Travelogue from Beirut during the first 7 days of the April War of 1996

Børre Ludvigsen

(I came to Beirut on April 10 for a three week stay to install a mirror of Al-Mashriq at AUB, lecture and gather material for the server. Look what happened...)

These are reports written every evening until the shelling of Qana to a groups of friends and collegues around the world.)

                 Beirut - Friday April 12, 1996
Here's a short on-the-spot report from Beirut. The reception I've had
this time is somewhat different than the balmy heat of last august.
The physical appearance of Beirut has changed noticably in the last 9
months. It's become much cleaner. The sweeping trucks are out each
night and it's not just the fresher, greener appearance that comes
with the beautiful Lebanese spring. (Although there have been remarks
that the spirit of the French president's visit might soon were off.)
However, the on-going Israeli election campaign is effecting us more
than most had hoped for. Basically it shows itself in three ways, the
military actions themselves, peoples reactions in their homes and on
the streets and finally on the media.
For me, it all started as I was walking across the AUB campus
yesterday morning. (I'm here to lecture about electronic publishing
and Internet multimedia and to mirror the Al-Mashriq www-server for
local use on the Lebanese segment of the Internet.) The weather was
very hazy and heavy on wednesday as I arrived and yesterday, ready for
the dust rain that comes from those last desert sand storms that end
the rainy season. I'd noticed that there had been fewer than normal
plane landings and suddenly the sound of several propeller was loud in
the air. Turning around, I saw three attack helicopter hovering high
under the continuous cloud cover. They were wheeling around, taking
urns on dropping flares. They were obviously not the Lebanese Bell
helicopters that arrived here from the US last year and which figured
prominently in the Army Day celebrations on August 1. 
About 15 minutes later as a colleague were well into our first
meeting, the sound of very nearby machine gun fire broke out. A
student (with an ear for the finer points of local weaponry) explained
that that it was very definitely M16 automatics firing. The gunfire
only last half a minute or so and about half an hour later the story
broke. The same student had picked up news reports of the gunship
attacks at the Ousai, which is the slum area around the northern end
of the main runway at the airport where Hizballah sympathies run
highest in Beirut. There had also been attacks in Baalbak (about half
a kilometer from the riuns) and near Tyre. It turns out that the
machine gun fire we hear was from an ambulance bringing in wounded to
the AUB hospital. The fastest through the lunchtime traffic is on the
seafront road up through Ramlet el Baida, along Rouche near Pigeon
Rocks, down the Corniche and up through the campus and out the medical
gate. No one respects sirens because they are used to clear the way
for government big-wigs and on private cars, so M16s are fired into
the area to warn people out of the way. Air traffic resumed in the
early afternoon, people were glued to the CNN reports that are carried
on LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting) and rumor mills were off, speculating
the finer points of Israeli demonstration politics and trying to guage
the mettle of the Lebanese government.
As you've since heard, they were back again this morning near the
airport. Around 40 villages in the south have been targeted and people
asked to move north. This afternoon we were visiting an old friend who
lives on the old Damascus road with a view over the southern part of
the airport. His daughter and son-in-law moved up from the Sidon area
yesterday to make sure they catch their US flight tomorrow morning.
They reported that everything was quiet in Saida, except for broken
window glass from supersonic over-flights done to warn local groups
not to get involved in the Hizballah's activities. The last thing we
heard around 7 this evening was a few minutes of firing near the north
end of the airport, but we were unable to see any helicopters from
where we were standing.
In Ras Beirut (I'm staying at the upper end of Rue Jeanne d'Arc) we
don't notice anything other than the interoptions in air traffic. That
hasn't been a good indicator either, because the wind has been
changing the runway in use a couple of times yesterday and today. A
series of flights came in over this part of town about an hour ago, so
everything is normal here now.
