Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Evacuation of a Nation

One of my wishes came true on the day of my planned evacuation: there was no boat for me. Apparently, the Israelis feel the occasional need to show who is in charge, and refused to let the ship chartered by the Swedes dock. As chances of getting on another boat were slim, and there were buses on their way from southern Lebanon with people in much greater need of evacuation than me, I returned to AUB campus. After all, there was really no immediate need for me to take up space at the provisional evacuation center set up by the Swedes at Holiday Inn Dunes, in the Verdun district of Beirut. I returned to the evacuation center early Saturday morning, July 22, only to find approximately 350 people waiting to be evacuated.

You have to hand it to the Swedes; they evacuate their citizens in style. Several air-conditioned stories of stores, restaurants and cafés were available to us while awaiting our evacuation. I have spent many happy hours in this very mall; back in the day when I lived in Beirut more permanently, me and my girlfriend were frequent guests at the Dunes movie theatre. It was a very bizarre experience to be awaiting evacuation in that very familiar surrounding.

How some of the people there had the nerve to complain about the way Swedish authorities treated them, I will never understand. One young man whined about having to wait for hour after hour in the posh surroundings of the Dunes mall; he felt he deserved financial retribution for his plight. I knew from an earlier conversation that he was a Sunni from an area of Beirut that had not been directly affected by the bombardment and from what I could tell, him and his family were not suffering from any illnesses or physical problems. I had to turn away just to avoid getting into a fight with this arrogant young man; there we were, enjoying every comfort imaginable under the circumstances, while people with no way out were suffering the harshest conditions not far from us, and he has the audacity to complain. I had nothing to say to him and made sure to stay as far away from him as possible for the rest of the journey.

After waiting for seven or eight hours in the Dunes mall we received word that there would be room for us on a ship chartered by the Australians (thank you, Australia!). Soon we were put on buses and driven through the unusually empty streets of Beirut to the port. I tried to take in as much of the scenery as possible since I have no way of knowing when I will be there again. I have departed from Beirut many times, but it has never felt this bitter. Once onboard the ship, I stood up on deck, looking out over Beirut in the afternoon haze, trying to comprehend what was happening. Helicopters, presumably American, were flying back and forth between Beirut and Cyprus, while warships patrolled the waters outside the Beirut port. When we departed I stood for a long time on deck, identifying my beloved AUB campus and the balcony of the room where I had spent the past ten days or so. I stayed on deck until Beirut disappeared below the horizon, and went inside in the hope to find a comfortable spot to spend the long journey to Cyprus.

We were lucky to have a fairly comfortable ship; a Greek cruise ship by the name of Kriti II. It was certainly crowded, but not to an unbearable point; after a couple of hours I even got to lie down on a couch for a while. The trip to Cyprus took us approximately seven hours. Although the process of getting all the people off the ship was somewhat chaotic, I realized I was, again, one of the lucky ones: two days earlier 1500 Swedes were evacuated, now there were only 350 of us. I think it is safe to say the process of checking our passports and registering us was a lot quicker this time. Once the registration process was over, we were separated into smaller groups and put on buses to hotels on various locations on Cyprus; we were to rest before trying to make the final stretch to Sweden.

Since Cyprus is now experiencing the height of its tourist season, the Swedish rescue teams have to go with whatever hotel rooms are available. Fortunately, in my case that meant getting to take a shower and sleep for three and a half hours at a four-star beach hotel. It certainly proved necessary, because after another two-hour bus ride to Larnaca airport on Sunday morning, we had to spend a good six or seven hours waiting in the summer heat, while scores of British tourist were hoarded to an increasing number of delayed flights.

Since I was a young healthy male traveling alone, I figured it my duty to help the Swedish evacuation personnel as best I could with their very difficult mission to get us out of there. I couldn’t do much, but I could help with the counting of heads and keeping the group of Swedish evacuees separate from the masses of tourists in the chaotic airport. In order to mark the end of the line of Lebanon-evacuees, I unpacked the Lebanese flag, which had been hanging from my balcony for the past week, and tied it to my suitcase. It was quite effective; instead of thinking we were fellow tourists and getting in line behind us, most vacationing Brits now gave us a strange look and passed us by, relieving us of the burden of constantly having to explain we were not in their line.

