Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Monday in Beirut

The following is Marion, recounting her first visit to central Beirut since the war started. Marion snapped the photo below outside the Egyptian Embassy, it shows the piles of bags of people waiting to Egyptians waiting to be evacuated by bus to Syria.

Monday 24 July

Since the start of the Hizballah-Israeli war we have been getting used to a new routine: waking up in the morning without the need to look at the watch since there was nothing awaiting us in the day; Watching TV and listening to the radio, following up the latest news of bombs falling and casualties growing in number in both Lebanon and Israel; hearing the Israeli planes above our heads. It’s strange how one’s way of living can change so radically, so quickly.

This morning, that new routine in my life was broken. I was going to work! Naturally our office has been closed since the start of the war, but it will be open a few hours a day from today. If the situation will be too dangerous, then the office will close its doors once again. I knew no work was awaiting me since the whole country has been paralyzed but I was looking forward to see my colleagues, getting out of home, and most importantly I was curious to see the heart of Beirut.

I went through the newspaper with zero advertisements in it. I guess that is also a new routine in our daily lives. I used to enjoy reading the ads in the papers each morning. Instead, now, all I could see were announcements of the closing down of bank branches in dangerous regions… Announcements for shopping malls’ early closing hours due to the situation…. Announcements of the new telephone numbers of insurance companies that moved their offices from Beirut to safer areas.

I was expecting to see at least hotel’s advertisements especially with the huge Lebanese flow of displaced refugees, yet did not find any. Maybe all the hotels were already full by now with the refugees who can afford to pay?

The main highway that connects the north to Beirut there was little traffic. On my way, I passed the Canadian Embassy and outside a long queue of people was waiting. Logically they were not Canadians, since they were evacuated sometime ago, but rather Lebanese trying to get visas in order to leave the country.

As I reached downtown Beirut there were army soldiers spread every few hundred meters just inspecting the roads. I continued my drive and the downtown that used to be the living heart of Beirut until two weeks ago now seemed like a ghost town.

From the “Bank Street” (a street with only banks on it!), I took the highway that went straight to the airport and the south. On this road, I had to cross the “Cola Bridge” (please don’t ask why its called that – I’m not sure!). This is a major bridge that many Lebanese feared would be added to lengthy list of bomb-out bridges in the country. Luckily it was still undamaged. The few cars crossing this bridge accelerated hard. I did the same, everyone fearing they could be bombed at any second.

After crossing the bridge, I took the exit toward my office. I wished I had the strength to continue my way on the highway and drive to the airport and continue to Saida’s city – surely at some point I would be stopped at a roadblock - but my courage did not quite match my curiosity.

On the way to my office lies the Egyptian embassy. I had to stop the car and wait for the crowds and their luggage blocking the road to clear the way. They were Egyptians waiting outside the embassy for the buses to be transported outside of Lebanon. What a scene!

The joy of seeing my office desk again and greeting all my colleagues was immense. It felt like ages since I last have been in the office. Each one of us had a story to tell in this war. I used to call our office “THE UNITED COLORS OF RELIGIONS”. It was a funny title that really fitted us perfectly. We were Lebanese Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christian, Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslims, Druze, Armenian Christians etc… I personally liked this mixture of cultures and religions.

I was eager to hear all of their points of views concerning this war. The Shiites were a bit reserved as we discussed the subject. They were very upset about what is happening to Lebanon; commenting on the casualties, the sad flow of refugees and they certainly want peace more than anything. Yet they did not comment when we all started speaking about Hassan Nassrallah. The Sunnis and Christians were of same opinion: Hizballah dragged the country into a war that could have been avoided. So naturally they blamed Hizballah totally. Our Druze colleagues who follow Walid Jumblat, the MP and leader of Druze community and an ally to Hariri, naturally were of the same opinion as the Sunnis and Christians.

There was one Palestinian colleague among us who responded in rage when I asked them everyone whether they would mind having peace with Israel. Hatred towards Israel runs in his veins, even though he lived all his life in Lebanon and has never been to Palestine.

The Sunnis’ and Christians’ answer was: if peace with Israel will guarantee us safety and long lasting peace then why not. As for the Shiites reaction, they replied that Israel was never to be trusted and if there would be peace, it will start putting its hands on our economy, our industry. I did not understand their point of view. Mind you, my Shiite colleagues are open and not conservative in comparison to the pro-Hizballah people living in Dahiyeh or in the south of the country.

In the flow of the conversation, we all agreed on one point: since we got into this mess, we were ready to bare it to the end despite the consequences but on one condition – that it would be the last time! We could not handle another war, another fleeing of refugees, another insecure period, another economic crisis, more people killed. We all have had enough despite our differences. The one word we could all agree on: Peace! But the question was how when there are so many conflicting forces in our tiny country?

During the four hours we stayed at the office, the phone only rang four times. They were no calls from clients, but rather calls from the girlfriends of the Sri Lankan janitor of our offices. He seems to be something of Don Juan and all his girlfriends kept on calling worried about him! It was the time when we all forgot this war for a few minutes and had a good laugh.

Time passed by quickly at work as we organized our database, filed documents and did backups of our computer files. Around noon I left the office and chose to pass by the Sanayeh public garden that now contains hundreds of refugees. There was terrible traffic on that street, at the main gate there were two army jeeps with soldiers inside and were standing next to the garden’s fences. I could not stop nor was I able to take any pictures, but from my car window I could see many women wearing chadors walking in the garden. Children were playing among the trees. Next to the garden was a help center. There were young people taking out packs of breads and cheese from there, carrying them to the garden’s refugees.

In central Beirut the rubbish bins were empty and the roads had been cleaned but during my drive I passed by other places where there were huge piles of uncollected trash in the middle of un-cleaned streets. When I got home, there was a report on TV concerning this issue. The Lebanese cleaning company Sukleen was suffering from a shortage of janitors. 70% of its employees were foreigners: Syrians, Indians, Bangladeshis, Egyptians. The remaining percentage were Lebanese but many had fled to safer areas. The constant bombing of the Dahiyeh area and the south has kept Sukleen from accomplishing its tasks there. Meanwhile and until it gets back its original employees, Sukleen was recruiting new employees – mainly Palestinians and some Lebanese in order to solve its shortage. Therefore it offered each rubbish truck driver 35$/day and for each bin man collecting the trash $25/day.

On TV CondoleezaRice’s presence in the Middle East was the leading the news. There is nothing on TV these days except news, national patriotic songs, 24 hours journalists’ coverage of different areas in the country and programmes where Christians and Sunni MPs debate live with Hizballah’s parliamentarians and exchange their views on the situation. Movies, series and other programmes broadcasted in normal times have been stopped. Each TV station has come up with a slogan which it displayed on its screen 24hours/day. Slogans differed according to each station: “JULY WAR 2006”; “SURVIVORS” with fist over a Lebanese map; and “WAR ON LEBANON” being some of the examples.

Finally, I would like to comment on Mike’s reports from Jerusalem. How the Israeli people are dealing with this war is something we do not see on or TV news. I hope both nations agree on one thing: let this war be the last one! We both have had enough and what we should aim for are security and peace for our children.

Marion A.J.


jude calvert-toulmin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jude calvert-toulmin said...

marion, thank you for your reports; you have a wonderful writing voice which paints such a tragic picture for us fortunate enough not to be going through the horrors which your country is now undergoing.

please keep up your reports, i am spreading the word about them, and about toby's excellent blog, far and wide.