that was an “expensive” dream.
“Without work, I simply cannot go to school,” he said.
Lebanese police on Tuesday defended the use of rubber bullets during the clashes, saying they were required to counter “dangerous rioters”.
“Rubber bullets in our possession are used in a number of developed countries, including France,” a statement by the Internal Security Forces said.
“Orders are given to the [security forces] to fire rubber bullets excusively at the legs, at a distance of about 10 metres”, the statement said.
A UN statement said that “according to reliable sources, at least four young men were shot at close range with rubber bullets, leading to severe and irreversible damage to their eyes”.
Human Rights Watch has called for an end to the “culture of impunity” and demanded an investigation into the level of violence used by police in the last few days.
Despite the violence, protestors like Burji and Jaber are adamant they would continue to protest until an independent government is formed.
Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab was expected to announce the formation of a government last week but failed to reach a consensus with political factions on the make-up of the new cabinet, with protesters demanding it consist of independent experts and exclude traditional political parties who have ruled Lebanon for three decades.