Monday, July 31, 2006

Like An Apocalypse Movie

I went down to Beirut’s southern suburbs this afternoon. The roads were deserted and drove past shop after shop that had the shutters pulled down, and bridges that had been destroyed. The southern suburbs is usually a beehive of activity, what with an estimated 750,000 people living there. Not now.
At the Mreyjeh square junction I got out and met a friend, Ali, who runs a fruit shop. He had a poor selection of fruit and veg. 'No one here to buy anything.'
While talking to Ali a guy on a mo-ped stopped and asked him who I was and why I was there. He told the man, from Hizbullah, that I was a friend and used to live in the neighbourhood. Ali said they were also checking Lebanese not from that particular area.
I walked down the empty road that used to be teeming with traffic, children and people going about their business at a fair clip, eager to get to my friend Hassan's before running into another guy on a mo-ped.
I then bumped into two other chebab (guys) I know, down from the mountains for the day 'for mum to do the washing.' I told him how surprised I was about the lack of people. 'Yeah, you could film a horror movie here. It is like an apocalypse movie it’s so deserted.'
The street where I lived was equally deserted. In Hassan's building, only two out of 16 apartment buildings are occupied. Out of around 500 people that living in the surrounding buildings, there are perhaps 40.
Osama, my old concierge, had left via Syria to his family in Sudan.
In Hassan's house everyone was watching the news - the massacre in Qana by the Israelis that left 55 dead, an eerie deja vu for many Lebanese; a massacre occurred there exactly 10 years ago when the Israelis shelled a UN compounded that housed 800 civilians. 106 were killed and 116 injured during.
All the men looked tired, not from a lack of sleep but the continuous stress of not knowing what was going to happen, and nothing to do other than watch the news.
'It's boring this waiting and nothing to do, I tried to read but couldn't get past a few pages,' said Abass, Hassan's brother, who works with the UN.
'This is totally counterproductive,' Abass added, referring to Israel's invasion. 'What is he going to think of all this? You think he will forget these images?' he added, pointing at his 10 year old nephew seeing the Al Jazeera tv images of children being pulled out of the rubble in Qana.
‘If the international community wants a secure border zone on the Lebanese side, then they should also put a zone on the Israeli side,’ added Abbass.
Indeed, since 2000, the Israelis have violated Lebanese sovereignty over 11,782 times, Hizbullah 100 (based on UN observers).
Hassan and family know that staying in the southern suburbs, a mere 15 minutes walk from Haret Hreik (a residential area that also used to include Hizbullah's former political HQ before being destroyed), is not safe, but they lack the funds to go elsewhere and between their two apartments in the neighbourhood, sleep 12.
Around 50,000 apartments have reportedly been destroyed in the southern suburbs.
Abass said he was in Mreyjeh when 23 one-tonne bombs were dropped on Haret Hreik. 'Your ears ring, and you feel real fear.'
Due to the upped security, after lunch and tea, Hassan drove me home. We drove along the airport road. Jisr al Matar's (Airport Bridge) central section had been destroyed, and I caught glimpses of the levelling of Haret Hreik from the road.
This is what I have seen so far. Expect more updates from this land that is like a never-ending early Sunday morning...


Arrived in Beirut on Saturday uneventfully. At the border hardly anyone was crossing into Lebanon, and the road through the town of Masnaa was strangely empty. In a time of peace, the road would be chockablock with vehicles.
Just where the town ends the road had been destroyed by an Israeli bomb, so we took an alternative route that went through Zahle and the mountains another way. We passed several vehicles, including a UAE humanitarian truck, that had been destroyed by rockets.
We - Ben Gilbert, a US radio journalist, and myself, along with Syrian driver Bassam - took the road down through Antelias through Jounieh. The road through Jounieh is usually a log-jam, especially on a Saturday afternoon, crawling along meter by perspiring meter. We drove through as if it was Sunday morning. Some restaurants were open, but what was very noticeable was that all car show rooms were shut through the Jounieh, ad-strewn strip.
My apartment is fine and my neighbours, an elderly couple, had been keeping an eye on it. They told me their son along with his family had left to France, but due to her disability - she has to use a zimmer frame, and finds travel difficult, she has decided to stay. The son’s Filipino maid had be re-assigned to look after her.
Curiously, speaking to my friend Abass, who left the south last week, he said his father, also in his late 70s, had decided to stay in their village, as had all elderly people - too attached to their homes, land and the transition potentially too traumatic. Abass' sister stayed behind to look after him.
The whole of Beirut is like a ghost town, or to use another example, like the city at 4am with a few shops open here and there and the odd car driving around. Except it is like this in the daytime. Everyone it seems is staying at home and not really leaving their neighbourhoods.
The supermarkets are open, fruit and meat available, but no fresh milk. Talking to a friend yesterday he said that many food/drink manufacturers are struggling because of the lack of trucks, and the fact that the Israelis have destroyed over 450 trucks. Such industries can probably weather a few months of this, but if it continues they will go bankrupt.
It is good to be back after three weeks away – an initial 10 day trip in Syria and Jordan – but equally very strange to see this once-beating city turn into a ghost town.