BEIRUT, Lebanon – This is the fifth installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native New York resident who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.
"How I Got Here"
My arrival in Beirut on the evening of July 13 was preceded by a flurry of text messages, e-mails and phone calls — and a single impulsive decision. Earlier that day, the Israelis had ratcheted up the intensity of the conflict by striking targets in South Lebanon, destroying the runways of Lebanon's only international airport and declaring a full air and sea blockade. I was some 60 miles away, one of many Americans studying Arabic in Damascus.
An e-mail from my dad: Sounds like things are getting a little rough in your neck of the woods. Keep a low profile and duck when the occasion arises. Consider hopping on a plane if things get too bad ...
A text message from me to my girlfriend, Iman, an American working in Beirut, shortly after the message from my dad: Hi, hope everything there's OK. My father already sent the obligatory 'get on a plane if you need to' e-mail. Definitely coming tomorrow, rain or shine.
A text message from Iman in reply: Hezbollah just hit Haifa. That increases the odds that Israel will hit here tonight.
A worried phone call.
A text message from me to Iman: Fine, fine, fine. Staying put for tonight. Keep me posted.
Another text message, this one a half-hour later: In a cab. Driver's an Armenian man named Dikran, nice guy. Already said he will take me directly to your apartment.
So much for self-restraint.
Family and friends occupy a high priority in my life, and the thought of Iman being in a war zone while I studied in Damascus didn't sit well with me. Over her objections, I was on my way to Beirut.
The trip, which usually takes more than three hours, took us a little under two. There was a bottleneck of panic at Syrian customs and immigration. The traffic was going the other way — out of Lebanon, not in.
Dikran claimed to speak five languages, and we conversed in two of them. He's a citizen of Lebanon but certainly no fan of Hezbollah. Even so, he was clearly distressed. He couldn't understand why he was going home to an extremely nervous wife and kids and why they'd probably spend their night together listening to explosions. Why did Israel strike the airport? Why will Israel destroy the important roads and bridges around Lebanon, including those that lead to Syria? Why were they punishing all of the Lebanese people in this way? He was angry and wanted to know. He asked several times in both English and Arabic. I had no answers in either language.
Our car — an old Chevrolet with a sticker decal that read, "Made in Texas, by Texans" — was pushing itself to unusual speeds, almost fishtailing around the mountain roads that lead to Beirut.
As we passed into Lebanon, the airport could be seen still burning near the horizon, dark smoke streaming steadily into the air. Dikran stopped the car, climbed out of the driver's side door and took in the view. I watched through the passenger side window. As for the roads, we were lucky and made it into Beirut an hour ahead of airstrikes that destroyed some of the very bridges and highways we had crossed.
Somewhere in Beirut, Dikran is angry and asking questions. More than two weeks later, I'm in Beirut, still struggling with answers.
"...And Why I Haven't Yet Left"
For any number of days running, I could expect an international phone call from my older brother, Griff. He's a journalist and would have spent part of the day combing the news, and consulting my mom and dad — perhaps his most important sources when it comes to me and my safety. Together, he and my parents had devised a united front, a continually updating message to pass along to me.
Sometimes I was forced to make promises. No, I would not evacuate overland into Syria — at least not yet. It was too dangerous. Yes, of course I would seriously consider my circumstances, have a long discussion with Iman and think about evacuation by sea to Cyprus. Yes, I would look into staying in a different area in Beirut if my neighborhood became too hazardous.
Early on, I broke one of my promises to my family. I was supposed to start work in Damascus as an English teacher on Monday, July 16. It was looking more and more like I was going to be a little late to class, and it was stressing me out. Certainly these were strange circumstances, but when possible, I like to keep my commitments. Through a friend of a friend, I found out about another American making a break for Syria early on the 15th. They'd wind their way through the North of Lebanon before ending up in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, about four hours from my apartment in Damascus. That way they'd avoid some of the dangers. It sounded like a plan. I woke up, readied my few belongings and made a phone call. "Sorry, but the van is full," I was told, and I realized that a call to a substitute teacher would probably have to be my next step.
I've since registered with the American Embassy here in Beirut. I received periodic e-mails about boats that have come and gone. The Orient Queen, a luxury cruise liner, has been carrying 750 Americans at a time away from Lebanon since July 18. Today is the last day it will make the trip.
At this point, I can't honestly say I'm stuck in Beirut. It's more accurate to say I'm trying to stick it out. I chose to be in Beirut, and, at least for now, I'm choosing to stay. Iman and I have daily conversations about our prospects for leaving, but neither of us is ready to do so. She's working, I'm writing this blog and, so far, danger has stayed at arm's length.
There's nothing particularly dramatic about our decision. The drama and, indeed, the tragedy are elsewhere. In fact, these days tragedy seems almost everywhere, especially for the people who can't leave, for the people who don't have a choice.
Yesterday I wrote about the newly displaced people of Lebanon — 800,000 and counting. Over one-fifth of the population has left their homes and is now in need of shelter. It's an undeniable disaster.
Even moments that are meant to be happy are being stripped of the opportunity. Today I walked past a hospital in Achrafieh, not too far from where some of the displaced families are staying. A man was standing outside its double doors and waiting to be let in. He was surrounded by pink balloons. "Congratulations!" read one. "It's a Girl!" read another.
There are rumors swirling around Beirut that once the evacuation of non-Lebanese citizens has come to a close, Israel will be given new flexibility and many additional targets. If that turns out to be the case and represents the next escalation in this war, Iman and I will likely try to escape overland to Syria. Thankfully, we still have some options. Unfortunately, many people in Lebanon don't seem to.