Wednesday, May 28, 2008

K's work

No “glamour” of working in a refugee camp… I’ve never even been there, and have only been near it two or three times!

A year ago last May, the small (less than 50 acres), dense camp of 33,000 people was destroyed = levelled = reduced to a pile of rubble that will take 500 dump truck loads a day five months to remove. And only last month was access to the site finally granted by the Lebanese Army. A UN/NGO team quickly moved in to conduct a risk assessment and survey, and determined that of the five areas in the camp, 2 were considered “green,” or safe to enter, 3 were “amber,” and 1 “red,” or known to have quantities of unexploded ordnance and/or mines. De-mining and rubble removal will be conducted simultaneously, sector by sector. All that work needs to be complete before reconstruction can begin. Photo is what is left of Nahr el-Bared Camp.

Meanwhile the 5,449 displaced refugee families are living in rented accommodations (approx. 3,600) with host families (560) mostly in the other nearby refugee camp that was already way overcrowded, and in very basic temporary shelters built by UNRWA (430, including 220 in double stacked metal prefab units that are proving to be very hot and noisy).

UNRWA provides health and education services to the refugees in all 12 camps in Lebanon, but for the Nahr el-Bared displaced refugees it also provides emergency food and non-food items, rental assistance, water, electricity, solid waste service, and as many emergency shelters as we could find land to build on. We are also going to rebuild the old camp, assuming donor fatigue hasn't set in and donor countries will respond with the needed funds. Something like $52 million was donated last year; much more will be needed for reconstruction.

The UNRWA office compound at the camp won’t be rebuilt for many months either--it will be the first site cleared of rubble but then will be used as a rubble sorting site for the rest of the camp. Since the crisis, UNRWA offices in the north have up until now been in a tired conference room (with too few outlets) at the Quality Inn. In a couple of months we will move to Ye Olde metal prefabs to be placed on an unused fair ground behind the hotel, some 10 miles from the camp. But K actually spends most of her time at the Beirut office. Her boss is there, not by choice but trapped by meetings with the director, other staff, the government and donors, and also by the bureaucracy that threatens to strangle us all.

The Lebanon Field Office is a faded, three story structure inside a walled compound on the highway to the airport. From the third floor you can glimpse the sea. Office hours for some unknown reason are 7:15 - 2:45, though many international staff and some dedicated locals work much later, K's boss among them. Buses ferry Palestinians from most of the camps in Lebanon each day to work. The vast majority of people who work for UNRWA are Palestinian, something like 22,000 to 150 (not all in Lebanon! HQ is in Amman and Gaza, and there are also offices in the West Bank and Damascus). Working at UNRWA is the only place in Lebanon where they may take any job; Palestinians in Lebanon are forbidden from working in most professions. Only recently were they allowed to get work permits for manual and clerical jobs. They have lived here for 60 years! (While Israelis wer celebrating the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel, eslewhere took place the commemoration of the 60th year since Nakba--the day of catastrophe).

So, while I work with refugees, I rarely visit the camps. I travel to Tripoli usually twice a week, and spend my time there in the office at the Quality Inn. We don't even take lunch breaks or come up for air. I sit in meetings and seek out the different people who lead the water and sanitation team or the education team or the health team, and put together progress reports. Occasionally I get to tag along to the adjacent area of the camp, where almost 2,000 of the displaced families have managed to return, or to Beddawi Camp, where 500 more still live. Sometimes I stay overnight at the hotel. Soon I may be staying instead at an apartment recently rented by UNRWA for a Swiss architect and a Danish Technical Advisor.