When a plane had finally arrived to take us out of there, and a counter was opened for us, we were led into the departure hall. Being last in line, I was advised by Swedish evacuation personnel to put the Lebanese flag away, since there were supposedly Israeli soldiers in the departure hall, watching over Israeli tourists en route back home. Two days earlier, they told me, the line of Swedish evacuees from Lebanon had accidentally ended up next to the line to the counter for a Tel Aviv flight. As a result, there had been some “friction.” They did not specify in what way. Not wanting to create trouble for the already strained Swedish evacuation personnel, I grudgingly put the flag away.

I have nothing but regards for the people from the various Swedish agencies trying to get people out of a war zone; they work day and night so that those in need can get home safely. Clearly, an evacuation from an ongoing armed conflict is not going to be a comfortable vacation trip. I will never understand those among the evacuees who complain loudly about the comfort of their trip back to Sweden. I do, however, believe they are a minority; the vast majority is as grateful as I am to the people working so hard to help us.

From what the Swedish personnel on the ground told me, the cooperation between the nations evacuating their citizens from Lebanon worked very well, with one big exception: the Americans. Since I normally live in the U.S. and appreciate and enjoy life there immensely, it saddened me to hear that the Americans on Cyprus showed no regard for the trouble they created for the evacuation operations of other nations. Apparently, the Americans did not even accept the airport authority; they simply landed whenever they saw fit to land, without awaiting clearance. Needless to say, this behavior is not helpful when the greatest evacuation since World War II is underway. Of course, it is very effective if you are a U.S. citizen, and since someone very close to me was supposed to be evacuated by the Americans on the same day, I admit I felt a certain comfort in the knowledge that at least she would be taken care of. With the greater picture in mind, however, it would have been nice to see the image of American arrogance proven wrong for once.

Be that as it may, at the time I boarded the plane that would take me to Malmo, Sweden, I had no idea whether or not my friend had been able to evacuate, and seeing the enormous military cargo planes from the U.S., I was worried she would have to spend a long flight over the Atlantic in one of those. In fact, I still don’t know exactly how she will be transported; when she called me yesterday she was on an American base on Cyprus, awaiting a flight to the U.S. Unlike her, I could look forward to a brief four hour flight from Cyprus before landing in southern Sweden.

When arriving in Sweden we were greeted by the soft-spoken women (and men) of a crisis team, trying to make us as comfortable as possible after our long and trying journey. There are times in your life you are proud of your country, and the reception we got in Sweden was one of those times. Not that I’m in need of trauma specialists, but there were many in our group from worse hit areas than mine, and many with memories from the last war. I’m sure the experience for those who have already fled one war was much more traumatic than it was for me. After a sandwich and coffee at the Malmo airport, I spent another eight hours on a bus to Stockholm before I reached my final destination. The entire journey Beirut-Stockholm had taken me almost exactly two days.

I’m still conflicted about having left. Life on an island in the Stockholm archipelago is as far as you get from life in Beirut under siege. It is no doubt nice to know that the rumbling in the distance is only thunder, but I feel disconnected from what is happening in a way I wasn’t when I was holed up in Beirut. I can still keep myself updated on what is happening through the Internet and TV, but I’m not there to see it with my own eyes. I’m no longer able to talk to people in the street; I am disconnected from the mood of Beirut and thereby disconnected from the plight of the Lebanese. But I will not forget what I have seen and felt during eleven days of living under Israeli siege; I will not forget what Lebanon is suffering at this very moment. As I bid you all farewell, I hope that this blog has in some way contributed to the understanding of the devastating situation in Lebanon today. Never forget the plight of Lebanon.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

July 21, 2006 - Evacuation Day

It is time for evacuation. Part of me wishes there won’t be room for me on the ship, or better yet, that a sudden ceasefire will make evacuation completely unnecessary. Beirut briefly came back to life yesterday; restaurants were open, and people were out talking and laughing, the way I have always read that Beirutis dealt with war during the dark times. But underneath it all is the constant presence of something sinister and dark. This sinister entity reminded me of its presence through two heavy explosions in the evening; once again my building shook and the windows rattled.

