We were going to do a blog on a local village this week but the appalling news from Beirut has pushed it off our ‘front page’.
We’ve been asked this week about our memories of Beirut Port. Oh yes, we remember the port. We knew it well and it has left memories. Alison was in Beirut in 1978 and Chris visited in the summer of 1979 before arriving to take up an Assistant Professor position at the American University of Beirut in 1980. In those years the ghastly tragedy of Civil War that had started in 1975 had settled down to a continuous ongoing series of mostly petty battles, many of which had an element of theatre and gesture about them. Beirut was carved up between West Beirut which the press tended to call ‘mostly Muslim’ and East Beirut which had the popular appellation of ‘mainly Christian’. In the middle lay the Green Line, a haunted zone of ruined buildings and spaces across which snipers faced each other.
For much of the time from the late 70s until summer ‘82 there were only three roads between East and West Beirut. Their names are ingrained on our minds and for too many people they were mentioned in their obituary. There was Sodeco, the Museum and ‘the Port’. On a good day all three were open; on a bad day there was enough sniping across them that crossing from east to west became impossible.
The port was often the fastest but the riskiest route across. For much of the time only the brave or foolhardy took it after sunset, when the fighting would flare up again. From the American University you drove down past the gaunt pockmarked skeletons of the hotels to the entrance to the port area. Even there it was an anxious place. You watched out for any signs of trouble. Were other cars coming across and if so how fast? Was anybody gesturing a warning to you? Were the various militias relaxed or were they hunkered down behind sandbags?
Then with a deep breath and possibly renewed prayer you swung down past the tall building that rumour said often contained snipers and there before you lay an open stretch of battered tarmac with on one side bullet ridden containers and a few sunken ships and on the other cratered and burnt out buildings. This was the free fire zone and here you put your foot down and moved as fast as you could. Some people jinked their cars side to side to make the task of a sniper that bit more difficult. After perhaps 200 or 300m you were through to the Lebanese army or the Phalangist militia checkpoint and could breathe again. There you were relatively safe. Relatively, of course only until, things ‘hotted up’.
We have very few photographs of the port at this time: it was not a place you stopped to photograph.
After the Israeli invasion of 1982 there was a brief time – in hindsight one of appallingly missed opportunities – in which the Civil War stalled and there was some sort of peace. Then the war returned before ending in an uneasy truce in 1988. When we came back to Beirut in 1994 the port was little more than a chaotic complex where the old scarred buildings and containers were largely hidden behind trucks, bulldozers and all the equipment of rebuilding. We used to attend the Anglican Church on the western edge and would marvel at the transformation.
The port was always a convenient place to bury things. It’s where a lot of Beirut’s rubbish ended up in an utterly unmanageable, chaotic and foul garbage dump that edged ever further out into the sea. Rumour – and Beirut bred rumours like it bred rats – held that in among the rubbish were uncountable numbers of human casualties of the Civil War.
Sadly, we all now know that port came to hold other things including over 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate. Yes we have read the conspiracy theories but we find it all too credible that those who knew the problem banged on the doors of the ‘old men’ who control everything in Lebanon, demanding that something be done and were sent away with promises that weren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on.
Where Lebanon goes from here is an extraordinary challenge. The system is poisonous: to get anything done you need to find someone with influence. But if he – and it is normally a he – helps you then you are locked in to them with an obligation of loyalty. This sprawling network of connections and influence stifles innovation and chokes any attempt to remedy injustice. There are many people – across a number of churches – with allies in other ‘faith communities’ who are doing their best to change the system. Whether this disastrous week has made permanent change harder or easier is a very important question. We must pray that somehow out of this appalling tragedy good does come.
We finish with a video from the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD). There is a website at the end where donations can be made and these will get to the people who really need it.