WORLD

Beleaguered Beirut

The Arab League calls another ceasefire

May 8 1989
WORLD

Beleaguered Beirut

The Arab League calls another ceasefire

May 8 1989

Beleaguered Beirut

WORLD

LEBANON

The Arab League calls another ceasefire

The guns fell silent in and around war-battered Beirut late last week after an Arab Leaguebrokered ceasefire halted 52 days of artillery exchanges in which 273 civilians died and almost 1,000 were injured. From the divided Lebanese capital, Maclean’s correspondent Lara Marlowe reports:

In more than 14 years of savage civil war, the Lebanese people have seen hundreds of ceasefires come and go—often within hours. So, understandably enough, few are setting too much store by this one. The reaction of church custodian Raffoul Amm seems typical. “Pouf! The Arab League,” he said. “They haven’t been able to do anything to stop the fighting in 14 years. Why should they be any more successful now?” Amm stood amid the wreckage of his once-beautiful Greek Orthodox church in East Beirut’s Ashrafieh district. Its roof had been pierced by at least half a dozen rockets and mortar shells over the past

few weeks. The heavy gilt crucifix behind the altar had collapsed, and the deeply pitted floor was strewn with the shards of dozens of icons, many of them once of considerable value.

But at least the shelling—between Christian forces and Syrian-backed Moslem militias— had stopped for a time. And, however haltingly, Beirut residents were picking up the threads of some sort of normality. Shops were opening, people were lining up for gasoline and clearing away the dust and rubble as best they could; a few hardy souls were even crossing the socalled Green Line that divides Christian East Beirut from the Moslem western half of the city. In Ashrafieh, near the Green Line, a tall, moustachioed soldier in a camouflage uniform took an afternoon stroll, smoking a cigarette and cradling a baby in a pink jump suit against his shoulder.

Meanwhile, Gen. Michel Aoun, the Christian Lebanese army commander who is also one of the country’s two rival prime ministers, was

celebrating the Arab League’s intervention as a small diplomatic victory over the 40,000 troops from neighboring Syria who occupy part of Lebanon. Aoun’s strategy is clearly to internationalize the conflict, and it is no secret that he would prefer American, French or United Nations intervention to help him achieve his objective of driving the Syrians, backed by their Lebanese Druze militia allies, out of the country. But he plainly sees the Arab League ceasefire call—and its commitment to send in 300 observers to monitor that ceasefire—as a useful start that will weaken Syria's hold over Lebanon’s affairs. “It is not a solution but a step towards a solution,” he told Maclean’s at his headquarters in a bunker beneath the presidential palace in Baabda, an East Beirut suburb.

One reason why the thickset, 55-year-old Aoun would prefer Western or international intervention is that, like many of his co-religionists, he does not identify fully with the mainly Moslem Arab world. Asked if he was comfortable with the idea of Lebanon’s socalled Arab identity, he replied in fluent English: “It doesn’t mean a thing. The thing that means something is what kind of life you are living. You are free or you are a slave. I want Lebanon to be a Western nation with human rights.” Aoun insisted that he wanted Israel’s troops, who maintain a protective buffer zone in southern Lebanon, to leave his country, as well. “I have the right to kill any foreigner here, because here is my home,” he said. “I have the right to fire on the Syrians, the

Israelis, the Iranians or any other foreign forces who are here without my acceptance.” It was Aoun’s bold action in blockading unofficial ports controlled by Moslem militia— coupled with boasts that he would drive the Syrians out—that sparked Lebanon’s latest orgy of bloodletting. In response, shelling by the Syrians and their Moslem allies effectively closed official ports, such as Jounieh in the Christian enclave, 16 km north of Beirut. Now the Arab League has called for all air, sea and

land blockades to be lifted. But it is not clear whether Aoun considers that call to include the unofficial ports, where millions of dollars in what he labels “illegal” duties were levied by Moslem militias until he closed them by force. Asked if he would let the “illegal” ports start functioning again, Aoun said obliquely, “If the Arab League wants them open against international law, let them assume that responsibility.”

Aoun made it clear that he wants the imme-

diate reopening of Beirut’s international airport, which is located on the edge of the Moslem zone. But by week’s end, the Syrianbacked cabinet of the rival Moslem prime minister, Selim al-Hoss, had not given approval for the airport to reopen. And observers warned that if it remained closed, and Aoun did take new action against the Moslem-held ports, the ceasefire would be in danger of breaking down.

Despite the atmosphere of uncertainty, the ferry service between Jounieh and the Cypriot port of Larnaca, 130 miles away, seemed likely to resume quickly. It had been an escape route for thousands of Lebanese Christians until heavy Syrian shelling forced its suspension on April 24. But while those who could were fleeing, there were still some who wanted to return from abroad. Three days before the ceasefire, Paul and Roula Semaan and their small son, Zaid, managed to get three seats on a Lebanese Air Force helicopter that was returning to the Christian enclave from Cyprus. Roula was eight months pregnant, but determined to get home for the delivery of her baby. “When you are on the outside,” she said, “you hear so many rumors. You think the whole country has been destroyed, that everything is flattened.” She added, “It’s better to be at home at such a time.” In that sentence she conveyed something of the extraordinary resilience which Lebanese of both religions have displayed for so many terrible years. □