  • Last night, in the hotel, I heard a number of explosions and feared the worst. I peaked out the hotel curtains and coould only catch the occasional flash of light. The barrage continued. I dressed and went across the hall to look out the window on the other side. Fireworks. Red, green, white fireworks. Later I learned it had nothing to do with the new president or the country, but the success of a local basketball team.
  • Today I rode back from Tripoli in an armored vehicle. It was a Toyota armored in the Czech Republic--apparently a big business there. You don't roll down the windows because they are too heavy to roll up.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Election ! and beach cleanup

It actually happened, on the 19th try. Lebanon has a new president: someone all the parties and factions could agree on--Michel Sulieman, until yesterday the head of the Lebanese Army. We heard he went out and bought 6 suits. It is odd to see him in civilian dress. His photo has been displayed all over the country for months; but now we see him minus the uniform, in a tie. There is a wonderful, festive air in town. And Lebanese really know how to party... The outgoing Prime Minister invited all the MPs including the opposition which had closed down parliament for the last 18 months, to dinner. And a popstar s hosting a party tomorrow and has invited all of Beirut.


We did our fist volunteering today--picking up trash from a beautfiul beach in Byblos for a Mediterranean clean-up day involving 21 countries! There was to be a contingent on the Beirut beach front as well, but the election festivities meant no groups could gather, so that part had to be cancelled. But two beaches outside Beirut were cleaned. There were 80 people at one beach near Beirut, mostly high school students. At Byblos we were a group of just 6 people--from the NGO we hike with. We chose a small beach only about 60 yards long. I thought we would be done in 15 minutes, and wondered why the leader had chosen such a small place. Three hours later we had filled between 40 and 50 large trash bags full. Worse, we could see more stuff coming in on the tide. It's terrible--trash heaps along the shore slide into the sea, and poeple just toss things--most people have no consciousness about litter. Maybe now that there is a functioning government some things will change. Another beach feature are globs of sticky black oil, left over from the Israeli boming of Lebanon's power plants in 2006. It sticks to the pebbles and is impossible to get off your hands or clothes. It will never wash away.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

White balloons

Six days of talks in Qatar brought Lebanon's politicians to an agreement. People are happy, and a bit amazed. The Hezbollah encampment that had killed downtown commercially and socially for 18 months is being dismantled. White ballooons were released there in celebration. An election, postponed 18 times, may actually be held on Sunday. We are going to wait and see if it really happens before unpacking the evacuation suitcase...

Friday, May 16, 2008

They are talking

The port and airport are open, the roadblocks removed, and representatives of all the parties have jetted off to Qatar for talks mediated by the Arab League. I never thought it could be so wonderful to be stuck in traffic in Beirut--a sure sign that things have returned to normal.

Now we all wait to hear the outcome of the talks. Some give it a 50-50 chance of success, others are more hopeful. I am working on unpacking the evacuation suitcase.

On an overpass near the airport, a group of people in wheelchairs held banners in Arabic, English and French for the departing politicians to see:

"If you don't reach a solution, don't come back!"

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Fighting Ebbs in Lebanon"

That is the headline on the local news feed we get, and we hope it is true. K heard gunfire near her workplace today for about an hour. But there are no reports of major fighting anywhere in the country. The army seems to be slowly taking over. Tom witnesssed them entering our area, and seeing the Syrian Socialist members who had claimed our neighborhood scatter like rats into the shadows... And an Arab League delegation is scheduled to arrive tomorrow--presumably they are clearing the roadblocks from the airport for the occasion.

Here is more on the power of spin, a remarkable story that apparently appeared in the Syrian press:

"The Americans launched a pre-emptive strike against opposition nationalist forces, starting with the [Hizbollah] resistance, and attempted a Washington-planned coup but were taken aback by the opposition, which restored order in Lebanon."

It goes on to say: "The recent events in Lebanon showed that the coup carried out by the Americans and their men in Lebanon backfired."

Interesting, given the fact that we didn't see any American soldiers in Lebanon and the fact that it was Hizbollah who started the fighting.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Some media portray it as an opposition takeover of the Shouf, but that is simplistic as best. What we saw was a decision made by those in power in the region—two Druze leaders who themselves oppose each other—to jointly agree to withdraw in order to avoid more bloodshed, in favor of having the army move in to maintain the peace. Again, a wonderful thing, that the army is respected by all and has managed to stay neutral.

