BEIRUT, Lebanon – This is the fourteenth installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native or New York who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.
At What Price?
Since the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon reopened nearly a month ago, Iman and I have been telling friends and family members that we're taking things day by day. Over dinner, she and I routinely discuss the day's news, what it could mean and if we had any interactions that we would consider particularly strange or threatening as Americans living in a wartime Beirut. We recount names of friends in other parts of Lebanon who we might be able to stay with if things continue to grow worse. We weigh leaving Lebanon altogether and mull over if it's safe to do so. Sometimes my phone rings and it's my parents, naturally wanting to contribute to the conversation. They mostly just want to hear that we're still considering our options and moreover, that we still have options.
In part to provide them with more complete answers, I've made habit of walking down to Charles Helou Station every three or four days. Charles Helou is Beirut's bus and taxi stop if heading to Syria or points north of the capital. And making frequent visits and asking lots of questions is a good way of gauging our options as well as looking at our situation from a supply and demand perspective. How many people are fleeing Beirut? How much money are they willing to pay to do so? How many people are willing to risk their lives to take them? And at what price?
Ironically, in peacetime, the station is a busload of stress. In order to get there, you snake your way down two long paved ramps and walk along a highway until you find yourself beneath an overpass. It's dimly lit and uncharacteristically dirty for Beirut. Old Chevrolet's and Malibu Classics with wide, painted yellow bodies and checkered insignias that read "Beirut-Damascus Taxi" form a long line. Drivers sit on the hoods of their cars with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips. They're waiting for customers, waiting for you. As you walk closer, eyes light up. Business!
Then the shouting begins. "Taxi, Damascus?" "Taxi, Aleppo!" "Van Damascus?" "Taxi Tripoli!" They know you're going somewhere and they want to take you. Eventually you agree to go with one driver or another and, shortly thereafter, you find yourself waiting in the back of their cab until other passengers come along and take up the remaining seats. This could take a few minutes or a few hours, but your stuff is already locked away in the trunk of the car either way. So you hop out, walk across the street, buy some candy from an improvised food stands, make conversation and try your best to relax. In peacetime, the price to Damascus is a fixed $10. It pays for a scenic, if somewhat harrowing, three hours spent winding over mountainous roads in a shared cab.
Four days into the conflict, Charles Helou Station was as busy as ever. I wasn't singled out as a potential customer because there were plenty to be found. In fact, amidst a sea of anxious tourists fleeing Beirut, I would have fit right in if only I were planning on leaving. I was quoted a price of $200 and there was plenty of demand to meet the offer. Iman and I had heard rumors that only a day before, a wealthy Saudi family had paid $1000 a seat to get away from Lebanon.
With each successive trip to Charles Helou, the price came down. $100. $50. $30. Finally $12 if by taxi and $8 in a van. To be sure, the back and forth between Lebanon and Syria was still seen as perilous and unpredictable, with air strikes on roads and on vehicles themselves quite possible. But the long lines of clamoring people had already filed out. By last Wednesday, the price had almost returned to normal.
This morning I made my way back down the two long paved ramps, walked along the highway and found myself underneath an overpass. I counted a mere four cars. Their drivers were all hanging out in the station office, apparently not anticipating much business. It actually took me a while to get their attention even if it took them less time to get mine. The rate was now $500 a seat to leave Lebanon.
Events that took place early last Friday morning played a big part in the price hike. Then, Israeli air strikes targeted predominantly Christian areas and destroyed four essential bridges that linked the north with Beirut. Over the last 27 days, Israel has systematically targeted nearly every major means of getting around Lebanon.
Israeli officials have argued that this tactic aims to halt the efforts of Syria in resupplying Hezbollah in the south with weaponry and equipment. It's absolutely necessary for stopping Katyusha rocket launchings. However, many Lebanese I've talked to look at it differently. They feel it is meant only to exert as much strain as possible on the Lebanese government and people as a whole, forcing them to make concessions from a position of desperation. People here are quick to point out that the transport of food and humanitarian aid depends on many of the roads that have been destroyed. I've been told many times over that the continuous air raids, the strict blockade and the destruction of roads is indiscriminately cruel and actually taking the effect of turning many non-supporters of Hezbollah into supporters of the lesser of two evils.
A single bus was pulling away from Charles Helou Station today as I was heading back into downtown Beirut. The bus had only a handful of passengers. On one of its large, side window panels, an apparent jokester had placed a "Baby on Board" sticker. On its back window panel was something far more serious. A large photo of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was placed in full view. Before this conflict began, I had never once seen his picture displayed anywhere in Beirut.
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