People are very calm and resigned to the incidents. On the one hand
they are somewhat disturbed by the attacks because they've grown used
to the relative peace tht's been on since the last massive shellings
of the south several years ago. Reconstruction in central Beirut is on
in earnest now, and increasingly reliant on foreign investment which
they are afraid will quickly go jittery. Radios are turned up and
tuned into news reports everywhere and the situation is the main theme
of discussion. Privately, mothers' first worry is about the family
members they feel might be exposed. Although reactions and sympathies
on part of the general population are "layered" with regard to
Hizballa - (Their patriotism in face of occupation being respected -
they are after all a sizeable minority in Parliament - not the
senseless, out of control militia they're often portrayed. On the
other hand, the reaction to their actions not being appreciated quite
as much.) - everyone has genuine sympathy for the innocent civilians
that are affected. And of course, no one really feels very good about
a neighboring county wading in and shooting away at will. That
sentiment is also quite strong here. My sense is that Lebanese traffic
is definitely still a much greater threat to the national well-being
outside the southern border areas and the Ousai. (Although it does
seem much less intimidating than last summer. It might be the cooler
weather, or even that I'm growing used to it even.)
The most interesting reactions though, are probably in television
programming. In as much as the media reflect a national and cultural
consciousness, programming here reflects both the contrasts and
absurdities of a country, where war is a part of the everyday
background noise. On wednesday night, when I arrived, it was generally
all various flavors of entertainment both on the most liberal
christian stations and the more dogmatic ones. Last night and this
evening, the contrasts on programming are marked. It feels quite
absurd to be sitting in a hotel room with fairly good Internet
connectivity (our AUB friends have kindly provided me with the dial-up
account through which I sending you this), watching Tony Blair being
interviewed on CNN and an ear on the occaisional sound of sirens in
the streets outside. Beirut at night, by the way, feels just as safe
and warm as it did when I last walked here in the 60's. I walked
through the campus from the faculty housing by the old soft-ball field
(now a parking lot), down Bliss and up Jeanne d'Arc at about 11 last
night. I feel a lot safer than any other large city I know. There are
about 15 local TV channels available on my TV set. The Hizballah
channel now has continuous newscast with reports from the recent
actions, patriotic music, interviews and video footage of suicide
bombers, admonishing speeches by prominent sheiks. The Egyptian
channel and the various arabic programs from te Gulf are running
entertainment and old egyptian films. There are a couple of other
local Lebanese militant channels airing patriotic songs and war
footage. These are intersperced with the commercial channels
advertizing Hondas, airing recordings of today's Greek Orthodox Good
Friday services.
It's 10 in the eveing, TL is doing a public education broadcast on
land mines, LBC is airing Zeffirellis "Jesus of Nazareth" as a series
for Easter, MTV (a local commercial station) is advertizing Scotch
Whiskey, there's also the "real" MTV, TB doing a talk show, Sigma 90
is advertizing chandaliers in the "Byblos" line, ICN has another talk
show on local goverment, Future has a news cast, CVN is rebroadbasting
CNN, C33 airing French soap, NTV anthor talk show, TVL rebroadcasts
EuroNews, Manar is the Hizballah station, Aplus another French film,
Kilikia is showing American soap, and AMTV an old Egytian film.
That's all from Beirut tonight. We're all hoping that todays polls
will show a substantial increase in Peres' popularity rating tomorrow,
so we can maybe start thinking about a weekend trip to Sidon. On the
other hand, the electricity just kicked in and out (they provide it on
a 24-hour basis now, last summer we were luck to get 6 hours a day).
On looking out the window, what sounded like distant explosions turns
out to be a good old Beirut thunderstorm. It's pouring down, so
tomorrow might just turn out to be one of those beautiful, sunny
spring days!