In a way I am ashamed to leave. I feel like I’m abandoning the Lebanese who cannot leave. But then again, already people look at me with a puzzled look and say “You still here?” I know my presence here does no one any good; in fact, I’m just one more mouth to feed in days of humanitarian disaster. Even if fighting ended today, and it shows no signs of doing so, Lebanon has been dealt a blow from which she will no doubt rise, but which has set her recovery back by several years. Perhaps physical recovery can be swiftly achieved with international aid, but the long-term damage is of another kind. Lebanon’s sons and daughters were returning after many years overseas. Now they turn away again. There is no way to live here, they say, life is just too difficult. And who can blame them? After all the years of civil war, in which every conceivable local-national-regional-global player was at some point involved, and after the recent years of struggle to throw away the yoke of foreign occupation, everything appears to be crushed in a heartbeat underneath a military boot.

The whole experience of “evacuation” is bizarre. I stopped by my off-campus apartment yesterday only to find a note from my British roommate. He’s been airlifted out of here by helicopter. Another note informs his friend to keep what he wants and sell what he doesn’t want. Windows are open, curtains are fluttering in the wind, and half of my roommate’s wardrobe is left behind, since he could only bring a small bag on the helicopter. Plants that won’t be watered, foodstuff in the fridge that will just be there until someone returns or someone new moves in; it’s just a very strange feeling you get being in an abandoned apartment. It was the first time, I’m ashamed to say, that I was gripped by a slight panic; a feeling that I would be the last one left behind. But that was only for a split second, because then I realized that millions of Lebanese have nowhere to go. They can’t get on a helicopter or a boat and leave. They are doomed to stay here and be extras in whatever horrific show Israel and Hizballah will put on. Again, I feel ashamed. I leave you now, Lebanon, with a quote from one of your greatest sons, Kahlil Gibran:
Brief were my days among you, and briefer still the words I have spoken. But should my voice fade in your ears, and my love vanish in your memory, then I will come again, and with a richer heart and lips more yielding to the spirit will I speak. Yea, I shall return with the tide, and though death may hide me, and the greater silence enfold me, yet again will I seek your understanding. And not in vain will I seek. If aught I have said is truth, that truth shall reveal itself in a clearer voice, and in words more kin to your thoughts.
B'hebbak, ya Loubnan. Stay strong.

July 20, 2006

As ship after ship passes by my window, some military vessels, some civilian evacuating foreign citizens, I hear news of good things happening in Lebanon amid all the violence. Ordinary Lebanese families are opening their homes for displaced, even across sectarian divides. People may disagree on the issue of Hizballah’s arms, and even on who is to blame for the current situation, but the humanitarian need remains the same, regardless of one’s position on these issues.

I received another text message from the Swedish foreign ministry last night. It said that one boat would leave today, Thursday, and one tomorrow. I’m not sure if this is my last chance or not, but as I see it, I have no choice but to get on one of those boats. I’ll wait till tomorrow though, no need to rush. It may even be the ship I see outside my window right now; it looks like the one I’ve seen in pictures from the Swedish evacuation yesterday. At any rate, I’m highly conflicted about leaving, but I’m not doing anything useful here, and I think my family has worried enough.

So I prepare to bid Lebanon farewell. I wonder when I will get to walk the streets of Beirut again and under what circumstances. Hopefully, it will be a Beirut thriving in peace. The last heavy explosions I heard was sometime after nightfall last night. I think it was the attack on the alleged Hizballah leadership bunker in the southern suburbs. It must have been some serious firepower to make my building shake like that, considering the distance between me and the target.

There is actually some activity in the streets today. Constant hammering is echoing in the corridors of the AUB dorms; it would seem the renovation that was put to a halt last week has been resumed. More cars are in the streets, and even a few of the restaurants that closed have reopened. I would probably be optimistic if it weren’t for the activities outside my window, where helicopters and ships are involved in a massive evacuation effort of foreign nationals.

How ironic that the efforts to actually save people can make me so depressed. I guess it is because there is no sign of either Hizballah or Israel backing down from their original demands for accepting a ceasefire. Against that backdrop, the evacuation almost feels like a clearing of the field before the final showdown. Like in the old Western movies, where the main street would clear out at high noon; people scurrying off to safety in just in time before the shootout. It is ominous and very, very depressing. What will happen once the foreigners are out? I fear for the future of the people of Lebanon and this troubled nation-state, as well as the future for the region. I think I will have even more trouble sleeping once I have left Lebanese soil.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

July 19, 2006

The carnage in Lebanon, particularly in the south, is difficult to understand, even for us here in Beirut. Images of children torn to pieces by Israeli bombs are impossible to process for anyone with the least bit of human empathy. If I have learned one thing about what it is like to be bombed, it is that it is not so much the fear of getting hit yourself that makes your pulse go up in overdrive whenever you hear the bombardment, but rather the knowledge of what those explosions do, knowing that they are tearing humans to pieces and delivering tragedy to those who survive.

