From ONE Magazine

Enduring a Bloodbath in East Beirut

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.

None of the staff was injured, but all had been through a month-long ordeal huddled in shelters with little food, no services and under heavy bombardment. Sister Maureen’s driver had spent 13 days in a stairwell with his children. A project worker was not able to reach his house for 26 days, his mother there all alone. Another shared a basement with 85 people for the same period of time.

“Essentially I just asked them what was their perspective of things,” Sister Maureen said of the staff. “And then 1 just looked in their faces. I sensed some real fatigue.”

“I lost about half my clothing as a rocket hit a storage closet, but I consider that minor. The worst part is the cold, since the windows are gone,” Sister Maureen wrote from Beirut in a letter to the Pontifical Mission’s headquarters in New York. “Actually, I am satisfied that I returned now if for nothing else than to boost the morale of the staff. They could use it, as it is evident that they are really sad and discouraged.

“I think the circumstances of this last battle – that is Christian versus Christian – have been a source of shame and sadness for them," she continued. “As for me personally, my spirits are good and I am anxious to get the staff together and begin the service of reparation and rebuilding for the poor.”

Sister Maureen and her co-workers – she is an American from Indiana, the rest of the staff are Lebanese – tried to patch parts of the office up and moved what could be salvaged to safer areas. As far as field work, they did what they could do, such as trying to organize an Easter-time correspondence between needy children and sponsors from North America who help finance their care in programs the Pontifical Mission supports. They were also trying to continue a needs assessment of Lebanese refugees in Cyprus. Sister Maureen said that for the most part, however, “we were paralyzed in terms of work.”

But for Michel Constantin in North Lebanon, everyone and their immediate families made it to Cyprus. There they organized themselves in groups to reflect on the past month, keep themselves going for the present and plan for the future. They formed a social group to plan activities together, a finance team, a group to record the staff members’ experiences, a review group to examine how things could have been done differently, and an information and reception group.

“The staff needed to keep up some form of discipline…to keep them intact and working, because Cyprus was such a dramatic change for them,” Sister Maureen said. “While we were in Cyprus it was fairly quiet [in Lebanon], which was good because everybody would have been very worried.”

“This last year is the first time I saw the staff diminished in terms of their emotional energy, so you see I had an obligation to them,” Sister Maureen reflected. “They had a great time in Cyprus, they really relaxed. Coming out they were unshaven, dirty, embarrassed about it. They had been deprived in every way, physically and emotionally.”

For herself, Sister Maureen said that her own levels of stress are minimized by a commitment to prudence and caution, a necessary priority in high-risk ministry like this.

“And it’s important to listen to local people who really know what’s going on,” she added.

On March 11, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, president of the Pontifical Mission and secretary general of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, interrupted an agency visit to Rome and to projects in Egypt to visit the staff in Cyprus. The visit was a complete surprise.

“By the time I saw them they were in great spirits,” he said. “While they were happy to get out of Lebanon, all seemed eager to get back.”

The following morning Msgr. Stern offered Mass for the staff and met with them. Bishara then submitted a report on the weeks since Jan. 31 upon which much of this story is based. Msgr. Stern told me he was struck by some of the children of the staff members, who have never known a Lebanon without war, and their reactions to simply living in a tranquil place for a change.

“The kids didn’t understand that they could simply be out on the street, that they didn’t have to worry about ducking inside because of shelling,” the monsignor recalled. “Just the freedom. You could just walk as you pleased.”

Everyone has since left Cyprus. The Pontifical Mission is back in the field in Beirut – to the extent that it is possible to work. At this writing, nothing has been resolved in the Christian enclave; generals remain intransigent, and the violence and killing rages away. Since returning, Bishara has managed to contact New York headquarters with a wireless telephone, and he has reported worse fighting than he has personally ever seen it.

I even managed to talk with him one morning, though we kept getting cut off. To use his wireless and be free of radio interference, Bishara has to position himself at as high an elevation as he can on those lovely foothills that rise so abruptly from the eastern Mediterranean. From a long way off, one can see how badly pockmarked the entire city of Beirut has become. And yet it was not hard for me to imagine what a beautiful place it once was, the “Paris of the Middle East.”

“We try to keep going, but to make the field visits is difficult,” Bishara’s voice crackled. He said that now there is no electricity at all – at least in his sector of the city – and water is not available but for fountains and springs. He also complained about the abundance of military checkpoints that have to be crossed to travel any distance, and how they consume so much time. “The needy child program is OK, but it’s difficult for the people to get to the office.

“But everybody is amazingly great,” he assured me. “This is more than a routine job. We are taking our work home, even if during the whole night there is shelling. We all feel more needed at this time.”

Thomas McHugh is editor of Catholic Near East.