The Prime Minister called for a minute of silence Sunday at 12:00. We were at the health club at the time (so grateful it had reopened so we could burn off some steam) and asked them to turn off the music, which they did.

Other positive: The cabinet is to meet today and presumably will reverse the decisions it had taken that set off Hezbollah. If Hezbolah stands by its word, the fighting should stop.

Other negative: The US has sent its warship to hover off the coast and add to the tension and the perception that the current government are US puppets.

Other inscrutable: The Arab league is sending a Sunni delegation to mediate this Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Heavily weighing on our minds: the idea that we could leave, but the people we have come to love, these beautiful generous Lebanese souls, along with the thousands of Palestinians trapped for 60 years in a world in which they have no control, have no such choice to make.

Sunday news

It has been quiet in Beirut today, but there was fighting in both Tripoli in the north and in the Shouf, south east of Beirut. Both seem to have died down now, and the army has moved in to maintain order. The airport is still closed, blockaded by Hezbollah. Things seem volatile, but not hopeless.

In our area, in West Beirut, there remained a few armed guys on a couple of street corners, flags of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party flying here and there, and spray painted party logos had appeared on many buildings in the neighborhood. They are a small group allied with the Shiite Moslem Hezbollah, but are Eastern Orthodox Christians...and Nazis. Reminds me of the sign Tom has outside his office that says "If you think you understand Lebanese politics, no one has explained it to you properly."

So the "flight" bag remains half unpacked, a barometer of current conditions. When the violence ratchets up, I throw a few more things in. When it looks like life is returning to normal, things go back in the drawer.

Meanwhile we got some clarification on emergency evacuation. The embassy had sent a disturbing email saying that it was our responsibility to plan for evacuation. The email informed us that the airport was closed (well, duh) and suggested that we might charter a boat to Cyprus. With Hezbollah controlling the port and there being very few boats in the Beirut harbor, this was not a comforting thought. But we later learned that there is indeed an evacuation plan, and that it involves going north out to Syria, which sounds reasonable.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Morning after update

Well, all is quiet on the Western Beirut front now. No gunfire sounds for over 12 hours, and reports are that Hezbollah has withdrawn from the area. The few flare ups in other parts of the country have not spread. People are dismantling the now unmanned roadblocks. Two wonderful things: Hezbollah withdrew after making its statement, and the Lebanese Army, a microcosm of the country's population, stayed neutral. The Army commander is respected by all and remains the top candidate to be president, should an election ever actually be held (it's been delayed 18 times).

So we are changing gears. I will unpack the "flight" bag I had packed, put away the family photos and favorite earrings, go look for bullet holes on Hamra street, and carry on with life. It was so quiet last night that we slept well--no motorbikes, squeaky brakes...or gunfshots.

We are still not sure who they were shooting at. Almost everyone was off the street, including the Army. One tremendous round of continuing fire at 3:30 yesterday afternoon turned out to be celebratory fire, as Hezbollah and allied fighters signalled total control of Weste Beirut by firing volleys into the air form strategic street corners throughout the area.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Morning update

Well, everyone thought this was the safest area of town to be in, but the continued sporadic gunfire and occasional booming of something larger belie that. Hezbollah is on the move all over town, apparently. They have shut down the pro-government TVand internet station. We still get BBC and Al-Jazeera English and feel as well informed as is possible in this chaotic situation.

We just heard that Hezbollah now controls West Beirut, where we are...

We are well out of any likely line of fire, have provisions for a few days anyway and feel safe as long as we stay put in our apartment. Apparently one of the board members at Tom's school has invited all the staff to stay in his mansion outside Beirut. And Ben says the State Dept. has been working on evacuation plans. But for now, staying in is definitely the thing to do.

We are trying to keep busy. Tom says the gunfire interferes with being able to hear the TV...


Evening, local time

How quickly things can deteriorate...
Most of the news reports that come out of Beirut have not indicated the reality. But this time we can hear the gunfire. We are staying inside and are safe. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. We are also hopeful that the step up in conflict will prompt a compromise. Who knows? Lebanon and its people are genuinely fantastic. It is just these special interests that are more like mob families who keep everything on edge.

