From Damascus to Beirut: Arriving, Safely
By Medea Benjamin
Four of us—Gael Murphy, Judith LeBlanc, Diane Wilson and myself—split off from the rest of the group in Syria to make our way to Lebanon. Normally it would be a hop and a skip to go from Damascus to Beirut, but the southern border between the two countries had been bombed and was unpassable and the Beirut airport was closed. The only way to get in seemed to be making a big circle—driving all the way north, then west and entering from the top of Lebanon, and then driving south to Beirut. Even that northern road had just been bombed, and it wasn't clear from the Syria side if it had been reopened.
So we stopped at several places to ask—the Red Cross, the bus stations, the big hotels—but found differing opinions. So we decided to just take our chances, setting off in a lovely little green bus that belonged to a guy we had met the night before at a café. He had wanted to take us all the way to Beirut, but his brother, who owned the bus, said it was too dangerous. So we agreed to take us instead to the northern border and drop us where we could walk across and find another vehicle on the Lebanese side.
The ride was lovely and our driver entertained us by singing traditional Arab songs along the way. After about four hours, we reached Hums and then the northern border with Lebanon. There we met a sweet man who agreed to take us—for free—to Tripoli. Little did he know, however, that what should have been a five minute border crossing turned into a several hour wait. Why? Because Judith had traveled through Israel to the West Bank five years ago as part of a religious delegation and had an Israeli stamp in her passport. The border guards, in turned out, were both Christian and Muslim, and we happened to hand our passports to the Muslim guard who combed through them, obviously looking for the offending stamp.
From there, he called in to the Foreign Ministry, called our contacts in Beirut, and kept up waiting for several hours before finally giving her a 72-hour entry visa, while the rest of us were given a month. And while the rest of us got stamps in our passports, Judith got a separate piece of paper with a stamp because Lebanese stamps could not be placed in a passport sullied with an Israeli stamp. The Christian guards laughed at their Muslim friend for being so dogmatic—they said that if they had discovered the Israeli stamp they would have ignored it. But even the Muslim guard was good-natured and even apologetic. “We're at war, you know,” he said as he bid us goodbye with a smile.
The nice man who waited with us for hours at the border was a taxi driver who had been traveling the route from Lebanon to Syria every day for the past several weeks, taking out families who were fleeing the violence and then returning to Lebanon empty. He, as many others, were amazed that we wanted to GO to Lebanon while the war was going on. We was a Christian who didn't seem to have much compassion for the Muslims suffering in southern Lebanon. But he was happy to practice his English with us (he had worked at a gas station in Texas for a few months) and have the company . He apologized for not taking us all the way to Beirut, but gasoline was hard to get now that the country was under siege. Instead he dropped us in Tripoli at a bus stop where we could catch a ride to Beirut.
About seven hours after leaving Damascus, we arrived in Beirut hot and exhausted but delighted we had arrived—safely. The three bomb blasts that shook our hotel later in the night reminded us, however, that not everyone in Beirut was safe…