I just got back from 4 days in Lebanon. Wow, what a place! Beirut is a totally fabulous city and the Lebanese people are extremely friendly. There is just so much energy there! My first night, I went out to the pub district and made my way back around 5am. Exploring Beirut on foot the next day was a bit of a challenge, but it was pretty cool. It actually reminds me a bit of Vancouver; it’s a very beautiful place right on the Mediterranean, surrounded by mountains. They have a lot of construction going on and some beautiful buildings are being built. Of course, there were a few things that made it look a bit different than Vancouver. For example: the occasional shot-up and destroyed building that still hasn’t been rebuilt from the civil war and from recent assassinations; lots soldiers with guns (actually very friendly), their tanks and blocked roads due to recent assassinations; the occasional empty shell of a building because the Syrians took everything from the buildings they occupied, including windows/furniture/fixtures/rugs/tiles/everything, before they left in 2005; you know, “normal” stuff like that!?! It’s funny, Beirut is a totally modern, cool, vibrant city, with fantastic people, so you almost don’t even notice these things – they just blend in; the old with the new. Or, maybe it’s because the Lebanese themselves don’t seem to let it bother them. But, every time I stopped to look at one of these buildings, I thought about what must have been happening at the time, over years of occupation and civil war; that’s when I would get that sinking feeling and realize really how bad it must have been.
My third day, I went down to Southern Lebanon where the effects of last summer’s war were really horrific. The area is now patrolled by the Lebanese Army, supported by UN troops. And, Hesbollah is definitely still there and is still strong. I was lucky to hire a taxi driver who knows the area well because he was the driver for many journalists last summer. It sure helps that he spent 16 years in the Lebanese army, so he knows who is who and who to avoid. One couldn’t help but notice on the drive that every bridge we passed from Beirut to south Lebanon was new because they were all destroyed by Israel in the war last summer. The southern towns,in particular those along the border, were devastated and remain so. It really broke my heart! My driver told me of a woman who, for almost a year, returned every morning to the rubble where her house once stood, staying the whole day until sunset – she had nowhere to go and no money to rebuild it. And, of course, there are unexploded cluster bombs everywhere; over 30 people have been killed and over 200 wounded since the war ended, including UN personnel who are trying to clear areas. In casual passing, my driver said they were very lucky to have an ice storm a week ago, so it harmlessly exploded a number of the bombs. Over 4 million cluster bombs were dropped, many of them as the cease fire was being finalized, with an estimated 1 million that failed to explode and are still dangerous. But, it’s just amazing, the Lebanese just carry on with their lives: half destroyed shops still open, and people with enough money are rebuilding.
My fourth day, the driver took me around a few places in Beirut. I went shopping in the Armenian district, which was very interesting. I also went to the Museum, which showed the history of Lebanon: the Assyrians conquered, then the Babylonians, Armenians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and French. I suppose if we were writing the history today, it might read: the PLO, Israelis and the Syrians controlled parts of Lebanon, then the ongoing influence of the Syrians, Americans, Iranians, PLO, and Israelis negatively impact Lebanese politics today. On the way to the airport, we drove down the former “green line” which separated East Beirut (Christians) from West Beirut (Muslims) during the 15 year civil war (1975 – 1990); one couldn’t help but notice the partially destroyed buildings on both sides of the street. The conflicts in Lebanon, both internal and external, are just so numerous and complicated, it’s really hard to know exactly what is going on at any given time. But, it seems clear to me, and the few Lebanese people that I talked to, that Lebanon has a much greater chance for peace if the external powers left them alone. People seem to say they don’t want anymore war; they just want their kids to grow up in peace, without having to live through war, occupation, and invasion – seems like a pretty reasonable and simple wish.
Anyway, it was a really great trip! I really want to go back. Hopefully they sort out their tenuous political situation; if they don’t ratify a new president soon (their parliament has delayed the vote for a 10th time now, to Dec. 29), then some think there may be another civil war. I truly hope not! The whole situation there got me thinking: will we ever learn? Lebanon has surely suffered because it is weak and it has certain resources and geographic and strategic advantages, so many outside powers want a piece of it – there are at least 5 foreign powers who are actively involved in Lebanese politics and/or sponsoring various factions. Sadly, in the preceding sentence, I suppose that I could replace “Lebanon” with many other places, past and present, and it will still be true.