This is the fourth installment of an ongoing blog written by Spencer Witte, a native New Yorker who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

July 25, 2006

"Which Way is Safety?"

There's a bright yellow hot-air balloon resting in the Beirut Marina. Three weeks ago it was making slow, graceful ascents 1,000 feet into the sky. Paying customers were given 15 minutes to look to the south and take in Beirut's breathtaking Mediterranean coastline before floating down to Earth. Paying advertisers were given a virtual flying billboard, and they used the space to write inspiring messages like "Allez au-delà de votre potentiel" ("Go beyond your potential") to the people of Beirut. Iman and I had talked about paying the $10 it would cost to go on it, but we never got around to doing so.

Much has changed. The bright yellow balloon is now grounded. The Israeli Air Force is now looking to the south and taking in the view. The people of Lebanon will have to reassess what their potential really is. And these days, most objects aren't exactly floating down to Earth.

But some are.

Since ongoing tensions between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon boiled into open conflict, Israeli planes have occasionally substituted other messages in place of bombs and missiles. Propaganda leaflets and fliers now flutter to the ground as if Lebanon has momentarily found itself in a perverted tickertape parade. It's just that so few people seem to be celebrating.

Days back, Israeli planes dropped fliers on the soccer field at the American University-Beirut. One of the canisters that was supposed to open in mid-air and scatter the info far and wide came down intact with a thud. Many of the Americans raced after the fliers, while their Lebanese classmates mostly just stood there with indifference. Perhaps before she even knew what she was doing and why she was doing it, one of my friends had managed to collect a bunch, and she passed one along to me. I feel this flier goes a way toward illustrating the stark contrast between life in Beirut proper, where it is still possible to have typical, peacetime moments in any given day, and life in the bombarded South, where it just isn't.

The leaflet is pink and depicts Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as a snake amidst a field of cowering people. Incidentally, Israel's artists must have sat this one out, because it looks like it was drawn while inside a moving fighter jet. The text above the picture poses the question, "The resistance protects the nation...?" And then answers, "No, it is hurting the nation!!!"

The people of downtown Beirut, although certainly enduring legitimate hardships, were given a cartoon and a rhetorical question. But the people of the southern cities and towns of Sidon, Tyre and Nabatiyeh and Beirut suburbs like Dahiyeh have been given a lot more than that.

A barrage of fliers and Israeli radio advisories, followed shortly thereafter by a flattening of buildings and entire areas, sends a much different message. The people in these areas have been asked to leave their homes and the lives they were leading. Thousands have done so, only to face an extremely dangerous trip — and sometimes a deadly one.

There are numbers of photographs that demonstrate an exodus of people leaving the carnage of South Lebanon for the relative calm of neighborhoods within Beirut. But if I needed any reassurance, it comes every time I leave my apartment and am asked for directions. I stand out a bit here. Most locals assume I don't speak much Arabic and, even if I did, don't know the area well enough to direct anyone. But each of the last three days, a sedan packed with people, kids sitting on the laps of mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, has pulled alongside me in hopes I would point them in the right direction.

I have had brief conversations with about 25 of the more than 800,000 people currently displaced in Lebanon. To put that second number in perspective, Lebanon is home to fewer than 4 million people. In just a little over two weeks of fighting, a fifth of the country has picked up, left their homes and escaped uncertainty only to face more of it.

A fifth of the population of the United States is roughly 60 million people. Imagine one out of every five citizens of the U.S. having to move to another part of the country. It should be easy to understand that this aspect of the newest crisis in the Middle East has become a profound concern and a heavy burden to the already fragile Lebanese government.

Thousands of displaced Lebanese have made their way to Achrafieh, where overstretched NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and local volunteers are working around the clock to feed and shelter them. Most end up in schools, one of which is a five-minute walk from my apartment and is nearly filled to capacity. It's a quick fix, but by no means a suitable long-term solution. After all, the schools must become schools again in September.

Until then, it would seem the people fleeing South Lebanon are getting a different kind of lesson, one they hope will end soon.

"A Country in Check"

It's tough to say how grave the situation here is when it comes to food. The first couple of days of Israeli airstrikes brought serious panic to Lebanon's capital. After all, gunships were blockading the city's ports, and the shelling of main roads and bridges as well as trucks made bringing in enough food from overland seem like a trying option.

The local grocery store, Spinney's, teemed with both customers and anxiety. Everyone seemed to be ticking items off the same emergency shopping list: Canned goods, jugs of water, candles, flashlights, batteries — the usual suspects.

On Saturday, the afternoon of the 15th, Iman and I took our own list back and forth to Spinney's three times. We hauled gallons of water up the stairs to our apartment and lined our kitchen floor with the plastic bottles. We stacked our cabinets with canned corn, granola bars, lentil soup and kidney beans. Apparently, cookies and chocolate bars were also essential to our survival. We bought lots of them.

Next, we needed some games to play. If we were going to be hunkered down in an apartment during a conflict we had no control over, we'd have to have something to do. In the end, we got the most bang for our buck: A $3 combination beach paddle tennis and chess game. The chessboard is drawn on the paddles and it comes with pieces and a ball. It's a strange grouping, but physical and mental activity doesn't come much cheaper.

In the many trips to the grocery store since then, we've kept a careful eye on things. Spinney's is still crowded, but the sense of panic has lessened. We've heard reports that limited food is actually getting into Beirut, some of it from Cyprus. Shelves have been restocked, thanks in large part to truckers braving dangerous routes in exchange for double or triple the transportation costs. People are beginning to buy steaks and beer as often as they buy beans.

All of this would seem to contradict an article in today's Daily Star — Lebanon's premier English language newspaper. The article is titled, "Consumers Prepare for Lengthy War by Emptying Store Shelves," and it forecasts the closure of numerous supermarkets that have run out of money and are not being allowed to restock on credit.

If the article is accurate, yet another layer of crisis is approaching Lebanon. If it's accurate, I should also probably forego tonight's scheduled chess matches (I've been roundly defeated in every game so far...) and instead reline the cabinet with canned goods. That would seem a better move.

Click here to read the first installment, entitled, "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches"

Click here to read the second installment, entitled, "Much Has Changed Since That Family Photo"

Click here to read the third installment, entitled, "The New Beirut Nightlife, Airstrikes as a Snooze Button"