- Barre


Beirut, Saturday April 13, 1996
Last night was dramatic and it appears that tonight might be so too, but for different reasons. It turned out that the thunder storm that startled the city yesterday evening continued all night, waking us every few hours with spectacular thunder and lightning displays just overhead. The occaisional airliner coasting low over Ras Beirut on final approach to the north-south runway at the airport was a comforting indication that all the noise was peaceful. The Israelis have also admitted that the rainstorms and low cloud cover are hampering air ctivities. This evening, however, has got this part of town jittery again. There was just an episode of about 5 minutes of what sounded like machine and anti-aircraft fire, with red tracers going up into the sky toward the west over Ras Beirut. I'm in email contact with friends who live in an apartment with a view of the Corniche who tell me that the tracers came from Ain-el-Mraisse. They've announced on the news that the ports of Tyre, Saida and Beirut are being blocked by Israeli gunships, but it's difficult to confirm any connection between the incidents. We've heard nothing about the shooting that we both heard and sa at the airport early last evening. There are other odd incidents that go unexplained too. Late last night CNN aired footage from the airborne video camera on the helicopter gunship that shot at the Syrian antiaircraft gun emplacement, killing one and wounding several other soldiers. The video showed the helicopters aims being set, and the enplacement being hit with figure running and being hurled away. The narrator explained that the emplacement (which was in the Ouzai at the northern end of the airport) had been put out because it was shooting at the helicopter. While various other footage from yesterday has been rerun all day, that incident was shown only once and has not been mentioned since. The shooting this evening has not been mentioned either on the local Lebanses channels or CNN. Meanwhile, lifes goes on, but subdued. Hamra was very quiet as we drove here to Jeanne d'Arc at around 11 this evening. On the other hand, in Ain Remman where came from, teenagers were hanging around in the darkened streets as they do any Saturday night. While there is 24-hour electricty now, street lighting has not gone beyond the main thouroughfares. I'm told that people are stocking up on bread and canned food. In the south, thousands of people from the border villages are on the move to Tyre, Sidon and Beirut. The big news here today was the death ove several small children in a car on the coast road just south of Tyre. The goverment has finally announced emergency service and support phone numbers for people who need help in the south. A large scale humanitarian effort has been launched to provide people with temporary shelters and food. It appears that it's mainly Hizballah's social services that have been mobilzed to help the refugees in schools and mosques on the towns in the south. What's interesting to notice, is the way the newscasts are used as a strategic tool in this game. No one has yet asked Israeli spokesmen what will happen if the actions in the south seriously improve the governing parties standings in the opinion polls before the May elections. Pressure is obviously all on the Lebanese government to go after the Hizballah activities in the south. Words are being bandied around of the folly of any possible Syrian military involvement. Conspiracy theories abound. The skies are clearing up and the air seems warmer. (It hailed this morning. Winter is late here too this year.) There has been any shooting since the tracers went up an hour ago now. Hopefully, we'll sleep better than last night. - Barre
Beirut - April 14, 1996
The worry beads are clicking in Beirut. At first this thing was a novelty - almost expected on a trip to Lebanon. The second night with that violent thunderstorm shook us all a bit, but now foreheads are furrowed and cigarette smoke is thicker than ever in the air. The gravity of the situation has sunk in with both populace and government. People are worried about practical things like the relative worth of their bank accounts. Students are called home wherever that may be - in the north or south. But in spite of today's very loud and demonstrative explosions both at the power substation and Haret Hreik in the southern suburbs, the Corniche is full of Sunday strollers with a lot of them milling around the Lebanese Army gun positions at the Ain Mraisse end of the Corniche where the US embassy used to be. There's only a vacant lot there now. There are some very definitely good signs today too. First of all the air raids in Beirut have cleared the air - as if Saturday's lull was the quiet before the storm. The movements in the south are part of a much more predictable picture which in much part is a repeat of the 1993 "incursions". But the raids on Beirut are quite surprising here and do cause a lot of worry and consternation. Old knowledge of the sounds of war are brought out with very forceful declarations about the type of armament and who it belongs to. Today's news has also brought an encouraging indication that there might be a way out of the impasse - providing of course that the ctions so far provide a sufficient opinion poll boost in the elections coming up in the south. The Lebanese government spokesman has indicated that Syria supports Lebanese actions and that the 1993 unspoken agreement limiting Hizballah rocket attacks may be reinstituted. A friend in Sidon who I spoke with this morning recommended that I delay might trip there until next weekend. If only to avoid the traffic on the road. The reopening of schools after the Greek Orthodox Easter holiday have been postponed for a week until the 22nd. In the middle of all this, the airport remins open and was indeed open all day. In spite of high and low-level overflights of warplanes, the passenger airliners still graze the rooftops of Ras Beirut on their final apporoach to the airport. In Mr. William's English class we used to think rather a nuisance. Right now, it's quit comforting. - Barre
