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24 July 2006

Desperation in Beirut


By Lyn Walid

It is hard to believe that it was so very recently that the Lebanese were escaping the sweltering heat and heading to the country’s beaches, the biggest problem on their minds being how to find scarce tickets to see their national diva, Fairouz, perform at one of the many outdoor music festivals.

Now the streets of downtown Beirut, meticulously rebuilt after the 1975-90 civil war, are deserted. Cafés, only the other week heaving with fans watching the World Cup on giant screens, are shuttered. Parents have taken to comforting children, terrified by the almighty bangs of the Israeli F-16 jets pounding the southern suburbs of Beirut, by telling them that these are just more fireworks celebrating the victory of some football team or other.

In fact, real fireworks have been set off by supporters celebrating the Hezbollah Shia fighters’ capture of the Israeli soldiers they hoped would be exchanged for three Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. Hezbollah has done it before. But the group has changed since the war days when it snatched western hostages from the streets of Beirut, and its civilian arm now has 14 members of parliament in Lebanon’s 128-seat house as well as two ministers in government.

The Lebanese government, led for the first time by pol it icians opposed to Syria, immediately distanced itself from the attack, fearing harsh retaliation, but few imagined Israel would hit back with such force.

Most of Beirut, indeed most of Lebanon, is untouched by the bombardment. The targeted areas. however, have been utterly destroyed. Israel has struck dozens of bridges, roads and flyovers, so carefully rebuilt from the ruins of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. On the first day, it attacked the country’s only international airport, and has imposed a sea and air blockade that has brought trade to a halt. It is just a matter of time before there are shortages.

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Many are hoarding water and “war food” – canned tuna or corned beef, powdered milk, sugar, flour – and hunkering down for a long siege.

Overnight, Arab tourists who had escaped from the blistering summer heat of the Gulf to the relatively cool resorts of Mount Lebanon, and from the social restrictions of their own countries to the glitzy bars and rest aurants of worldly Beirut, were queuing up outside their embassies, suitcases in hand, for evacuation as the crisis began.

And these are the hardy tourists, the weathervane of Lebanon’s fortunes. They know the Middle East, and with their exodus on coaches through the only route out of the country, via Syria, it became clear that Lebanon was in for far more than an “ordinary” crisis.

The foreign residents who stayed, believing that it would all be over in a couple of days as usual, are now stranded, their embassies caught in the logistical nightmare of organising mass evacuations, with the airport out of action, an Israeli sea blockade in force, and roads and bridges suffering the worst of the bombardment. With the roads so dangerous and people desperate to leave, taxi drivers are charging up to $1,000 to get out of Beirut via the mountains. Those without the means are sleeping on the grass or benches in the Sanayeh Garden, one of the few green spaces in the built-up capital. Others are sheltering in schools. More are stranded in southern Lebanon, desperate to get out but worried that travelling on roads that are under daily bombardment is even more dangerous than staying put.

Chafic, a 29-year-old engineer employed by a French company that works on water treatment projects in Lebanon, is no fan of Hezbollah, but says the scale of the Israeli response means people have to stand together. “My family has left our house. We have no idea of the state of the house or our belongings. There is nothing I can do. Now the French are evacuating, so even my job is going down the drain,” he said. “I am frustrated because nothing can be done. We are just watching our country going back ten years and it is humiliating.”

The Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, who fought back tears on on 15 July as he declared the country a “disaster zone” and called for aid and a ceasefire, now says the damage to his country’s infrastructure runs into billions of dollars.

Beyond that, there is the loss of business to entrepreneurs who have had to close their shops, restaurants and offices because employees are too scared to leave home and people are too worried to carry on shopping and eating out as though life were normal. Life has continued in some parts of eastern Beirut dominated by Christians whose feelings towards Hezbollah, led by the turbanned cleric Hasan Nasrallah, range from unsympathetic to downright hostile.

Some Christians, who resent that Hezbollah is now the only heavily armed group in Lebanon, show unreserved glee in the cafés at TV news flashes that a Hezbollah target has been hit. They believe that the group is more loyal to the interests of its Syrian and Iranian backers than to Lebanon.

The Beirut Stock Exchange, which plummeted in the two days following the capture of the Israeli soldiers, did not reopen after the weekend, and people have been converting their Lebanese pounds to US dollars. The central bank can stave off a run on the currency if the crisis does not last too long. Nevertheless, banks have placed limits on the amount of cash people are allowed to withdraw.

Ordinary Lebanese who lost their savings during the civil war, when the Lebanese pound eventually collapsed, do not want everything they have built up over the past 15 years of peace to disappear. Yet it is hard to believe Lebanon will ever be the same again.