The UN radio advises us to stay indoors and away from windows... We live on a short, quiet street and so shouldn't be in anyone's line of fire.

Thankfully our VHF radio, phone, cell phone and TV are all operational, so we feel well informed. Our English TV channels are BBC and Al Jazeera English. We have food and water, and have just opened a bottle of wine to combat the jitters...

The gardenia on the balcony picked this day to bloom for the first time.

Day's update

So far so, well, not SO bad. Outer roads are blocked and the airport is closed. UNRWA was open again , though most people could not get there. All schools were closed. The area where we live (Hamra) is safer than most, there are no political hotspots here. About half the shops are open, but with roads into the city cut off one wonders how long supplies will last. Let me remind fans that if it comes to it, we would be evacuated by sea (a short walk--near Tom's school) and thus the aiport closure is not a worry.

Hmm...does the fighting stop when the call to prayer rings out?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Dear Readers--

There was a general strike called for today, so most people stayed home and many shops are closed. There were some demonstrations, road blocks and tire burning. Nothing in our area, or even close. The army is everywhere and seems to be on top of things. Tom's school was closed and UNRWA let staff go home early.

We have a VHF radio tuned to the UN security station and are keeping our eyes open. There is hope things will be back to normal tomorrow.

Not to worry, at least not at this point!

K and T

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Ready for vacation, and with four currencies in my purse (Lebanese pounds, Euro, Turkish Lira and a few stray US dollars), we boarded the 25 minute flight (45 counting takeoff and landing) to Cyprus, hoping we wouldn’t need Cyprus pounds, too (we didn’t). When we had booked a hotel in North Cyprus by email they quoted the rate as “the equivalent of 100 pounds Sterling in Euros or Turkish Lira.” Ay yay yay.

We arrived Good Friday evening of Orthodox Easter, in the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus. The waterfront in Larnaca was jumping. Larnaca has been continually inhabited for 4,000 years. Cyprus first struck us as California, but with driving on the left. Similar climate to Lebanon but much more developed and orderly, and lots quieter.

Tom did very well with driving. It takes a little while to get the hang of, and one does keep hitting the windshield wiper instead of the blinkers. We were glad we had opted for an automatic, and didn’t have to mess with locating the gearshift, too.

The next day we headed for North Cyprus, the Turkish speaking side. Once we found the border crossing (many roads run between the two entities, but there are only four border crossings, plus one more in Nicosia for diplomats) we passed through quickly. Had to purchase separate car insurance for the days we would be there.

Famagusta is a port city in Turkish Cyprus, in the southeastern part of the island. The old part of the city, where we managed to find a hotel, is surrounded by Venetian Walls (early 1400s), about 15 meters (~50 feet) high and up to 8 meters (~25 feet) wide. Beyond them is—or was--a wide moat (see below). Tom had a run that evening on top of the city walls. (This adds to his list of historic jogging locations, which includes the hippodrome in Rome). The walls are intact around the old city, but you can’t walk all the way around as there is a military outpost on the waterfront. At one of the towers, Othellos’ Tower, named for the staging, perhaps, of Shakespeare’s play in Famagusta, lay a pile of large round balls. Not for cannons, as I think first, but for catapults.

Not far up the coast from Famagusta lie the ruins of the ancient port city of Salamis, which goes back to 700 BC Assyria. After being destroyed by the Persians, the Romans took over in 58 BC and built aqueducts, extensive baths, with hot and cold pools and resting rooms, and a theater for 15,000. There is also a 4th century basilica on the site, with a few bits of mosaic tile floors and decorations remaining. Did the people who made these things ever dream they would last ten centuries??
I saw on the brochure that there was a latrine that could seat 44 people and had to see it…here is a reenactment by Tom.