It takes a cynic of unfathomable proportions to spin the current onslaught on this nation as a way to “empower” the Lebanese government to take control of the south, as Shimon Peres did yesterday. The audacity! To terrorize the civilian population in order to make them turn on Hizballah is not only cynical and bound to fail, but criminal. In what way was Hizballah utilizing a milk factory to send rockets into Israel? How does bombing a paper mill and a pharmaceutical plant “empower” the Lebanese government? What is happening is nothing less than the destruction of Lebanon, a collective punishment of the already weak for their inability to immediately pacify a powerful political force within their borders.

There has been a lot of helicopter activity over the Mediterranean outside my window today. I’m not sure if they are U.S. helicopters involved in evacuation efforts, or if they are Israeli helicopters on a mission of destruction. The mood here is still one of sadness. It blows my mind how quickly things have changed; just a little over a week ago I was enjoying the pleasures of this recovering city, and now it is once again bleeding, while I stay close to Hamra, since there is no telling if I can make it back if I venture too far out. There is simply no way of knowing which bridges or tunnels will be bombed next. Doctors from American University Hospital are being set up with rooms in the dorms; it’s the only way to ensure that they will be able to make it to work. One of them usually has a brief drive from his home to the seaside, where he would then take the highway to Beirut. The other day as he was driving to work he passed over one of the usual bridges, and a few minutes later his mother calls and tells him to turn back because the Israelis bombed the bridge. Well, he responded, I already passed the bridge… Now it takes him three hours to travel the same distance because he has to take back roads.

I’m seeing fewer and fewer westerners, and if I didn’t have a previous connection to this place and felt pretty much at home here, I’d probably feel left behind. Although, I know that’s not true, as I understand it, not that many have been able to evacuate yet. I know that my former roommate, who is a British citizen, is still waiting for a call just like I am. I have already elaborated elsewhere on my ambivalence when it comes to the evacuation, and I will not go into it again, but my previous position still stands.

Fortunately, I have people close to me here and I feel close to this place. It strikes me as ironic that I would end up living a war in the same dormitory I stayed in my first semester here, several years ago when I first got acquainted with Lebanon. Those were the happiest of days, and these are the saddest of days. For the time being, I pass the time through following the news, walking through the streets of Hamra (where very few stores are open), and watching DVDs. For some inexplicable reason, I bought a documentary on DVD entitled “Beirut under Siege: 1982.” I don’t know if I really want to see that right now, it’s the kind of thing you want to watch when you can say: “Look how far we’ve come since then.” Right now…well, we haven’t come very far.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

July 18, 2006

Another fairly quiet night in my part of Beirut, but an early morning raid somewhere in the proximity of AUB briefly pulled me out of my slumber. I’m still fascinated by how quickly I seem to have gotten used to the nightly raids. Although, I doubt I’d be sleeping through them if I were in the southern suburbs where most bombs seem to land.

In a rather futile attempt to show my support for the battered Lebanese nation, I bought myself a Lebanese flag and hung it from my balcony. I know it makes no difference, but it makes me feel like I’m showing some sort of solidarity with this place that has shown me so much hospitality in the past years. Not many people can see it though since my balcony faces the waterfront.

Given the number of Swedes already evacuated, I’m worrying that the Swedish consulate will contact me soon. Hopefully, though, they are first dealing with all those from more battered areas than mine. I hear there is chaos when people are trying to get on their busses to leave, so maybe it’s actually highly unlikely anyone will call me with an offer to evacuate anytime soon. I’m still in no hurry to get out, but I’m worried I’ll get a one-time offer of evacuation, take it or leave it. In that case I’ll have to go, since there is no telling when my next chance will be, and I really do have to get back to Sweden at some point.

