Leaving Lebanon - To What Fate?

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires on southern Lebanon, July 17, 2006. (MaanImages/Inbal Rose)

Like the majority of people, I am now following the development of events in Lebanon via the internet and the somewhat dubious coverage broadcast on CNN (the only English channel available from my bolt hole in Hama, Syria). But I am following them with a keener interest, one that is acute in its emotional as well as its political concern. Because until two days ago Lebanon was my home from home, as it had been for the last year. Over my time there I have lived with Palestinians in a refugee camp, with Shia Muslims and immigrant workers in a stronghold of Hezbollah and Amal support in South Beirut, among the mixed and often secular population of Hamra in West Beirut (three of our best friends live in Hamra: great lads, one Christian, one Muslim, one Druze) and finally among the largely Christian, often Armenian-descended community of Geitaoui, in East Beirut. In all of those places I have found a welcome that makes me blush to think of the disregard often shown to strangers and foreigners in the self-absorbed streets of British cities. (At the same time I have been aware that there are plenty of foreigners in Lebanon - from Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, parts of Africa - who are not received with the same warmth. What is happening to these street cleaners, labourers, and domestic workers as the embassies of richer nations prepare to ship their citizens out I have no idea).

Everyone agrees: Lebanon is an addictive place. Once you have spent some time here, it is hard to imagine leaving and never coming back. Despite having had a good and productive year I had made my plans to leave this week way back in the spring. I was supposed to be saying goodbye to Beirut tomorrow, but was sure it wouldn’t be too long before I was back again to see friends, enjoy the Mediterranean lifestyle, and be fascinated all over again by the many faces of this tiny country. My boyfriend Zak, who had been scheduled to leave shortly after me, was called back to the UK all of a sudden on July 11th after his ageing grandmother suffered a stroke. He returned home to say goodbye to her; I was speaking to him on the phone about the breaking news of an Israeli assault on Lebanon last Thursday morning as she passed away. Perhaps the old lady knew something to call him back at such a time. I was in my office on Thursday morning, tidying up on my penultimate day of work, trying to leave things as organized as possible for my successor. I’ve been editing a couple of magazines for the last few months. One is a leisure and entertainment guide to Beirut. There won’t be much to go in it this month.

Thursday was a day of phone calls and emails. Parents and friends concerned, most expats in Beirut trying to reassure them that this would probably blow over in a couple of days, trying to convince ourselves of the same. Of course the Israelis don’t want to start a major conflagration, we reassured each other, and of course the US won’t let them harm Lebanon too badly. It seems we were wrong. By Thursday evening things had got much worse than anticipated. They were going to bomb Dahiye, the Southern suburbs of Beirut, down where Zak used to play football on Sunday evenings. The airport had been hit again. It seemed unlikely that it would provide a possible gateway out anytime soon. By the evening I was thinking it was probably time to leave, and made plans to do so the next morning. Even at this time though, I was out eating and drinking with friends in one of the city’s nightspots, enjoying the freebies provided on the opening night of a tapas bar. Text messages poured in as we sipped our margaritas. Beiruti friends repeated there was nothing to worry about. Israel was only hitting soft targets; escalation was unlikely. Perhaps even now they’re thinking it could all be over in a couple of weeks. I can only hope their instincts are correct.

I awoke early on Friday to pack up my home of the last five months. The news on waking was grim: extensive bombing in Dahiye; attacks on the port areas; the Beirut-Damascus highway is cut off. I was definitely leaving. As the morning wore on in a frenzy of packing, useless visits to the embassy, concerns over reported plans to bomb the northern routes out of Lebanon, and worries about invalid visas, the news came through that leaflets had been dropped around Saeb Salam. Israel was going to bomb the bridge connecting Cola junction, the main transport hub on the southern side of the city, with the centre of Beirut. What was this madness? As things closed in around the capital, attacks continued in South Beirut, the death toll gradually climbing into the sixties. News that Hezbollah had used a drone to hit an Israeli warship raised the stakes, and with each passing moment a rapid solution to the crisis grew dimmer in the smoke billowing from “strategic” targets across the country. My plans to say goodbye properly to all my friends around the country likewise evaporated as I hurried to Charles Helou bus station to get to Tripoli and take a taxi to the border. I got to see Australian friends, working as volunteers in the Palestinian camps. They were under embassy orders to stay put, but evidently felt uncomfortable about doing so. At the same time persistent rumours that Israel would bomb the northern routes of Lebanon, and the inevitable panic and chaos at the border made my imminent journey fairly unenviable. A group of British volunteers with the charity Unipal, the same organization I had been teaching with in Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp, had arrived in the country at the beginning of the week They retreated to the port town of Byblos, still holding out hopes they would be able to deliver their summer programme to the neglected Palestinian children in Lebanon. As far as I know they are still there, though hopes of remaining to fulfil their commitments must be dashed by now.

