Leaving for Beirut | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 11, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:50 AM, May 29, 2015

Leaving for Beirut

Leaving for Beirut

Inam Ahmed

On a winter night in 1981, Momen left for Beirut.

When I met him the day before, his 17-year-old eyes twinkled with the excitement of joining the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). He pulled out his air ticket -- probably of British Airways, memories wane so fast -- and said: "Dosto, Ami Chollam. Torao parley ai (Friend, I am going. Come over if you can)." Two weeks later, Momen wrote back home.

The envelope contained several 5R photographs. In one of them, he and his fellow Bangladeshi youths stood on a tank holding Kalashnikov assault rifles. In another, they toyed with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. Beirut showed in the background in its dun-coloured landscape, like coffee mixed with excess milk. Camouflaged tents could be seen. That was the PLO training camp.

A sudden flurry of activities was taking place at the Palestinian embassy in Dhaka in 1981. The news went around like forest fire that PLO is recruiting soldiers. Mostly the teens of Dhaka city enlisted their names. A designated PLO official scrutinized the applicants, measured up if the boys were well-built and ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause of Islam. It took about three weeks for the process to complete, and every night young boys, mostly under 18 like Momen left for Beirut unaware of the looming war.

Six months down the line, all hell broke loose in Beirut as Israel launched a massive attack on PLO.
Every night the news came in vivid brutality and details as Israeli aircraft bombed Beirut and missiles and canon shells poured over the city after a Palestinian group called the Abu Nidal Organisation tried to assassinate Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom.

It seemed every inch of Beirut was going to be flattened in the pounding. The PLO fighters valiantly fought back. House-to-house, hand-to-hand combat began. Five days later, PLO with the aid of the UN negotiated a safe passage out of Beirut. The war stopped and convoys carrying PLO fighters streamed out of the besieged city. Momen and his Bangladeshi friends were among those fleeing soldiers. But they were mostly on their own.Then somewhere close to the Syrian border, they were engaged by the Christian Phalangist militias and killed. A few who could escape the firefight brought back the death news to us.

As I drove down the streets inside and outside Beirut, Lebanon's history is written all over.  
Right in the middle of the Beirut city, a bombed out structure stands, blackened by years of dirt and moss gathering on it since 1982. Buildings have gaping holes to show where the cannon shells or missiles went through. The walls are splattered with machinegun bullets. Such marks are visible in narrow alleys and quiet residential areas, showing how the house-to-house and street-to-street fights went on. Many of the buildings have been knocked down and rebuilt to give today's swanky look of Beirut.

As we went close to the Israeli border in Naqoura in south Lebanon, the landscape became one of orange and banana orchards set on a hilly terrain. All the way the Mediterranean sea lapped blue and beautiful. Here in Naquora the 'blue line' was drawn after Israel once again invaded Lebanon in 2006. It is a territory dominated by the powerful pro-Shia Hezbollah militias. Israel started its adventure in Lebanon after Hezbullah kidnapped a few Israeli soldiers.

Lebanon fought hard, but the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) could put up little resistance.  But Israel soon met its Nemesis in Hezbollah as the war went into the grassy land. The invading country never thought it would find a foe as tenacious and as fierce as Hezbollah in an unknown land.

A Palestinian camp that saw a massacre in 1982.
A Palestinian camp that saw a massacre in 1982.

Once again the UN came to the rescue and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) enforced a truce and Israel left humiliated. The Unifil drew its 'blue line' to demarcate Israel and Lebanon.

So officially the war has not ended; it's just a pause. The landscape bears the brunt of the 2006 war. Buildings are bullet-marked, and abandoned. Beyond the Unifil's headquarters, I could see Israeli territory. Peacekeepers in blue helmets patrol the road in armoured cars. We had to stop at several military check posts manned by Lebanese soldiers.  One could feel the tension in the air.

The calm is often shattered by various militia groups sending missiles across the line into Israel from the orchards in Naquora. In retaliation, Israel send some missiles.

A Palestinian market in Beirut.
A Palestinian market in Beirut.

Here we were in Sabra and Chatila. And it seemed that darkness had descended at midday as our driver swerved from the swanky Beirut into the narrow, dirty streets clattered with everything from wooden boxes to rotting stinky vegetables to sawed-off car chassis.
Fruit and vegetable vendors on wooden carts hawking at the top of their voice. Cheap clothes on display on wooden platforms. Watermelons, hair bands, plastic mugs, peanuts and berries all jostled with each other to sell. There was a strange syncopation of life. And yet Sabra and Chatila had seen the worst of deaths in 1982.

It was a stronghold of the PLO fighters and still is a Palestinian camp. The fighters had their rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns installed on rooftops and alleys just beside the rickety, narrow and blackened-by-age-and-neglect apartment buildings. Shells hissed out onto the Israeli advancement from here as the 1982 war began. Even after all these years I clearly remember Momen mentioning in those letters he sent from Lebanon that he was in Sabra and Chatila before the war began.

