'They were shooting to kill:' protester's death sparks anger in Lebanon

Tripoli has been rocked by demonstrations since the beginning of a new lockdown

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When Faten Dandashi heard her nephew Omar Tayba, 27, had been shot on Wednesday evening in Tripoli, she didn’t believe what she was hearing.

Tayba was not the type to take to the streets, and his aunt never thought security forces would fire live ammunition at protesters.

"I was joking with my sister and told her it was nothing," she said. "But as hours passed, I realised that his condition was critical."

Tayba died around 4am on Tuesday morning after a bullet perforated an artery in his back, an official medical source in Tripoli said. He was shot during violent protests spurred by a strict lockdown and deteriorating living conditions.

In their home in the rundown neighbourhood of Bab El Tebbene, his family huddled together to mourn his death, praying and serving local meat pies and coffee to visitors.

"They were shooting to kill, we saw the videos," Ms Dandashi told The National. "How are we supposed to trust the government now?"

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) said in a statement published on Thursday that they fired live rounds in self-defence after some demonstrators attacked them in front of a government building.

“Security forces are sorry that acts of vandalism, attacks and criminal acts resulted in one casualty,” the statement read. It did not mention Tayba by name.

The ISF did not clarify the circumstances of Tayba’s killing, but his family said he was peaceful and unarmed.

Like many young Tripolitans, he took to the streets to vent his frustrations at poor living conditions and a lack of government aid amid a 25-day strict lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.

“They say our children are thugs, but it's the politicians who are thugs. They kill us, beat us, starve us. They bear the responsibility for Omar’s death,” said his cousin Dounia Derbas, 56.

“He was just a young guy who wanted to live in dignity.”

Tayba was unemployed, despite searching for work both in Lebanon and Turkey.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city and one of its poorest, is no stranger to sporadic violence.

Last April, Fawaz Fouad Al Saman, a 26-year-old protester, died from wounds sustained during clashes with the army. It was the third death related to nationwide protests that began in October 2019.

Though the anti-government movement wound down after a few months, its causes remain.

Lebanon has been suffering from its worst-ever economic crisis for over a year. More than half the population lives in poverty. Political infighting has left Lebanon without a fully functioning government for the past six months after a deadly blast rocked Beirut’s port.

On Monday, protests kicked off again in the northern city of Tripoli. Demonstrators repeatedly attempted to storm government buildings, with some of them attacking security forces with molotov cocktails and rocks. Security forces responded with teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets.

On Wednesday local TV networks showed footage of security forces firing live ammunition. A total of 226 people were injured that night.

"How are we supposed to trust the government now?" said Ms Dandachi, tears running down her cheeks.

Since the beginning of lockdown on January 14, small protests have erupted across the country, but Tripoli has drawn the largest crowds.

The killing of Tayba has deepened anger and distrust towards the government.

“It’s true there was violence,” protester Adnan Abdullah said on Thursday. “But does that mean young people throwing rocks deserve to be shot at with live ammunition?”

Mr Abdullah was part of a small group of people standing outside a local hospital where wounded demonstrators had been taken in previous days.

He said he expects violence to intensify as Lebanese grow more desperate.

“Look around, all those young men are jobless and the government has done nothing to help us. They can’t see a future here.”