Enduring a Bloodbath in East Beirut

by Thomas McHugh

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My experience in Beirut and the surrounding hills last spring was for only a few days, and during it I was immersed in a dizzying media event. Not much of a way for an Irish-American reporter from New York City to get his hand on the pulse of the local folk. But many Lebanese are devoted to putting across their feelings about their homeland and the physical and moral weight of a 15-year-old civil war. Their sense of abandonment is keen.

The war continues, but so much has changed. Last spring, shelling was pretty much confined to Beirut’s harbor. During the night, shells boomed in large muzzle flashes from Syrian positions to deter or destroy supply ships approaching the Christian port. There was an element of routine to it, but of course one could never he sure when and where the bombs would fall.

A year later, the Syrian guns have quieted. Predominantly Muslim West Beirut, largely off limits to most Christians 12 months ago, is now a refuge to many. For in East Beirut the Christian enclave is now completely caught up in its own civil war, and the fighting there has been described as the worst ever. More than 1,000 people have been killed and 3,000 wounded since clashes broke out in January. Some estimates are significantly higher.

Throughout all this the staff of the East Beirut-based Pontifical Mission, under tremendous pressure and at great personal risk, has struggled to maintain support for the people of Lebanon – Christian. Muslim and Druze.

Different areas of East Beirut became isolated soon after the barrage of shelling commenced Jan. 31. All communications were cut. Roads were blocked by hills of debris and disabled vehicles.

Hundreds of tanks moved about the streets. By Feb. 2 most of the staff were hiding in shelters or in basements. Field worker Michel Constantin was in North Lebanon at the start of the fighting and was unable to get back because the roads were blocked.

The following day gasoline and bread had all but run out because of the road blocks; electricity and water supplies were cut. Medical supplies also began to run short as the city’s hospitals became filled with injured civilians and combatants.

Some of the Pontifical Mission workers were able to contact each other by walkie talkie, but it was not until Feb. 7 that three of them were able to get to their base. The office of Holy Cross Sister Maureen Grady, field director in Beirut since 1986, was almost completely destroyed by a 180 mm. shell. Another room, a balcony and some office equipment were also damaged.

Sister Maureen, in Rome at the outset of this wave of violence, traveled to Cyprus but was unable to contact her staff. Issam Bishara, the associate director, did manage to slip back into Lebanon through the port of Jouneih. It took him three days to make it hack to his home in Beirut – as the crow flies, a distance of about three or four miles – along an old mountain road under continuous sniping and shelling.

The fighting let up for six days beginning Feb. 17, prompting Sister Maureen to fly into West Beirut, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago. She said that Bishara was shocked to see her hack.

On Feb. 26 a decision was made to temporarily evacuate the staff to Cyprus. The situation was worsening.

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Tags: Lebanon Christianity Muslim Beirut Civil War