Beirut - Monday April 15, 1996
The generators are running in Beirut again. Resignation and shoulder-shrugging has set in. Someone said that we're being set back 6 months for every day this thing continues - in terms of normalization and economic development since the war. Businesses running highprofile infrastructure projects in mobile telephony and the like have just approached the stage where their confidence with their suppliers had reached the stage where they were being extended credit directly rather than having to go through expensive bank guarantees. They expect that it would have evaporated between noon and 4 o'clock this afternoon. The sound of high flying jets started in mid-morning with clear, blue Beirut skies. First the sound of an occaisionsal distant explosion, and then the anti-aircraft fire from the Corniche just below the AUB campus, Ain el-Mraisse near the old US embassy and further toward the port when on intermittently from noon til about 4. I was visiting the netowrking support unit near the medical gate. We walked across to the main gate out onto Bliss to by shawarma and falafel and then back to one of the vills by the athletic field accompanied by gun fire from various points. Our balcony lunch had to be moved inside, because it simply was not possible to hear each other speak. They took out another electricity substation and more houses in the southern suburbs. For us on the campus with only a view to the north and mountains toward the east, a fire at a car tire yard near Doura, made things look even more dramatic after hearing the distant explosions. Black smoke obliterated Sannine, which is still very much snow covered. It turned out have nothing to do with the "operations" as they call the troubles. The media appear to be losing interest too. Intense gunfire and spectacular air activity just can't compete graphically with the yesterday's horrific footage of the small children maimed and killed in the white Volvo ambulance that was hit near Tyre. But for the city, the return to power rationing is really depressing. It's a measure of the contrasts of this place that I walked completely alone up Jeanne d'Arc this evening in utter darkness - there aren't many street lights apart from the main thouroughfares anyway - feeling quite safe in what could have been a mugger's paradise CNN hasn't had a single news report from here the last 2 hours, instead showing a Hebrew holiday special on the holocaust. The other extreme on my set being Manar, which is the Hizballah station showing a short film about revolving around the cruelties of the 1982 occupation. Right now it's "World Business Today" competing with their religious leader admonishing continued resistance. The severity and extension of the incursions have, in fact incited a lot of growing sympathy and support for what is after all, a legitimate political party which also has the social and health services to bear the brunt of what is turning out to be a civilian catastrophe. Around 10% of the polulation of this tiny country is on the move into the cities of Saida and Beirut which are already overfilled with the displaced of previous conflict. The rumor mill was at work today too. After all the shooting at Ain el-Mraisseh, there was a TV report of an "alledged enemy attack in the area" which raised al lot of eyebrows VERY high. On the wilder side, the Summerland hotel complex suddenly became the retalitory target for a rumored Katyousha hit on a northern Israeli resort hotel. It's a beautiful spring here in Lebanon. The akadinya is excellent, strawberries huge and very fresh, bags of snails are strung up in road-side shops and the green almonds are piled high on those marvelous wheel carts with the rounded front ends. How can one choose with all these particularly Lebanese delectabilities? Somehow they are not quite as tempting as I imagined they would be a week ago. Maybe next week, inshallah, it will all taste better. - Barre
Beirut - Tuesday April 16, 1996 "Beirut neck" is something you get on the quiet days. There hasn't been any gunfire at all except for a few outgoing rounds of anti-aircraft fire in the middle of the afternoon today. With all the private generators going - they're on the sidewalks and in the backyards - it's that bit more difficult to hear what's going on in the air. So you see a lot of people on the streets looking skaywards as they go along, slowly aquiring that particular affliction of the neck associate with this city. I'm slowly learning that these things have very definite stages. First comes the shock and disbelief with the unreality of seeing attack helicopters hovering over you launching real rockets at real people. Then comes the real terror of not know what will happen when. This is the stage where you learn that watching the news all the time and listening to rumors puts you off balance right away. The next stage is a sort of medication of the worst symptoms. Preparations are made, you almost automatically fill some water in the bath tub in the eveing, make sure all the necessities are placed neatly around your clothes when you get undressed in the evening just in case you have to get out quickly. After having mentally