Bustling Beirut Holds its Breath

Bustling Beirut Holds its Breath

August 28th 2012

Mary A Moore

Beirut has seen its share of bloodshed through the years as various civil wars have scared the landscape and psyche. Shattered buildings still litter the city, sad reminders of  past wars, as the city struggles to rebuild its economic core and draw tourists back. Residents when asked pointed questions give answers carefully couched in a way that does not offend the powers that be, or convey an allegiance to any particular party. Sectarian Beirut is now being held together only by a dream of a better future for their children. Beirut’s residents are holding their collective breath, as the conflicts between Shite and Sunni, and Palestinian, Hizbollah, and the rest of the city fester, and the winds of war begin to blow. More troops have arrived at the airport and a tank hides nearby under a bridge with  an armed vehicle. The armed conflict in Syria has spilt over into Beirut in everything, from electricity shortages from a stoppage in power supplied from Syria, to a growing resentment of the Hizbollah  government and its support of the brutal Assad  regime, to increasing violence in Tripoli between the Alawite community and Sunni community, and in the northern regions between the Syrian army and the Lebanese army and residents. These events and the events from the past such as the assassination in 2005 of Rafic Hariri by suspected Hizbollah forces acting in proxy for Assad point to the reflection of the face of Syria within the waters of Lebanon. When Syrian Airports came under attack by the FSA and the fierce fighting has made it impossible for flights to land there, this event was reflected in corresponding actions at the Beirut airport which also escalated it’s security in response. The airport main entranceway is closed periodically, and there is some rumor of the army opening it’s airport in the northern region.Visitors to the region where Hizbollah are located may invite an aggressive response, as outsiders are not tolerated. Their Mosque acts as their place of organization in everything from prayer, to hospital, to arms storage.

Hizbollah Mosque

Assad in Beirut

At the border with Syria, the flow of Syrians back and forth across the border continues as fully loaded vehicles go into Syria and return as vehicles full of refugees trying to escape the violence. A man near the heavily guarded border by the sea (Fatmiah) in  northern Lebanon walks down the road with only a suitcase in tow from Syria, and fades into the horizon. The homeless Syrian refugees live in squalor in makeshift tents, huddled together for meals, warmth and friendship. The ones who came first made have their way to the sea to set up tents where at least the view is majestic. They have been there long enough to have put up satellite dishes. At the border refugee children approach the vehicles stopped at the small building that has some water and other sundries for sale. They are dressed in their Sunday finest and smile for treats or money, or whatever the visitor will offer. Others walk around with what appear to be guns. With the correct Syrian papers you can cross into Syria here. There is no fear that Syrian troops will shoot, just do not take photos outside the car of the Syrian border, or they will. According to reports, there is a border crossing that is not guarded by the Syrian army. Syrian vehicles loaded to the hilt are crossing this border point in large numbers at this site. Nearby in the countryside, an army checkpoint prevents free travel to certain areas of the north.

Meanwhile, Lebanese officials close to Syria were charged with bringing explosives into the country, in an attempt to destabilize these northern border regions supporting the Free Syrian Army, and to target political and social figures supporting the FSA.

…’Judge Sami Sader charged former Information Minister Michel Samaha and two Syrian army officers with setting up an armed group to incite sectarian strife through “terror attacks,” the National News Agency reported on Saturday. The report identified one of the Syrian officers as General Ali Mamluk, the Syrian National Security chief. It also said that the ex-minister and the Syrian army officers set up the armed group in order to commit crimes aimed at inciting sectarian strife “by targeting the authority of the state and its civil and military institutions.” The armed group was preparing “terrorist attacks” through bombing campaigns, as well as assassination attempts against political and religious figures in Lebanon, according to the NNA.’

In response, ‘Damascus General Prosecutor Marwan Louji said on Monday night that the Syrian judiciary was preparing arrest warrants against Lebanese political figures’

The Syrian refugee crisis remains a critical problem, as the Lebanese government has offered minimal assistance, and the vast majority live in shelters made up of scavenged material, and send their children to beg for money.The refugees are not the only ones struggling to survive.

Syrian Refugee Camp

In Syria there is a house at the edge of the world, at least at the edge of our world. It is home to numerous small children. It stands desolate and alone in the wind that howls over a rock filled field. Shots are fired all night and frequently during the day, and one can wonder how they have managed to live there for all of this time. The children have not left the house for over a year. They don’t go to school, and they don’t play with any friends. No one ever comes to visit. It has been shelled and shot at. The family have lived there for three generations. Each generation surviving the ravages of war that Lebanon has faced, with all too frequency. It is a neighbourhood where surprisingly enough where not only do people stay, but even new houses are built a few miles down the road. Syrian mortar shells have gone off here, and young women were killed recently. Their bodies were missing for a time, as their remains were hurled by the blast shock wave into a nearby pit as if they were buried, at the end of it all. The work of Assad’s Syrian army, sending RPGs and mortar shells towards Lebanon. It is a bleak story. It is not the first time for Syria, nor the first for Lebanon. Their fates have been intertwined for centuries, most recently in ways that have seen Lebanon exploited. It is a sad story that has become a theme for Lebanon for some time now. Mention war, and most will tell you they long for peace, for stability, and for a future for their children.A man tells of the miracles that have happened at Beirut, of the sacred statue ‘crying’ after the shelling of Beirut. There are indeed streaks that flow down her face, as if the sadness of war had been felt by greater powers as well. Religious figures have indeed sensed the pain of their people and they come to Lebanon to offer prayers for peace and healing. The Pope comes next month, and other religious figure have visited to lend solace to a land that seems next door to death.

The people who live in this house ask for help from anyone.  No one sees their plight as they live in what really is no man’s land. The GPS locates it as being in Syria, but politically it is entered from Lebanon. A checkpoint stops all visitors. There are no throngs of reporters, no aid workers, and no Pope will ever see them. There is no doctor, no stores nearby, and only their distant neighbours to rally.  They plead for foreign governments to please help them, and to hear their story. They feel abandoned to the wind and the bullets, while an armed guard outposts stands only a few hundred yards away. They truly live in what they call, ‘Hell’.

Lebanon still has peace in many areas. In the tourist areas of the ancient Roman towns such as Biblios and Balbak, and in the center with Beirut, business goes on much like usual.  The ‘shoppes’ of the Souk are far removed from the realities of the Syrian war, and are places where people go to forget the problems nearby, and relax. The Roman ruins are on par with those in ancient Athens, and Rome. Beautiful reminders of a time of peace, both past and present. Visitors still come from the Middle East to what was once upon a time ‘the Riviera of the Middle East’. The Downtown is in fact host to a Peace Festival, where those who want to emphasize peace can come and make their opinion known. Invitations are handed out by persons dressed as if they work for the Red Cross, a fitting reminder of the alternative options. While the ground in Syria shakes as the shelling continues and people are slaughtered, in Beirut there is a chance yet to feel peace. Children are happy and laughing, and shoppers look longingly at the various goods on display. It is indeed worthwhile to remember what this time, what peace feels like, before those who bang the war drums make us think it is time to give this up in Beirut.

Update Oct 2012

Beirut has experienced its first bombing, as clashes between pro and anti Assad forces in northern Lebanon, take their battle to downtown Beirut.

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