Sleepless in Beirut: A resident’s perspective

Mid-East Uncategorized

A journalist and resident of burning Beirut gives her account of life in the previously promising metropolis-turned-warzone as the bombs rain down…

‘The capital of the Middle East’, the ‘Switzerland of the East’, the ‘Paris of the Mediterranean’… these are but a few names given to Lebanon. Rising up from the ashes of 15 years of fierce conflicts, the country was determined to get back the throne it once lost.

The glamour of the capital, Beirut, captured the hearts and minds of everyone who walked its streets and breathed its air. Its nightlife, fashion and cultural experiences rivalled many of the world’s most renowned cities.

On the road to economic recovery, the country’s future promised its people a life of prosperity and abundance.

That was until July 12, 2006 – when things took a bitter turn.

According to news reports, Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers at the demarcation line set by the UN. Israel’s reaction to this incident went further than ‘too far’.

Ghost town

I was on my way to Beirut when a friend of mine called to warn me about Israeli raids on the southern regions of the country. I thought that she was overreacting since as sad as it is, such bombardments are very common and have been happening as long as all of us can remember.

I got into the car and was determined to head to my destination. I must admit that traffic was abnormally light, but I had an important work meeting in the down town area that I couldn’t afford to miss.

Beirut’s down town, usually packed with tourists this time of year, looked like a ghost town. An eerie feeling instantly took over me, as all shops were closed and streets were deserted.

I rolled down the window as I approached a man briskly walking, clumsily carrying a heavy briefcase that looked like it was about to snap. “What’s going on?” I asked innocently. “Haven’t you heard?” he replied while trying to catch his breath, “the Israelis bombed the South and threatened to attack Beirut as well! What are you still doing here?”

Except for a few workers hastily dismantling the giant TV screens that entertained thousands of tourists during the World Cup just a few days earlier, not a single pedestrian was in sight.

As I was heading back home, I realised that what we all thought we buried 15 years ago has resurfaced again.

Reliving the nightmare

Watching the news is all any of us can do in times like these, so we all gathered around the television mesmerized by what was happening. None of us could believe it.

As we closely followed the events, praying it would be a limited retaliation, none of us was prepared for what came next.

The Israeli fighter jets along with gunboats methodically started destroying all the bridges in the southern regions of the country, as well as Hezbollah’s headquarters in the capital’s southern suburb.

The worst to come was the bombing of the Rafiq Hariri International Airport, along with all seaports. Lebanon was officially declared under siege.

Veterans of the war, our survival instincts immediately kicked in and the stocking of all basic necessities began. I frantically rushed to the supermarket, only to find that hundreds already beat me to the shelves. Water, canned food, and powdered milk were the first to disappear.

Having a one year-old daughter, I pushed diapers and milk formulas to the top of my priorities list. I grabbed all I could and piled them in my cart, then headed towards the cashier only to be taken aback by the lady at the till saying: “Sorry, we don’t take Lebanese pounds, only American dollars.”

One big no-show

While waiting my turn at the cashier, the July issue of Time Out Beirut caught my eye. It was a special issue covering all the festivities, concerts and events scheduled for this summer. The season was surely not to be missed.

It was less than a month ago that I watched Prime Minister Fouad Siniora proudly announce that Lebanon was expecting 1.6 million tourists this year, by far the most promising year in Lebanon’s history.

Still recovering from last year’s stagnant tourism season following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the country saw the number of visitors miraculously increase by 50 percent during the first half of 2006, reaching 631,000 tourists.

Instead of being flooded with newcomers, the country saw during the first week of the war a rush in the opposite direction, as tens of thousands of tourists and Lebanese fled the country in panic through the Lebanese-Syrian borders. 

Festivals, exhibitions, weddings, conferences, graduation ceremonies and all other signs of the country's recovery from last year's series of explosions and assassinations were cancelled, ruining all hopes for a crippled country to get back on its feet. 