So the Israeli campaign continues. Approximately 400 000 Lebanese are displaced and more than 200 have died, the vast majority civilians. It surprises me somewhat that Hizballah is still able to launch attacks in the way that they do, given the power of the Israeli onslaught.

Speaking as a political scientist for a moment, it would seem Israel is trying to do two main things: one, to decimate Hizballah, both in terms of popular support, and in terms of physical capabilities; two, to force a situation where the international community will have to respond in determination to help the Lebanese government assert its authority over all Lebanese territory (sans Sheba’a farms). But I find it hard to comprehend just how it is helpful to weaken the already weak Lebanese central authority; and I wonder how a grain silo in the Beirut port and a water processing plant can be regarded anything but civilian targets. If these actions, and numerous others like them, are simply directed at creating hardship and terror in the civilian population, well then the current campaign can only be called one thing.

The situation in Lebanon is not as simple as the U.S. president seems to think; you cannot reduce the combination of a complex internal state structure such as Lebanon’s, the presence of an armed militia on its territory, and a regional conflict involving regional powers such as Syria, Iran, and Israel, to the simple equation of “Syrian pressure on Hizballah = end to hostilities.”

Most political scientists would agree that a state not retaining the monopoly of the use of force on its territory is a very weak state, and in the case of Lebanon, the issue of Hizballah’s arms and the party’s control over the southern border with Israel was a – if not the – key issue on Lebanon’s national political scene.

Regardless of how one feels about Hizballah, the reality is that it is an organization to be reckoned with. It enjoys substantial support, especially within the Shi’a community, and is not considered a “foreign tool,” as it is portrayed by the West, but a genuine national resistance. Most observers would agree the 1990’s saw a positive development in Hizballah’s transformation from a militia to a political party. While I do not agree with the means of either Hizballah or Hamas, there are legitimate claims on the sides of both Lebanon and the Palestinians, and unless these claims are acknowledged, there will not be any lasting solution to the current conflict.

As an editorial in the Lebanese Daily Star reminded us yesterday, Israel’s last “cleansing of terrorists” in Lebanon led to the birth of new organizations; the PLO and PFLP gave way to Hizballah and Hamas. It was the crumbling high rises of Beirut during the Israeli invasion of 1982 that inspired Osama Bin Laden to take out the World Trade Center. We have no way of knowing what will come in Hizballah’s place, should Israel succeed in its efforts to weaken it to the point of irrelevance.

I do not want to see the residents of Haifa or any other Israeli city hide in their bomb shelters, any more than I want to see the residents of Beirut hide in their basements. I simply do not believe that Israel will achieve its long-term objectives with its current strategy; I do not believe that this war will bring peace for Israel.

A positive long-term trend could have been achieved in Lebanon, had efforts focused on economic growth, social development, and – in the very long run – an end to patronage and sectarianism. In this process, Hizballah’s interests would have become increasingly civilian and its arms would have become less crucial to the party, making it easier to disarm Hizballah fully within the next couple of years. But the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the massive long-term damage to Lebanon’s ability to recover economically threaten any positive development toward a stable peace between Israel and Lebanon. Instead, hatred toward Israel is likely to increase. I suspect no one is happier about Israel’s actions today than Syria and Iran; hardliners tend to like when other hardliners play into their hands…

Lest it be thought I simplify as much as the U.S. president, and see this conflict as a strict black and white situation with sole blame to be placed on Israel, let me say that I have my own opinions of Hizballah, as well as the so-called “anti-Syrian” government in Lebanon. Personally, I blame the government’s inability to ensure Hizballah’s restraint on internal bickering with other Lebanese politicians, as pretty much the same bunch who ruled the country under Syrian tutelage try to redress themselves as “anti-Syrian.” Regardless of this, the Lebanese people are not to blame, but they are being punished.

Talking to people here, there is a sense of hopelessness that I haven’t seen before. It has been my experience that the Lebanese are a pessimistically optimistic bunch; they express pessimism, but act in optimism. Now they are just pessimistic; leave, they tell me, it’s not going to get better. It’s heartbreaking to see the deserted streets of Hamra, the foreigners still here are pretty much awaiting evacuation, like myself. A friend has a view of Dahiyeh from his house. He used to live there and knows every street that you now see demolished on TV. The other day, they were sitting on his balcony, watching as bomb after bomb hit; first a flash, then a thundering boom.

