Caught in the Crossfire

July 20th, 2006 - by admin

Schona Jolly / Guardian Unlimited – 2006-07-20 08:32:18,,1822589,00.html

(July 15, 2.48 pm) — The situation is deteriorating by the minute. We have heard the French embassy is bringing in ships and military aircraft to take their nationals out through the Israeli blockade, and the Americans are planning to do the same, although the US, rather ironically, is going to charge their citizens for the price of the evacuation.

We cannot get through to the British embassy and the website is not giving us up-to-the-minute information, as things are changing here by the hour. We need to get out, on French ships if they will take us, or British ships if they will organise it.

In a country where people have struggled to gain some fragile consensus, the shelling is now risking far more destruction than infrastructure and loss of life.

Communities have barely papered over the cracks between those searching for democracy and those who support Hizbullah. In the last year, local confidence in a growing economy has sustained a belief that life could become normal here again. Everyone, no matter what religion or community, is Lebanese after all.

Strains, however, are beginning to emerge, as shops close, businesses take stock of immediate substantial losses and families are beginning to be split up again. As the reality of power cuts, water shortages and stockpiling is hitting Beirut homes already, brutal reminders of the civil war are replaying themselves.

On al-Maraad Street in central Beirut, vibrant cafes and restaurants that were packed with people just four days ago lie empty. Streets are empty after dark. Attempts at normality are fading as quickly as the bombs drop.

Yesterday afternoon, we tried to forget the burgeoning chaos and attempted to relax at the Edde Sands resort, between Byblos and Beirut. This glamorous beach club, complete with four large swimming pools fronting the sea, and achingly hip cocktail bars and restaurants, is normally packed with some 3,000 people a day on summer weekends.

Yesterday, it was almost empty. At about 5pm, those of us swimming in the pool suddenly heard loud crackling sounds. Everyone jumped out of the pool, fearing we were being shelled. But jittery nerves are beginning to take precedence over cool-headed logic – the clanging noise was caused by the refuse collector dragging wheelie bins over cobble stones nearby.

We spent the night listening to the sounds of fighter jets soaring above our heads in the darkness of storm clouds, which had swept in eerily as nature mirrored man-made reality.

A palpable sense of fear was beginning to mingle with the richly scented jasmine night, as local people watched television, waiting for the next moves of Israel and Hizbullah. Everyone in these parts echoes the same chorus: “Whatever these players do now, it is the Lebanese people who will suffer.”

(July 15, 6pm) — We are trapped tonight. Israel has positioned her warships opposite this stretch of coastline and has hit nearby locations, which have no Shia Muslim population and are Christian, in Jounieh and Amcheet.

We have been advised to stay inside, but we are in a port which everyone expects to be targeted. The British will not evacuate us, while other citizens – notably French, Dutch and Italian – are leaving. We cannot leave under cover of dark as it is too dangerous. We cannot stay at this hotel, as we face directly on to the sea and are sitting targets.

News from home is say that people are being evacuated. We are not. It has been impossible to contact the British embassy as the lines were jammed and by 5pm there was no one there. We have relied on friends to get us out by contacting the government in London.

So far, everyone is being told we should stay where we are and wait for further advice. We are in grave danger tonight and are likely to be shelled. What is the government waiting for?

(July 16, 7.50pm) — Byblos, where we are staying, is just two miles from Amcheet. We could hear the Israeli jets overhead and we were told to stay away from windows. A strike was expected last night on Byblos. We were astonished. As a tourist town, world heritage site and predominantly Christian, we could not imagine that we would have been safer. Our beautiful hotel, overlooking the tiny pleasure boat harbour, suddenly left us exposed as sitting ducks.

We knew we had to get out but night was falling and Israel now appeared to be bombing roads indiscriminately. Every embassy is advising that travel is dangerous. My friend’s concerns over her baby grew as we tried without success to contact the British, French or American embassies.

By good fortune, I heard British voices in the small souk square. They were a party of 20 students and friends, camping just outside Amcheet. They had a direct line number to the third deputy of the British mission here and suddenly we had a way to get in touch with our embassy.