The events unfold

As the days went by, the country fell further into the grip of turmoil, destruction and slaughter. What took more than a decade of formidable commitment to rebuild and revive, was shamefully wiped out in a matter of days. Lebanon as we know it is no longer.

With sorrow we watched our country get meticulously defaced by all sorts of traditional and banned weapons. Bridges, highways, gas stations, power plants and communications stations were indiscriminately targeted.

The ingenious Israeli plan to neutralize Hezbollah was destroying and killing everything but the resistance group. The smart bombs used by Israeli army couldn’t differentiate between militants and innocent civilians. Women, children and the elderly were the regular victims.

According to the Lebanese Higher Relief Council (HRC), the civilian death toll has so far reached the monstrous level of 828.

The number is expected to soar when the long-awaited ceasefire is finally reached as it is estimated that several hundreds more are still buried under the rubble of their own homes, either slowly decaying in the scorching summer heat or being eaten by stray dogs.

The entire southern regions were deliberately cut off from the outside world when nearly all bridges and roads were destroyed by air raids. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) claims the purpose of their actions was to cut off munitions supplies to Hezbollah fighters in the South.

What resulted was a total crisis. With no food, water or fuel, the residents of the southern villages were stranded and left to starve under constant bombardments. Some villagers resorted to eating tree leaves and drinking cattle water after they depleted their provisions 12 days later.

Those who didn’t perish from the continuous shelling suffer from many diseases such as hepatitis and jaundice, and without medication their fate is no different.

Mass exodus

At the beginning of the war, Israeli jets and helicopters dropped flyers warning residents of the southern regions to evacuate their villages before bombing them. Thousands gathered in each village looking for a ride out, even when all roads were inaccessible.

Some left their homes to stay with friends and family residing in safer areas, while most others left without knowing where they would end up.

Many fleeing convoys were shelled by Israeli gunboats and helicopters as they were heading for safer areas. The tragedy of the village of Marwaheen is an example of such cruel acts, when 23 fleeing villagers in a pickup truck were blown to pieces by gunboat and helicopter rockets.

Those who survived the perilous road to safety arrived to Beirut and the mountains with nothing but their clothes on, permanently scarred by the terrifying experience they endured.

According to the HRC, so far more than one million refugees from the South scattered across the country – nearly 30 per cent of the entire population. The displaced took shelter in churches and mosques, public schools and parks in various regions of the nation.

Strengthening national unity

The year 2005 was a turning point in Lebanon’s history. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, around 1.3 million Lebanese gathered in what became the largest demonstration in the Arab world, putting aside religious and sectarian differences and protesting against the governing Syrian rule.

Learning from the mistakes of the past, the Lebanese reacted to the flood of refugees with much empathy, welcoming the southern families into their neighbourhoods. Local charities and humanitarian organizations rushed to aid the refugees and provide them with basic necessities.

Mostly Shia Muslims, the displaced are being cared for by Sunni Muslims as well as Christians. A 65-year-old Christian lady, Wadad Abu Jaoudi, living in the Christian area of Jaledib, opened her home to five families with 11 children. “Christians, Muslims or Druze, we must all stick together especially in these hard times,” confirms Abu Jaoudi.

Tragedy strikes again

I woke up on the morning of Sunday July 30 – the 18th day of the war on Lebanon – to an appalling calamity. Qana, the southern village that witnessed the horrible massacre of 108 of its residents in a UN shelter 10 years ago, lost at the crack of dawn another 56 in a single blow, among which 37 were children.

Residents and witnesses confirmed that the victims were from four families who had gathered to spend the night on the ground floor of a three-storey building, believing they would be safe from the brutal bombings.

We were all sure that the world would seethe with rage and put an end to the madness, but that wasn’t the case. Several countries condemned the ongoing barbaric attacks on Lebanon and called for an immediate ceasefire, only to be opposed by Israel and the US. We were cold-bloodedly let down.

Twenty-three days into the war, and the carnage continues with no imminent end in sight.