I saw another Israeli warship off the coast yesterday; it’s a weird kind of feeling to know that they are out there, capable of firing a missile at us at any moment. And now two helicopters just flew by outside my window. They weren’t heading in the direction of Israel; they were going north along the Lebanese coast. I wonder just what their destination and mission is.

Monday, July 17, 2006

July 17, 2006

In a way, the eerie silence of no bombs going off, and the distant buzz of helicopters and fighter jets can be as scary as the actual bombardments. Well, not quite of course, the bombardment is nothing less than Hell on earth for those in the direct line of fire, while the silence is more of a psychological strain for those waiting to see if they will be in the line of fire. Last night as I lay in bed, I felt as though there was a lot of activity going on south from here. I heard not only fighter jets, but what sounded like helicopters as well. Actually, I heard what sounded like a small propeller airplane, but that must have been a helicopter; no small propeller airplanes are likely to be in the air over Beirut at this point. Unless it was an unmanned drone that is, perhaps sent out to inspect the success of the terror campaign so far. The Dahiyeh is no more. Lebanon is getting hit from north to south. Shou, Israel, are you running out of targets yet?

It appears not. Early this morning bombardment started, but either because I was so tired, or because it’s actually becoming normal, I barely registered what was going on. I had to read the news this morning to get it confirmed that they actually did bomb the Beirut port, not too far from here again this morning.

Against the recommendations of a loved one here in Beirut (so let’s keep it between us), I took a little walk to see the damage done to the Manara, the lighthouse just a brief walk from AUB. I was relieved to see the old lighthouse was still standing undamaged, but the new lighthouse down on the waterfront had clearly been hit. Supposedly, that’s what the gun ship was aiming at the other day when it was lobbing grenades over my head. I used to live in the Manara area and I know it well. I couldn’t resist walking around Hamra, just for a little while. After all, it had been quiet in my part of Beirut all day. Well, it didn’t take long before the bombing started, the sharp booms echoing between the buildings of Hamra, and I thought it wise to go to the nearest supermarket and stock up on some water and crackers.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones; this part of Beirut has taken few direct hits, and I’m holed up with AC and a constant supply of electricity here on campus. But the southern suburbs are completely devastated and innocent civilians are being murdered every day. I leave it to others to supply updates on the gruesome events in Lebanon for the past couple of days (my friends at http://lebanesebloggers.blogspot.com do a great job at that), and instead I focus on what I see and feel here.

I received a text message from the Swedish foreign ministry today. It said, loosely translated, “Evacuation in progress. No one will be forgotten. Do not go to the consulate in Beirut until you are instructed to do so. Everyone who has registered will be contacted.” I know there is a lot of criticism against the foreign ministry in Sweden right now, but what do people expect them to do? There is an aggression going on, this country is being torn to pieces and I don’t really know what the Swedish foreign ministry can do, more than what they are doing. Again, I know it’s easy for me to say that, since I’m not one of those in direct need of evacuation. I can stay here for quite a few days without the situation being critical. Of course, if food and water supplies run low, then I’ll be worried. For the time being, it doesn’t look too bad right here in that respect.

Just now, as I was writing, I heard a fighter jet diving outside my window, and then a boom. As I look out, I can see leaflets slowly falling to the ground down by the Corniche. Either more propaganda against Hizballah, or perhaps a warning of more strikes to come? Whatever they want to say, I’m not interested. I understand that Israel wants security, but what they are doing now will not bring security; they are planting the seed for a new generation of fierce enemies. I can hear distant rumbling now. I wonder how many humans they are killing this time.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

July 16, 2006

They say war is boredom, and it seems they are right... All day today the Israelis have been bombing targets throughout Beirut, but in between their raids, there is really nothing to do, other than think about what a depressing situation this is. They're working on the evacuation of Swedish citizens, but quite frankly, I'm in no hurry to leave. I feel so much love for this place, somehow sneaking out while this is going on feels like a betrayal on my part. At the same time, I need to get back to Sweden in time to get my visa for the States. If I turn down an offer to evacuate, who knows when I'll be able to leave? I guess there is nothing to do but to wait and see.