gone through what appears to be a fool-proof escape route just in case the airlines stop flying and being close enough to the bombings to have your lunch plate rattled around, your pretty much immune to noises of what has in fact become a real war. 400 000 or so people are on the move in this country, which is more than 10% of the population. And it's a very small country where a very large portion of the population is concentrated on this narrow coastal strip. Apart from bombs, rockets and guns - these peopel have a major humanitarian catastrophe on their hands. We're now at the "settle down and wait" stage, where daily life is coming back to normal. Sadly more so for the Lebanese than they would have wished. They were so proud last week. Proud of all the positive changes that have come about especially in the last year. Cleaner streets, clean water, electricity all the time - even cleaner driving it seems. Now it's back to a lot of those things the "troubles" brought and it's not as if it will be put good again even if the war stopped tommorrow. The 2 power substations that were taken out yesterday and the day before are so costly and the damage so extensive that it will take many months before Beirutis are off power rationing again. So I'm looking forward to the next stage. The day before yesterday we were a bit worried that there might not be any students to attend my lectures this week and next because of the closures of the schools. The Greek Orthodox Easter holiday was over today and the schools have been closed for another week. It will surely last longer. The universities have closed as well, but AUB (the American University of Beirut) has a tradition of not closing as a matter of survival. They did not close one day during the long civil war and have announced that they will not close now either. Today was a half-hearted closure in sympathy with others and tomorrow is classes as usual. So you're wondering about "Beirut neck"? Mine is not too bad actually. My hearing is quite good, so I can hear the Israeli fighters high overhead when they're there and have become pretty good at distinguishing them from the civilian airliners approaching from the north. What's more difficult is telling outgoing civilian flights southbound at the other side of the city and airport from the fighters, bombers and reconnosance planes. The important bit of course is that there are passangers planes and that they're not only Middle East Airlines. So we're all going to be tending our "Beirut necks" for a few days yet. - Barre
Beirut - Wednesday April 17, 1996
It's raining lightly this evening. Could it be a good sign? When it rained last week, it was the quiet before the storm. It really does appear that things might be cooling down - at least here in Beirut. All the TV channels are full of reports from the humanitarian effort in the south. The rest is political maneuvering from the international mediating level, to local vote-gathering. Everyone is hoping for a quick political solution, after all, school opening after Easter has been postponed for a week and now they're hinting at another. Spring exams are coming up and parents are worried about what will happen to school fees if this drags on into the summer. Everyone is looking to limit their losses. The plight of the 400 000 displaced people in the south is overwhelming the emergency services. Help is coming in from abroad, the wives of prominent politicians are on the spot, distributing supplies to refugees in schools and othe public buidlings. At the national level, it's a sign of the robustness of this country that the Lebanese pounds has held its position against the dollar in spite of a week of war. The last rush of evening flights in to Beirut airport just flew in over the darkened streets of Ras Beirut, we heard the occaisional high flying fighter above the cloud cover today. The ominous news is that the rockets are still being fired into northern Israel, a couple just being reported on the late news. I guess tomorrow will show which kind of patience is the strongest - political or military. I'm doing a long lecture at noon, let's hope we're finished if they decide to use their guns again. It does get insufferably noisy as the nearest anti-aircraft guns are just down on the Cornniche. While that might sound presumptious, it certainly isn't for all the mothers of the out of school children that have to be kept indoors because of the danger from the falling shells when the shooting is on. What goes up must come down. These things are no joke, I've heard them come down. - Barre
Beirut - Thursday April 18, 1996
This is the last travel report I'm writing from Beirut. It's not that I'm leaving - things are quiet here in Beirut the second day running. The first lecture which I held today was successful and I spent several hours talking to students and faculty afterwards. The reason is that when I saw on TV what had happened in the two massacres in the south today, my reports become quite meaningless. I'm not a professional writer and right now there is no way I can find words to describe what we all see and feel here in Beirut. (What we are seeing on TV here - from CNN and local channels - is a massacre of around 50 Lebanese women and children refugees _inside_ a UN forces compund at Qana and the other 10 civilians killed at Nabatiyeh. It's reported that Hizballah militia launched a volley of rockets from a position 300 meters from the UN compund which were tracked by Israeli radar. An elliptical pattern of shelling was returned hitting the UN base which has been at Qana for several years.) - Barre

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