Driving along the Mediterranean coast, we made our way to Kantara castle. Wow. Incredible views from one of the three Byzantine era castles in a line across mountain tops along the north coast of Cyprus. They used to signal each other with lights. The views of the sea and half the island are fabulous. On a clear day you are supposed to be able to see Turkey or even Syria.

The next day was a three castle day…almost. We got to the third one, a well developed tourist site, too late to enter.
First was Buffavento Castle, second in the line after Kantara, on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean. No walls needed here, because there is only one possible entrance. It is built on solid rock, and is quite a climb to reach it.

Second was Kyrenia Castle, down at the port of Kyrenia. Built by the Byzantines, and eventually taken over by King Richard the Lionhart, who captured the island in 1191 on his way to the third crusade… He then sold it to the Knights Templar, and shortly after, to his cousin, the King of Jerusalem. Apparently the Venetians later gave up the castle without a fight. Inside the castle walls there is an exhibit with a 3rd century BC shipwreck, including all the cargo of almonds, figs (only the seeds remain), clay pots of wine, and stone flour grinders, which may have been used as ballast.

St. Hilarion is the third castle in a row on top of a mountain peak. It is said to have been the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Snow White. It is terribly picturesque, and fun to explore, ruins spread out along the peak. In the royal apartments, a stone window seat offers a magnificent view of the countryside below and the sea beyond.

We stayed two nights in Bellapais, Northern Cyprus. Lonely Planet guided us to a terrific place to stay there, called Gardens of Irini, just yards from the house where Laurence Durrell penned Bitter Lemons of Cyprus. The B&B where we stayed was populated by artists, and it shows—so tasteful--and also cats, who roam about and are happy to come into your room and sleep on the bed if you agree. Peaceful, quiet, with voluminous geraniums, cascading bougainvillea, erupting petunias, even a small pond with blooming lilies…
To get there one must travel up and up, on narrow, donkey-width roads between lovely old buildings—after folding in the side mirrors…(see Tom navigating at right) but it’s so worth it.

We left Northern Cyprus for the south, through Nicosia, the capital, divided city. Most of the city lies in the North. All the old city lies within star-shaped Venetian walls. Over the border (which took some finding), in the Republic of Cyprus, we were struck by the differences—affluence, mainly—in the busy downtown, with high rises absent from the other side.

We didn’t stop but only passed through Nicosia on the way to the Troodos Mountains. Distances are small in Cyprus; one could easily drive the length in half a day, the width in a day.

In the Troodos, another great place to stay, a small hotel in the tiny, picturesque village of Spilia--The Marjay Inn. Incredibly quiet, with a fabulous restaurant down the street featuring traditional food on handmade plates, everything done with care and taste. We had a great hike the next day, 7.5 kilometers around Mt. Olympos—not much of a mountain, though there is a bit of skiing. The trail was almost completely flat—Tom ran and I walked. It offered two different views of the Mediterranean, to the northwest and northeast—not far. A wonderful trail!

We heartily recommend Cyprus--for those too timid to visit us in Lebanon!!—so long as you stay away from the main package tour places (which are substantial).

We made our way around the island, maps unfurled, butchering place names as we went; Kakopetria became Krakatoa, Kantara Cassanova, Trachydopolopolis was that dinosaur sounding place, and Buffavento bouffant hairdo. There are lots of Brits on the island; the natives must be used to the butchery.

The last two nights we stayed at another place we found on the agrotourism website—a tavern/inn about 10 miles and light years from Pathos, city of beach umbrellas and restaurants touting English breakfasts (which, if you don’t know, involve a cholesterol kaleidoscope of sausage, eggs, toast with butter and marmalade, baked beans and ham). The Inn featured 6 foot geraniums, swallows nesting in the lobby, and goat crossing signs on the road nearby. Great food, too.

On our way across the southern part of the island to the airport the last day, at a restaurant in Limassol, a man pulls out a ladder, climbs onto the roof, disappears, and reappears five minutes later carrying a full bag of fat lemons from a nearby tree. Cyprus.

On the departures signboard at the airport, there were flights for:
…and of course, Beirut