BEIRUT — The streets of Beirut's working-class Sunni neighborhoods started filling up with all the signs of trouble by about 9 p.m. on Sunday night. Young men on scooters clustered together, barricading their neighborhoods with burning tires and overturned dumpsters. But even cynical observers of Lebanon's descent into chaos couldn't predict how bad it would get.
The youths' fury stemmed from a killing earlier in the day of two prominent Sunni religious figures from north Lebanon, who died in a hail of bullets at an army checkpoint. But how and why the two men -- strong supporters of the Syrian rebellion just over the border -- were killed quickly became moot in the eyes of the frustrated young men of Beirut. The Army, long a symbol of national unity in a country torn apart by religion, now appears to have become their enemy.
Tensions between Lebanon's political movements, which are divided between supporters and enemies of the Syrian regime, are nothing new. Just last week, the northern city of Tripoli witnessed clashes after a Lebanese security agency arrested a popular Islamist activist. But what happened on Sunday night went well beyond Lebanon's normal dysfunction.
It all began when a group of openly armed men attempted to close the office of the Arab Movement Party, a Sunni group allied with Hezbollah. The party members in the office were armed but badly outnumbered, and they confronted the group of furious young men on the street, forcing the Army to intervene. Usually, the presence of the Lebanese Army calms such incidents. But not this time.
I was on the corner of Beirut's Tareeq Jdeideh neighborhood when things turned bonkers. Attackers opened fire with multiple automatic weapons on a group of arguing men and soldiers. The soldiers ducked for cover along with the civilians: A young soldier and I fell behind a Volkswagen sedan for cover as scores of kids sprinted down the street away from the gunfire. Several were hit in the back as they fled.
It was impossible to see the source of the gunfire, although it was direct and very close. As rounds bashed into the car and ground around us, the young solider and I decided we were far too close to the front. Waiting for a lull in the firing, we both counted off "one, two, three" and he stood up to run back toward better cover.
The soldier stood up with his M-16 ready to spray covering fire for our retreat when he was promptly shot through the shoulder. He paused and stared down at me with a confused look on his face. "Run, man, run," I hissed at him, deciding that he was better off running wounded down the street to his mates, while I was now much more comfortable laying where I was for the time being.
He ran, and I could see him get into a Humvee, his wound serious but not life-threatening.
Bad as it was at the front of the street, where I appeared to be the only one without a weapon, the block we were trying to reach wasn't much safer. Armed kids on scooters were using the anarchy to try to assassinate soldiers from behind. One boy even drove up the street with a face mask on, pulled a pistol, and pumped a few rounds into the back of a soldier who was returning fire down the street in the other direction. I heard the pistol shots and saw the soldier fall, and my colleague witnessed the gunman casually drive away and hand his mask to one colleague and the gun to another, who zipped away into the night.