It's Sunday, and even if it weren't for the siege, Beirut would be in a lull, but it would not be this bad. Almost all the stores are closed and the streets are pretty much empty. I went to a supermarket to stock up on some essentials, in case I get stuck on campus and can't access food from the outside. The only places that are really busy these days are the supermarkets; everyone wants to stock up in case things turn even worse. I'm terrible at shopping for war. I keep glancing at the wine bottles, then realizing that that's hardly emergency products! Well, it could be I suppose, but I'd rather keep my head clear with the situation as it is.

The Prime Minister was on TV, pledging to employ the Lebanese army to the south, practically begging the Israelis to stop the destruction of Lebanon. They won't relent, however. I'm scared for what might happen if Hizballah turns on the army, the government is so weak and the army could very well disintegrate along sectarian lines. If I leave Lebanon, when will I be able to return? Will civil war return over Hizballah's arms? How can I leave when the one person I love more than anything is still here in the middle of everything? She's a feisty one, and I know she can take care of herself, but I'd hate to leave her nonetheless! It breaks my heart that it has come to this. B'hebbak, ya Loubnan!

Beirut has always been a place of contrast for me. Life and death, side by side in perfect harmony as it seems. This is true now more than ever; the sounds of people playing tennis is accompanied by fighter jets dropping bombs in another part of the city. I can understand why my friends and family have difficulty understanding my reluctance to leave, but quite frankly I think it's be more risky for me to try and make it to Syria on my own, and as for the organized evacuation of Swedish citizens, I think there are others that have been more directly affected by the bombings and therefore should be evacuated before me. Personally, I think I'm being quite rational.

July 15, 2006

Last night I was planning on staying in my apartment off-campus since we had power. But a series of way-too-close-explosions made me feel I'd rather stay on campus, since at least there I won't be totally alone. Since my roommate was gone for the night, I saw no compelling reason to stay in that large, lonely apartment. Instead, I packed what I needed to spend the night on campus and walked the few blocks to AUB campus. Except for a couple of explosions somewhat close, the evening was fairly quiet in my part of Beirut. I even got to sleep till late morning with no interruptions.

The day started out calmly in Beirut, even if I understand it didn't in southern Lebanon; it was the bloodiest day so far in terms of civilian casualties. The afternoon would prove itself dramatic for me as well. It started with a series of bombs going off when I was having lunch at my new hangout al-Kahwa on Bliss Street. It has become my hangout simply because it is nearby, always has air-conditioning running, and the TV is tuned to al-Jazeera so that you can stay somewhat updated on the situation.

Later on I was walking through the AUB campus, which has played such an important part in my personal life ever since the first day I came here as a visiting undergraduate student in 2000. Since then I've returned as a visiting graduate student, and then as a plain visitor many, many times. I sat on my favorite bench, overlooking the Mediterranean, and thought about what an absurd feeling it was to sit in the same spot where you have experienced the best days of your life, and suddenly have the peace disturbed by explosions that make the earth vibrate. You only hear the fighter jets after they leave their cargo, never before.

I have also discovered that "safe" is a relative term. People write, text message, and call to ask me if I'm "safe." Well, I don't expect to die here, but I hardly consider constant bombardment from Israeli fighter jets and war ships a safe environment! This afternoon, I was in my newly acquired room on campus and I heard the roaring sound of a fighter jet diving. Next was a whisteling sound and a loud boom very close by.

I go outside and notice excitement among the residents of the dorms: a huge crater had been formed in the artificial lawn of the International College's soccer field, right in front of my building. It wasn't a missile armed with explosives, however, but flyers, explaining how the "national resistance" is dragging Lebanon into this misery. In case the written message was difficult to understand, there was also a drawing of people suffering from smoke and explosions, as Hassan Nasrallah sits safely with a gas mask underground.

An hour or so later, I'm on my balcony on the seventh floor, looking out over the Mediterranean when I see an Israeli warship in the distance. It was quite a tiny ship, I thought, not at all the size I would expect. Well, that tiny ship had quite a stinger, I have to say! Just a few seconds after I take a picture of the distant ship, it opens fire. A huge boom, followed by a whistling sound over my head, followed by an even louder boom somewhere on the other side of me told me I might not want to be on the seventh floor at that specific moment!

