A Return to 'Bad Old Days' in Lebanon

Random checkpoints and gunmen on Beirut streets point to country in crisis.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:13 AM

— -- As our car approached the Lebanese border crossing, two teenage boys stopped us. One held a knife, its blade concealed in his shirt sleeve.

"Are you Shia?" they asked, aggressively poking their head through our driver's window.

"No, we are foreign journalists," we responded and drove on.

We were entering a Sunni area and it was tense.

This is what Lebanon used to be like. Militia-run checkpoints stopping people according to their religious or ethnic affiliation. In other words, Lebanon today is a return to the bad old days, the days most Lebanese had tried to forget.

That is what people here fear.

As we drove down the mountains toward Beirut, we saw the Lebanese army back on the streets in force. So far, it has remained neutral in this latest outburst of sectarian and political violence. For how much longer is the question many are asking.

As we reached Beirut, the streets were deserted and eerily quiet.

The worst of the shooting had stopped in the morning. But on some street corners we saw groups of gunmen stopping cars, checking identity and for the most part waving people on.

Our hotel was shrouded in darkness. Its head of security telling us it was for our own safety. The top two floors have been shut down for the same reason.

But inside it's service as usual. Most of the staff are Shia and many of them are frightened of what could happen on their journey home.

Beirut is in a state of shock. It took just 24 hours for Hezbollah to show its power and take control of large swaths of the city.

Supporters of the U.S.-backed government showed no stomach for the fight and quickly withdrew from the streets, their leaders virtual prisoners in their homes and offices, protected by the army.

In the morning, a few people ventured onto the streets -- some to review the damage caused by shooting, others to buy the newspapers and discuss the crisis with friends and neighbors.

No one we spoke to thinks this crisis is over. Few have hope the two sides will resolve their differences peacefully.