UN World Food Programme

Eyewitness: WFP staff besieged in their Beirut office

When hundreds of angry protestors stormed the UN offices in Beruit on 30th July, WFP staff fled to the depths of the building as the mob trashed offices on floors above them. WFP spokesperson Robin Lodge was one of those trapped below ground…

When hundreds of angry protestors stormed the UN offices in Beirut on 30 July, WFP staff fled to the depths of the building as the mob trashed offices on floors above them. WFP spokesperson Robin Lodge was one of those trapped below ground…

Cooped up in Land Cruisers in a stifling car park four storeys below Beirut’s United Nations building, we were ready to speed off at the first sign of danger.

We couldn’t hear any disturbance or see any intruders. Yet we knew that hundreds of angry demonstrators had gone on the rampage in the building above us brandishing sticks and rocks, causing us to flee our basement office and virtually trapping us further below ground.

As we waited, we could only imagine what was happening above our heads, and only wonder if the angry mob would find its way down to our hiding place.

Protests

It was around 11am on Sunday morning when UN security staff told us that anti-Israeli and anti-American protestors organised by Hizbollah were demonstrating outside our building and were trying to break in.

I was working in an office along with 25 other WFP staff and some fifty UN employees were elsewhere in the building.

At that point we assumed that the steel gates and security staff would be able to keep the demonstrators out and we continued working.

Shattered calm

Suddenly, the calm shattered. Alarms echoed around the building and security staff burst into our office and told us to barricade ourselves in. The demonstrators had broken into the building.

We spent twenty minutes holed up in our windowless office, but as the crowd ran riot, security staff told us to take the back stairs down to an underground car park for our own safety.

Gathering a minimum of personal possessions we filed down to the car park and got into UN Land Cruisers.

As we waited we tried to keep the mood light and not dwell on the possibility of being discovered. But thoughts of having to fend off a violent mob were difficult to avoid.

Control regained

The situation was brought under control after about an hour and security staff told us to go back upstairs.

We were relieved to find that our secluded basement office hadn’t been touched.

But offices on the first and second floors had been devastated: shards of glass carpeted the ground, computers were smashed, wires ripped out, ceiling panels torn off and a fire had been lit on the first floor - all causing millions of pounds of damage. Three people also received minor injuries in the violence.

More demonstrators, but this time peaceful ones and mainly children, came to protest outside the UN building later in the afternoon.

They held banners saying: “Stop killing Lebanon’s children”.

By 10pm that evening we had packed all our equipment and belongings and made our way to a hotel in another part of the city. From there we hope to continue our work in safety.