The lines were down as the main mobile and landline operators had been struck earlier that day. There was no way to make or receive calls, although the deputy faithfully tried to call us back. In the end, facing a night sitting in empty chairs in the souk, some way back from the harbour and our hotel, the generous invitation of the group to join them in their camp site brought us palpable relief.

So, with nothing but passports and nappies in hand, we bought up supplies of water and hailed taxis to take us the short ride to Amcheet, which had been hit already that day.

The lesser of two evils, we felt that we had less chance of being forgotten by our embassy in the company of a large group of Britons. Worried French families were taking their chances and moving inland. Still, the advice of the British embassy was to sit tight and wait.

I have never spent a night hearing gunfire, shelling and the dull thud of bombs exploding around me before. Both Lebanese and Israelis are, horrifyingly, used to it. Lebanese around me told me they would not sleep that night from fear. We tried to sleep on hard floors, only softened by the generosity of the British group who offered us their mattresses and toothpaste.

As text messages from London poured in, we began to have hope that the British military was sending ships in to collect us the next day. A gentle ease passed over everyone that help was on its way and we looked at our stockpiles of water and dry foods and thought we could relax.

Many Lebanese families had escaped to this quiet coastal town for shelter from south Beirut, never imaging it could become a target in this sudden, dramatic war that materialised within 24 hours.

They invited us in, giving us a snapshot of life for the families pushed out of burning South Beirut. A nurse, college students wanting to go into banking and industry, hotel staff and a hairdresser who had trained with Toni & Guy and traveled internationally for their hairdressing championships.

They described ignoring the Israeli leaflet drop until the first bombs at 3.30am woke them and sent them fleeing with only the clothes on their back.

These were well traveled and educated families. And yet, when Al-Minar, the Hizbullah television channel that broadcasts astonishing propaganda about the fight against Israel, told of the strikes against Israel, the room gave way to cheers when they believed 100 Israelis had been killed. The bitter irony of that telling moment was that the figures quoted were Lebanese who had been killed.

People on both side of the border are suffering, but on this side, hope is being extinguished with each passing news shot. Everyone is depressed. There is no work. The infrastructure has been demolished. Leaflets are being dropped on southern Lebanon that reportedly say: “Is this resistance helping Lebanon? It is not helping Lebanon”.

The leaflets are said to contain pictures of a snake resembling Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah leader. Most Shia Muslims I have met here consider him to be their natural leader. And in villages yesterday, where those leaflets were dropped, the Israelis then bombed and killed a convoy of those very villagers that they had asked to evacuate.

There is no sense left here. In these Christian parts, people are shaking their heads. They tell me, without exception, that they have no bone to pick with Israel, that all they want to do is live their lives. They want to make a living, take care of their families. They want to offer tourists hospitality.

But many understand Israel’s fear, and privately condemn Iran and Syria, which they consider are the real villains. But, as the bombing intensifies, and the civilian death toll rises, there is a danger that the support for Hizbullah will extend beyond the Shia community. If the government loses control here, the biggest fear of all is that the country will descend into the chaos of civil war once again.

(July 17, 7am) — The situation has changed slightly overnight. I had a call from William Hopkinson at the embassy who said that the two warships are here and ready to evacuate British nationals, but as the Israelis are bombing the ports so heavily, it is not safe to try to move us. We feel relieved finally to have a frank admission that we are being evacuated, since we had seen other nationals leaving and by last night I was trying to contact the Greek and French embassies to see if we could leave with them.

We are now effectively waiting for a ceasefire, but with the attacks on Beirut port this morning and renewed heavy attacks on Beirut, Baalbeck and Tripoli, we simply do not know what will come next. Jounieh is the most likely port from which we will sail, but as it was hit on Saturday, it is possible it will be struck again. There were fresh attacks on Israel overnight and Israel is again responding with force.

Power is out in many places and people are beginning to be concerned with basic supplies. We cannot leave the hotel in case we are called to leave and besides the streets are completely deserted. I remain hopeful that we will be out soon. My heart lies with the Lebanese who cannot leave and are watching their lives descend into chaos in a re-run of a war they thought was over.

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