Surviving – and Leaving – Beirut
BEIRUT — I’m beginning to realize how isolated we we might be once the “Western nationals leave Lebanon…”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1216800,00.html
From the Westerners lining the streets around Beirut’s port waiting to be evacuated to Beirut’s Christian residents absorbing their neighborhood’s first direct hit, the city’s besieged residents must have felt a most unwelcome sense of deja vu Wednesday.
An unidentified Lebanese-Canadian man and his family protest the Canadian evacuation plan by blocking traffic in Beirut. (Â© 2006 Christopher Allbritton)Many in the crowd of angry Canadians and panicked Australians at the port had fled the 1975-1990 civil war and had returned with their children and grandchildren to Lebanon for the first time. Now they were fleeing war again. Lena Agha, 20, of Sydney, said her mother had left shortly after the start of the civil war and was taking her daughter and son to Lebanon. “Being from Australia, we never dreamed of experiencing anything like this,” Agha said.”I left Lebanon in 1975 when I was nine years old,” said Alec Yevarian, 40, a Lebanese-Canadian from Montreal who came back to Beirut six years ago and started ECRM Solutions, specializing in Internet communications systems. “Now I’m leaving with my children. History is repeating itself.”
It must have felt that way to Beirut’s Christians as well. A missile attack on some trucks in Achrafiyeh, an upscale Christian neighborhood in the center of the city, was the first time the Israelis had bombed there, and my driver Ali and I raced there to see the aftermath. We expected to see what was now a familiar scene: a devastated city block, with shattered glass and the crumbled masonry of what used to be apartment homes. Instead, we found a couple of well-digging trucks that had been hit by four missiles so precisely that not even the windows in buildings just two dozen yards away had been shattered. The trucks themselves were probably targeted because they looked almost like rocket launchers, but something didn’t make sense: why would the Israelis think Hizballah would try to park rocket launchers in broad daylight in the neighborhood that one would think would be the most hostile to them in Beirut?
Politics, as usual, provided the answer. On Tuesday, Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and one of the most popular politicians in Lebanon, made a call for national unity in the face of Israel’s assault. Long a foe of Syria during the latter days of the 1975-90 civil war, he has since made a political alliance with Hizballah in a bid for the country’s presidency.
Within the context of Aoun’s statement, the attack made more sense. Speaking with some of the neighborhood’s residents, who were all Christians, I found a deep well of resentment toward Hizballah and Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader. A precisely targeted attack in a hostile neighborhood was a way of “reminding” Hizballah’s enemies in Lebanon just who started this mess and undercut the Shi’ite group’s alliance with Aoun, who is perhaps the only politician in Lebanon with appeal beyond his sectarian group. (He’s widely admired by Sunnis and Shi’ites as well as Christians.)
This, however, is a dangerous game. By stirring up anti-Hizballah feelings, Israel risks stoking anti-Muslim feelings as well, which are barely below the surface in some Christian communities with strong ties to the militias of the Lebanese Forces. Appealing to those sentiments could send Lebanon back into full-scale civil war when the bombing stops and the finger-pointing begins.
No, this wasn’t a real attack; there were no casualties and almost no real property damage (aside from the trucks). Instead, the Israelis were sending a little message to the Christians in Beirut: Remember your real enemy. Judging from neighborhood sentiment, I think they got the message.
Whether the Western governments got the message from their angry citizens at the city’s port is another matter. Alec Yevarian was one of the thousands of Westerners who had few kind words to say about their governments’ evacuation efforts. A mob of 2,000 to 3,000 shouting Lebanese-Canadians were all piled up near a small iron gate into the port that was straining at its hinges as Lebanese soldiers vainly tried to keep order. In the heat, they were stretched along two to three blocks where there was almost no shade, no water and no toilet facilities (one small child urinated on herself in front of me). A wall of sweaty human flesh pushed toward the gate while embassy officials yelled out a few names at a time in alphabetical order.
The Canadian embassy has been awful,Yevarian said. For days no one picked up the phone there, he said, and no one had any communication before yesterday when they were told to arrive at 7:30 a.m. today. It was now 11 a.m., and very few people had been let through the gate to the waiting ship.
His was a common complaint. “They were waiting for other embassies to come up with a solution,” groused Roben Hatem, 31, a Lebanese-Australian from Sydney. He stood on the road leading to the port with hundreds of other scared and frightened people, the sidewalks crowded with luggage and elderly people and children taking shelter in what little shade there was. Several booms filled the air. The Israelis were bombing again. Several older women started to wail in fear and children began to cry. By the end of the day, according to The Australian, 360 Australians got out, but another 300 were unable to get a spot on a boat or chopper.
At one point, a Canadian man grew so frustrated he plopped his entire family in the street along with their luggage and blocked one lane of traffic. He shouted that no one from the embassy was helping them. Where was the water? Where were the embassy staff who were supposed to arrange things? Like the questions of so many beleaguered residents of Beirut these days, there were no answers to be had.