But the expats will be looked after. It was saying farewell to Lebanese friends that bit hardest. Stoical and jovial to the last, there was naturally no suggestion that lives were in danger, and God forbid that this is allowed to go on unchecked to the point where general carnage becomes once again the norm (though these are hollow sentiments to the families of a hundred or so who have already been killed in the last few days). Even so, there is already much to mourn if you know and love Lebanon and its people. Potential weeks and months living in fear, without basic services; inevitable political, social and sectarian divisions that threaten to tear the country apart; an economic crisis brought on by the ruination of a tourist season that was supposed to boost Lebanon’s fragile financial situation after the killing of Hariri last year led to poor visitor numbers; huge setbacks to the intermittent political progress that has been fought for in recent times. And behind it all the ominous feeling that this is going to get worse, not better; that Syria and Iran could get involved, that the ultimate nightmare of regional war in the Middle East is about to become a waking reality. I still think such speculation borders on fear mongering, but the rapidly escalating nature of this latest catastrophe has caught everybody by surprise, and the potential for conflagration is well known.

The border with Syria remains open, and I can only presume that more and more people are amassing there, waiting to cross, though Israeli attacks on crossing points yesterday may have put some off. The British embassy finally decided on an evacuation plan today (Sunday). Had I stayed, I may be waiting for my place on a British warship along with around 10,000 others. With Israel bombing port areas north and south of the city, as far as Tripoli and including the Christian port of Jounieh, I wouldn’t like to say how long it will be before my compatriots make it out that way. Needless to say, crossing the border was pretty unpleasant. Hellish in fact. The scene of dozens of news broadcasts made real: thousands of people - some with cars, others on foot - carrying their possessions and their children out of the country. A line of traffic perhaps a mile long greeted us (a British friend had decided at the last minute to join me) at the departure point. We decided to go on foot, paying the enterprising figures who always appear in crisis situations a few thousand Lebanese lira to help us with our luggage. We managed to get to the Syrian border and acquire the stamps for our visa reasonably quickly in the circumstances. When we returned to the visa processing office to get our papers approved we witnessed a scene of chaos that was almost surreal in nature, while simultaneously bringing home the sense that this is what happens in wartime: masses of scared and frustrated people trying to get themselves and their families to safety. In a room perhaps 25 feet square, hundreds of anxious bodies shoved their way to the glass partition to scream at the dozen or so Syrian officials who worked surrounded by an ever-increasing pile of passports. Sweat streamed from people’s faces as the temperature in the office rose into the thirties. I saw one pregnant woman carried from the room in a faint. Other women were crying, while many men tried to use brute force to get their claims processed first. Others used a softer but more persuasive language - several times I saw Syrian guards coaxed out the back, their companions returning to receive their passports after only a few moments waiting. As a female I was allowed to stand inside the processing room, on the more advantageous side of the glass partition, and witness the whole scene at close quarters. Occasionally the room would become too full of urgent bodies, and we would all be shoved outside the door. Gradually people would wheedle their way in again, only until the officials got fed up of people shouting in their ears and going through the piles of passports on the desk, and would demand they be removed. This ebb and flow continued for hours, bringing with it no rhyme nor reason in the system of who came first. I stood for perhaps five hours watching my passport disappear beneath a pile of other documents. I was amazed when it was actually handed to me at around 2am, visa completed. There was, it seems, some method in this madness.

I was fortunate to be on foot. Those with cars were no doubt waiting until morning, and I imagine this scene goes on now. It is hard to give statistics on the people going across. Without doubt there were a lot of Syrians returning home. Most of the passports I saw awaiting visas were from the Gulf, Scandinavia, Iran, other parts of Europe, Russia, many belonging to people of Lebanese extraction, probably at home for their summer holidays. People who had left during the war, settled elsewhere, but who came back each summer to see family and enjoy the country they still loved. This summer they were greeted by a resurgent nightmare. How long it will be before the tourists and emigrants return, who knows?

From the safety of Hama, a charming Shia town between Damascus and Aleppo, I now watch with growing consternation an offensive which I was prepared to believe on Thursday would “quickly blow over”, but which I now feel could blow out of all proportions. Katyushas penetrated further than ever this morning, killing eight Israeli workers in Haifa; terrible retribution has been promised by Olmert. The residents of South Lebanon have been told to evacuate; the flow of people moving into Beirut must no doubt be bringing with it memories of the 1982 invasion which many had hoped could be resigned to the past. There is no doubt in my mind that Israel’s actions are an atrocity, symptomatic of its perverse need to answer every slight with an obscene show of force. The lack of any proper response by the globe’s more powerful actors to do anything about the dire situation in Gaza, and their now complete paralysis in the face of this brutal attack on Lebanon’s infrastructure, economy, and people, is mind-boggling. That’s not to say Hezbollah was correct to carry out its capture operation in the full knowledge that Israel was likely to retaliate with the same display of brutality it has hurled at Gaza. There are evident points to be scored by the Islamic resistance in making clear that any suggestion of removing Hezbollah’s weapons is folly in the face of Israeli might. As is being repeatedly said, many Lebanese are furious that the group has brought such destruction upon a country that also belongs to them. Prime Minister Saniora will be forced very soon to make a decision about whether to deploy Lebanese Army forces in the South in an effort to restrain Hezbollah; if and when such a decision is taken, the prospect of civil war is brought significantly closer. Surely Israel does not have such impunity that the US and the EU can sit back and allow such a disaster to unfold? Whatever your opinion on the matter, from my point of view, and of millions of others who have enjoyed the best of what Lebanon has to offer - especially its diverse peoples - what is at stake is too precious to be sacrificed for any cause.

Maddy Ryle is from the UK and spent the last year in Lebanon as a volunteer in the Palestinian camp, Beddawi, an intern witrh the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation in Beirut, a freelance writer, and a magazine editor. Contact her on madsryle@gmail.com.

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