So just in time for the next boom, I go down to the ground floor (by stairs, mind you, not elevator this time!) where I feel - perhaps mistakenly so - "safe." Anyways, after last night's bombardment, I'm not reacting quite as badly to the bombs anymore. They were more a nuisance along with the mosquitoes last night; the Israelis and the mosquitoes were allies in the quest to keep me awake last night. But then again, that's because I'm sleeping on AUB campus; every explosion that pulls me out of my sleep is tearing humans apart somewhere else in the city. It's a chilling thought and it is one that keeps me awake more than any bombs or mosquitoes.

July 14, 2006

Some time after midnight, before I had fallen asleep, Raja called from Syria on my cell phone. He had left Beirut with his family earlier that day to visit his father in an already planned trip. He sounded really tired and depressed and asked me if I was planning on sticking around or if I was planning on leaving Lebanon. I said that the best thing to do seemed to be to stay put and keep your head down; I had no intention whatsoever of panicking and getting in a taxi to Syria. That's just as well, Raja said, since there was no no way out of Lebanon; the Israelis had just bombed the Beirut-Damascus highway. I reassured my troubled friend that it would all blow over in a few days, and he would be able to return to Beirut in peace and quiet. But I'm not sure I believed it myself.

I woke up at 4:45 am from a powerful explosion not far from my place. I got out of bed and found my roommate already up and about in the livingroom. No explosions followed, however, and I soon went back to sleep. I woke up four hours later, feeling encouraged by the fact that we had power in the apartment. I turned on the TV and went online to find out what had happend throughout the night: more attacks on the airport; bombings of the southern neighborhoods of Beirut; and threats of more violence to come.

It is strange how a place can change overnight. Walking in the streets of Beirut now is an eerily quiet experience. I never thought I'd miss the loud, chaotic Beirut, but I do. The other night was sitting in Jamazeih, the trendy new clubbing area, relaxing with some friends and a cool drink. Today, all I'm trying to do is stay as close to TV-news and Internet connections as possible. All the joy I felt over being back in Beirut is gone; everything I love about this place has been eclipsed by a dark cloud. It can't go on forever, I tell myself, while knowing perfectly well that it could, in fact, go on for a very, very long time.

I contacted the housing people at the American University of Beirut regarding the possibilities of moving in on campus. I don't really want to, but it would mean a stable supply of electricity, since AUB has its own generators. Should Israel bomb the main power plants supporting Beirut with electricity, I'll be completely in the dark where I live now. Perhaps I'm being childish, but it almost feels like a betrayal to move in on campus and give in to the terror campaign. At the same time, these are days to be pragmatic; the access to power, air-conditioning, and a daily shower is worth way too much to be ignored.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Beirut, July 13, 2006

When the trouble started yesterday, I don't think I thought it would be quite as bad as the largest Israeli offensive on Lebanon since 1982. Sometime in the afternoon yesterday, power went out in the building in Hamra in west Beirut where I live. In the evening I was reading in flickering candle light; annoying, but quite doable. Around 11 pm, I could hear reoccuring explosions in the distance, almost like intensive fireworks. I sat out on my balcony looking out into the night. Most buildings around me seemed to have their own generators, and with a certain amount of jealousy I saw people move about in their electricty-lit homes without much troulbe, while I was sitting in complete darkness on my balcony.

It was a beautiful night, I could see lots of stars, but I probably would have seen more if it weren't for the almost full moon. But there is something eerie about a modern apartment with no electricity, they are somehow designed with that commodity in mind. That the explosions I heard were from Lebanese anti-aircraft guns I knew full well from the start.

When I woke up this morning I understood that more had happened than just the bombings in the south. All the text messages from family and friends in Sweden made me suspect big headlines in Swedish media. Once I arrived on campus and could go online I understood why: Israel had bombed Beirut International Airport. It is a bizarre feeling to see the runway I landed on less than a week ago explode on TV.

So much has happened in the two and a half years that have passed since I visited Beirut last. There is less chaos, downtown is truly alive, the entire area surrounding Place de Martyr has been revived and even Hamra now has walkable sidewalks! The other night I was at St. George Yacht Club watchin the World Cup final between France and Italy. They had a big screen TV set up with the Mediterranean as a backdrop. On one side of the TV, I could see the beautiful Lebanese mountains, on the other side the ruins of the buildings that collapsed when Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated last year along with twenty other human beings. A typical Beiruti scene, I though, normal activities such as a World Cup final is juxtaposed with abnormal activities such as a violent political assassination.