With an ear to the ground in Beirut
WE landed in Beirut at the airport after 16:00 on the 17 August with a greeting party line-up that was covered on BBC Worldwide live for 40 minutes, the great and the good talking to camera.
I expect you got all that off the wires as per. We had a reception at the Hotel after 19.00 followed by a dinner at 22.00. We left Beirut International at 13.30 on the 18 August. So time on the ground was very limited!
On the morning of the 18 August, I had a self made tour of the city seeing as much as I could in the very few hours I was there, and yes, South Beirut too.
The immediate aim of the BMED flights of the 17 and 18 of August was to help to open a humanitarian bridge and deliver aid, and crucially in the view of Lord Hesketh, the chairman of BMED who led the visit accompanied by the ambassador to London for the Lebanon, Jihad Mortada, to seek to open again the commercial arteries of the city. The air routes need to be opened to help feed the commercial life of the city. It was put to me by several officials; with many bridges blown down between the major centres of Lebanon trade and commerce is going to have a tough time getting going again, whatever. Even if there are no continuing blockade effects.
As of today BMED have yet to get the go-ahead to resume, I understand Israel are still more or less holding things up though MEA and RJ are getting a few flights in via Amman. Even the airport shops were open when I passed though on the 18th, ready , willing and able to do business. The runways etc are all now in good shape.
For the tour of the morning of the 18 August, the men that were to be our guides and drivers were diamonds and took very good care of us. We headed towards the southern suburbs where the major damage happened in the city via various locations – the sights –
Martyrs’ Square among them was very moving, as well as the street where Rafik Harri was assassinated arriving eventually in an area called Haret Hreyk. There the local community had set up a kind of tour system with an entrance and an exit festooned with banners. Discreet men with AKs as well as more direct characters who demanded to see passports. The smell as well as the dust was pervasive, dense and heavy.
Rumour of the use of depleted uranium munitions having been used added if that was possible to the sense of revulsion. The sight of smashed residential blocks with much of the detritus of peoples lives piled on all sides provoked a heavy sense of guilt, as was intended. Frankly, I felt I was a tourist of the very worst kind. Even though they told me “just 39 died” in the area I saw as most had left the vicinity before the bombing started, the place looked smashed. Then incongruously one would see an intact building, with washing hanging on a line, in the midst of piles of rubble.
Clean up crews were at work. The scene had even been dressed with banners at key viewpoints. While many images have been in the press, the impact in person seems much greater than the image on the page. Thankfully, I was spared the sight of people wounded and worse.
As we drove through the city generally there was comparatively little in the way of new war damage. Seems bizarre to say that; war has come to this city so often in the last three decades. However the economic damage of this one is discernable and not really calculable at this stage. The tourism income that will not now come. Or may at best be postponed perhaps for years. The efforts of more than a decade of hard work by Lebanese at all levels of society, of investment designed to make Beirut and the wider Lebanon once again the destination for anyone wishing to holiday in a stylish city and a country with a fabulous ambience and scenery. As well as a history that stretches back in to the earliest days of civilisation. All more or less still there but wasting and this year most surely wasted.
City centre and downtown appear untouched by this war, though as you know the dings and knocks of previous wars are evident. The area was basically in shut-down mode. Economically it is not doing much at all.
I met a several residents and they really impressed me as resilient and dignified people in the most dreadful of circumstances. Most just want to get things back to normal and soon but the despair is lapping around them. Unless real help arrives in the Lebanon in really serious measure they do not have much of a chance of holding things together. On past record in other disasters; natural and otherwise, help may well not arrive in the required time scale or in the amounts needed. This is a really good time for regional solidarity to come through.
One story that spilled out incidentally during a conversation with Jonathan Grisdale, commercial director of BMED, before I even left London was that of the BMED team in Beirut and their actions in the days and weeks following the start of the hostilities. Their leader, Maria Sabbah, sales manager for BMED in Lebanon, kept the office and the team going throughout. Doing their best to continue to operate for the benefit of desperate people trying to leave the city and get home, in many cases that home was reached across continents. The BMED team were more or less safe at home and at work, but the challenge was to travel to and from work. Brave twice a day. Every day, and put in a full day’s work. In the days immediately following the start of hostilities Maria Sabbah sent a signal to head office – it records, I believe, the mindset of the city’s people. She urged the company to hold brainstorming sessions to help to rebuild the business as quickly as possible after the end of the conflict. She wrote that she had some really good ideas and so did her team. She was looking beyond the immediate enormous challenge and looking for the solutions to the next set! Determined to rebuild, whatever happened in the meantime.