Now as my car entered this Palestine encampment, defying warnings from many not to even come close to this area, my eyes tried to train on what Momen did in his last days. He must have lined up in front of that crowded bakery to get a loaf of bread. Or sat under that balcony, drinking banana juice. He must have crossed that road into that bullet-riddled building, carrying his Kalashnikov.

Another neighbourhood bearing the war marks.
Another neighbourhood bearing the war marks.

And then the Israelis hit back, hissing in their own shells and missiles that slammed into those residential buildings, killing some two thousand people. Then just as the truce was negotiated and 11,000 PLO fighters left for Yemen and Tunisia, Lebanon's Christian President elect Bashir Gemayel, was murdered. This time, Israel let loose the Phalangist militias who entered Sabra and Chatila and butchered hundreds of civilians, mostly women and the old.

Each and every building showed bullet holes. Some were so badly damaged that you could actually see the bedrooms and drawing rooms, people moving inside. And Palestinian flags hung on sticks. As I was taking pictures, a tall man suddenly walked up to my car and shouted at me. He was waving me to come down. I sat tight as some 10-15 men gathered around the car in a moment. They were angry  Palestinians, shouting and cursing. They tried to open the door of my car. But I had already locked it from inside. They started thumping and kicking at the car.

It was a terrifying moment. My driver tried to explain in his gibberish Arabic. He was explaining that I am a good Muslim and that I fully support the Palestinian cause. After some 15 minutes of explaining, the crowd seemed to have eased a bit and we snailed through the crowded roads. Every inch of me was bristling as I expected to worse to happen. Then we suddenly burst out onto the Beirut glitz again.

Lebanon had seen its own blood and freedom. It probably has the most twisted history of invasion and war, from the killing of 12,000 Christian Maronites by Druze Muslims to the last 2006 invasion by Israel. The French colonised Lebanon in 1920 and created the state of Greater Lebanon. British and French troops invaded Beirut during the Second World War. Then as the Israel state as created, the displaced Palestinians trooped into Lebanon and a new phase of bloodbath began. PLO set up its headquarters in Beirut after it was driven out of Jordan. Israel instigated the Christian Phalangist militia to attack PLO guerillas in Beirut that saw the beginning of a long-drawn civil war. Then Israel invades Lebanon after PLO guerillas kill Israeli civilians. To stop the bloodshed and send Israel back, the UN sends United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) in 1978.

Then comes the Syrian troops and the 1982 war began between Israel and Lebanon. PLO withdraws from Lebanon under an international ceasefire. But then Bashir Gemayel, the Christian president elect is murdered and Israel once again invades west Beirut.
Another fighting between the Lebanese government troops of Christian President Amin Gemayel and Muslim fighters breaks out and US shells Beirut in support of Gemayel. Then in 1984, Lebanese government forces collapse and President Assad of Syria welcomes Gemayel to Damascus. Then comes more of Israeli attacks and shelling. The Syrian troops firmly settle down in Lebanon and in 1989 Christian Lebanese prime minister Michel Aoun declares war on Syrian army in Lebanon. But Aoun fails and with it the Lebanese civil war formally ends.

And all this time is sprinkled with suicide bombings and targeting killings.

But meantime scores of militia groups emerged in Lebanon. The Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, turned out to be the most powerful and holds more firepower than the government Lebanese Armed Forces. The Amal militias, the Druz militias, the Phalangists and so on. They all operate on their own free will. And every Beirut neighbourhood has its own weapons and militias. You know clearly that you are crossing into Amal militia area or coming to Meronite area.

On a cool afternoon as my car turns to the Beirut's VIP area after crossing the Phalangist stronghold, I saw this tall and handsome young man in jeans and T-shirt standing on the kerb. He was holding am AK-47 and giving us a hawkish look.
"He is an Amal militia," our driver Jamal said. "This is Amal area."

We stopped in fron of the Bangladesh ambassador's house. The beautiful sea was shinning blue in the afternoon light. I walked down the road to get a view. Then I see this man, in a black garb, holding a sub-machinegun and standing in front of a  house. He is a Hezbollah fighter, guarding a Hezbollah top official's house. Two policemen with AK47s guard the ambassador's residence.

Lebanon is today trying hard to cut a balance between different groups. It has changed its constitution to ensure that while the president comes from the Christians, the prime minister from Sunni Muslims and yet the speaker of the parliament from the Shias. Shia Hezbollah holds 55 seats out of …. The PLO fighters are gone. And Beirut is once again trying to come back to life. Trying to be the Paris of the East once again where wine and music flowed. From last year the restriction on foreign tourists has been lifted. Slowly and slowly foreigners are pouring in. after all tourism plays a major part in Lebanon's economy.

At nights, the restaurants and cafes brim up with people, consuming shishas. Everybody seems to have forgotten the nightmares of 1982. As I walked through the Beirut night I wondered what Momen would be doing now had he survived the war.

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