Eight months had passed since I had last been in Lebanon, in January 2013, to report a story for ONE about the fate of Christian Syrians fleeing Syria to Lebanon in search of refuge. Back then, the flow of refugees across the border was certainly an issue but on returning in August, it was clear that the situation had gotten much, much worse.
The burgeoning fears I heard among the Lebanese in January — that the Syrian conflict would trigger sectarian tensions and conflict in volatile Lebanon — was beginning to prove true by summer. On 9 July, 53 people were wounded in a busy shopping street in Dahiya, the southern suburb of Beirut, which is dominated by the pro-Assad Hezbollah Shia militia. Then, a few days after my arrival, another explosion in Dahiya, this time killing 21 people, and thought to be a reprisal for Hezbollah’s military support of the Assad regime in Syria. Next, on 23 August, two Sunni mosques were targeted in the northern city of Tripoli, killing 47 people — the deadliest bombing in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1991.
I lived in Lebanon for three years and I’m accustomed to ebbs and flows in the country’s security situation. I’ve also grown used to ignoring the Western media’s tendency to whip up panic or make a situation look more widespread than it is. But this time was different. It was different because of my Lebanese friends’ reactions. They were nervous. They spoke less. People were going out less. The streets, usually at their busiest in the high summer season, when Arab tourists flock to Beirut and much of Lebanon’s extensive diaspora return home on holiday, were very quiet. Lebanese people are used to handling insecurity and I have always been amazed by their ability to continue as normal when the security situation around them is not great. But this time was different. Some friends were already whispering about plans to leave the country, while others expressed approval that I was leaving the back to Europe. “It’s only going to get worse around here,” they said.
Sure enough, on the last two days of my trip, the Syrian and Lebanese crisis was raised a notch with moves by Western leaders to gain governmental approval for direct strikes on Syria. The announcement sent tremors across Lebanon — people feared not just national instability but indeed a regional war involving foes such as Israel, Iran and Syria, as well as Western superpowers.
While all this was going on, I couldn’t help but notice all the children: the masses of Syrian children who had arrived to Hamra street in West Beirut since my last visit in January. Most of them sold roses or a shoeshine along the street’s many café terraces. They were young, between the ages of six and ten, and were shadowed by their mothers, who sat at the street’s corners, often begging. Such scenes were unthinkable just a few years ago in Lebanon. But during my most recent visit, Hamra street was punctuated by the odd male Syrian who had bedded down for the evening in the doorway of a closed shop.
They made me sad, for both the Lebanese and the Syrians. These are people who are often quite different, who have a fraught political and military history with one another. Yet, as one of the Syrians I talked to said: “When it comes to war and conflict, it is always the people who suffer. War doesn’t step around religious or political conviction. It is the people who always suffer.”