Birds, rubbish and gunfire: Welcome to Lebanon

Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport turned into a live shooting range at the weekend, thanks to the rubbish crisis.

Neil Churchill January 16, 2017

It’s not uncommon to hear gunfire in Beirut. Emptying a Kalashnikov clip in celebration of a family event or public achievement is relatively common. 

But if you were in the Lebanese capital this weekend and heard cracks of gunshots that sounded more measured and controlled, like they had a target, it may have been for a different and much stranger reason. 

Men with guns were spotted near the airport on Saturday taking aim at birds that have flocked to the area due to the large rubbish dump that borders the airport’s walls. Yep, the Beirut rubbish story has just taken its strangest turn yet. 

The incident took place amid claims that the birds have become a danger to planes operating in and out of the Rafik Hariri International Airport, after a Middle East Airlines flight encountered a large flock of birds on landing last week. Since then activists have been calling for action before a bird strike results in a plane crash. The rubbish dump was shut down on Thursday by court order, but that didn’t stop the unknown hunters from arriving.

As dangerous and bizarre as this situation might seem, it is just another symptom of the city’s ongoing rubbish problem, which started in summer last year when Beirut's main landfill sites became full resulting in thousands of tonnes of rubbish being left on the streets. The Costa Brava rubbish dump beside the airport was created but no processing facility has since been built, leaving the rubbish - which measures 30ft high - out in the open. 

Speaking last week, Lebanon’s transport minister, Yusef Fenianos, confirmed that planes flying in and out of the country were at serious risk. “Today we face an emergency... we recognise that there is a danger posed to civil aviation movement by the birds. Thank God, up until now, the flights have not encountered any real danger.”

But the presence of the unknown firing squad has stirred the pot further. Hunting is illegal in Lebanon and the government had previously pledged to protect the environment. It was not immediately clear who the shooters were although The National has claimed the men were hired by Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national airline, with the support of the ministry of the environment. Pictures from a French news agency showed young men armed with rifles and shotguns aiming their barrels towards seagulls in the sky, ankle deep in the surrounding rubbish. 

The Lebanon Eco Movement released a statement, calling the shooting of the birds a breach of international conservation agreement. It even went as far as to condemn the killings “under the eyes of the security forces” and accused those responsible of violating the International Convention for the Protection of Aquatic Birds.

There were suggestions that more sonic bird control devices, which emit bird of prey calls, would be installed to help solve the problem. But as activists pointed out, these were already in operation and hadn’t worked.

In this farcical story of incompetency, the one certain thing is that Beirut’s ongoing rubbish problem is showing no signs of being solved anytime soon.