Memories of living in Beirut 1981 - 1985


Over the last few months I have dipped into several threads here, mostly with anecdotes concerning time I spent in Beirut in the early 1980's. It was suggested that I might like to expand a little and start a dedicated thread. This is it. I expect it will interest some more than others and will result in positive, negative and at times hilarious criticism.

Some years ago I wrote some notes of my time in Beirut and the trip that led me there. This write up is from those notes with additions that pop up in my mind as I write it. Spelling of Arabic words written in English are as close as I can get them.

I was a volunteer in a school for deaf children on the outskirts of Beirut from late 1981 to mid 1985, most of what I'm going to write concerns the time I was living and working in Beirut but first I'll explain how I ended up there.

I'd been in the police from 1978 to the end of 1980 and my friend Tim had spent a year in Jordan with Project Trust. We planned to hitch to Jordan and then go on to Bangalore in India where he had family connections.

April 15 1981: we were dropped off at a Layby on the London Road, Ipswich to hitch to London. I had £100 in traveller's cheques drawn on Grindlays Bank. That evening we caught the Magic Bus to Athens via Eastern Europe. We spent four days in Athens then tried to hitch to Thessalonica. Got 30km in one day so decided the take local busses which took another day but was cheap. We spent a night near the railway station in an abandoned wagon. It had seemed OK the night before but smelt badly of pee the next morning. From Thessalonica we took a local bus to the Greek-Turkish border. Entering Turkey we got an OTO STOP (hitching) stamp in the passports. No vehicles with passengers were crossing so we joined a coachload of tourists from the Greek side who had walked across unchaperoned and so we got on a Turkish bus to Istanbul for free. Passports were checked before the coach left but our hitching stamps went unnoticed.

Istanbul was a real eye opener for a 20 year old, the grand bazaar, the mosques. Walked round a corner and saw two bears dancing in the street, it would be shocking now but times were different. The film Midnight Express having only recently been released was much on my mind, even so, a visit to the Pudding Club seemed obligatory even though I only had a glass of tea. We spent four days there and then got the express train to Ankara and another train through Adana to the border. Having been on these trains several times we bought some yoghurt and biscuits to take but these ran out after 24 hours so off to the dining car. The train had been stopping and shunting back and for a lot since setting off so the fact that we were stopped on a hillside was unexceptional.

Istanbul April 1981.JPG

The carriage door was locked but it was a simple matter to go out of the side door and enter the next carriage and continue to the dining car. Sitting there the train set off back the way we'd come faster than ever before which wasn't promising. The meal consumed we walked back to the end of the car and the door opened, suddenly there was no more train there. I had my passport and traveller's cheques but my rucksack was in the part of the train that wasn't there any more. Tim was in the same position.

A guard came along and sign languaged that the train had been split where the doors were locked and the bit we were on was going back to Ankara whilst our bags were on the way to the border. He seemed unconcerned at our predicament and wandered off, shortly afterwards the train stopped and the guard came back to let us know this was the place to get off. It was the middle of nowhere but with a single track road crossing the rail line. Having nothing to lose we got off and the train disappeared into the distance. Then a battered car came along the road and stopped, apparently it was a taxi and knew where we wanted to go, no idea how the driver knew but he did. His taxi was also full of people whom he made get out and we got in.

Driving along I saw the bit of the train I wanted still on the hillside but the driver refused to stop and let us clamber up the hill, he carried on and dropped us at a railway station. He could have Standing on the platform wondering how to ask if the train on a hill “somewhere over there” would be arriving here any time soon we were approached by a Turkish policeman. He didn't speak much English and we didn't speak much Turkish but on learning that I had been a Bobby he took us under his wing and let us wait in his office. He fed us hard boiled eggs – I'd never eaten one before (don't ask) and lots of glasses of tea and awful Turkish fags but they made a change from roll ups. Everyone wishing to cross the border to Syria had to get clearance from him and this had to be stamped on their onward ticket. We didn't have tickets yet but he solved this for us by calling in a couple of Syrians and confiscating their tickets which he handed to us. This was a dilemma – clearly it was theft/receiving stolen goods but we didn't want to piss him off either so, to my shame, we kept the tickets.

He told us Turkish police jokes which consist entirely of how quickly they can draw, fire and re-holster their pistols. So, a Turkish policeman is hanging from the branch of a tree but can let go, draw, fire and re-holster so fast he can grab the same branch again. Another standing in sunlight can draw, fire, re-holster before his shadow has moved. Etc. eventually after 4-5 hours the train came in and our bags were there, the sense of relief was immense. We said goodbye to our new friend and got the train to Aleppo in north Syria.

There we had a quick look round before making our way south, out of the city and started hitching again, a couple of local lorries stopped and picked us up. During the day we went through Hama and Homs and arrived in Damascus in the evening. We got a room in the Grand Hotel which was huge but not grand, we had a massive room with a bathroom in the middle of it made private by wood and pebble glass walls. Damascus was stunning after breakfast the next day. We had black tea with flat bread and sour cream, sliced tomatoes, cucumber and the like. We went to the bazaar and walked down a Street Called Straight with lots of bullet holes in the roof. I was offered £1,000 for my passport but declined – so far the whole trip apart from the Magic Bus ticket had cost £20-25 so £1,000 was a huge amount but naive as I undoubtedly was I suspected I might not actually see £1,000. we went to visit the Grand Mosque and to see the Hejaz Railway station which was beautiful and to a museum with part of the Koran carved into a single grain of rice.

We met a deaf man whom Tim already knew and went to the cinema to see Anthony Quinn in Omar Mukhtar. The cinema was brand new and the screen appeared to have been put at the top of the slope and the seats turned round to face it. This was fine for us as we were in the second row but as the rows went back they also went down instead of up so how people further back saw the film I don't know. There was uproar and wild support whenever the Italians were losing to the Libyans, a bit like a Saturday matinee at the flea pit when I'd been younger when the goodies got cheered and the baddies booed.

From Damascus we got a service taxi, this meant buying individual seats in a shared Mercedes car, there were also American cars doing this run but the majority of Near and Middle East taxis were Mercedes. Traffic was heavy going out of the city so our driver took to the pavement which was very wide at the point but in getting up the kerb he ripped the exhaust off. At the Syrian-Jordanian border the car had to drive over an inspection pit to ensure no contraband was hidden underneath we went off to get our passports stamped out of Syria and when we got back to the car the inspector passed it and we set off across no man's land to the Jordanian side. We were quickly through the formalities and set off sough into Jordan. We stopped at Ramtha where the taxi driver wanted to get the exhaust repaired. The mechanic looked at the torn off bit and then seemed to make a new piece without apparently taking any measurements. It sounded fine and stayed on and only took half an hour in total.

We got out of the taxi a Suweilah and got another taxi to Salt where Tim had spent his year. At Salt we were fed and lodged in return for labour in a school for deaf children, there was plenty of construction being done so I was able to pick up the rudiments of cement work, plumbing and glazing. Welding was and remains a total mystery to me. To continue to the gulf and India we had to cross Saudi so went to the embassy in Amman for transit visas. We didn't mention hitch hiking and they forgot to ask for our vehicle registration so visas were issued and we set off to the Saudi border beyond Zarqa (which had a black basalt castle used by Laurence in WW1.

At the border the guard watched us as we walked up and asked what we wanted? We said we wanted to go to the gulf by crossing Saudi. He laughed and said we'd need a transit visa which we couldn't have as we had no vehicle. We showed him what we had and he had to let us in. We went through the only baggage search of the entire trip and had to empty our rucksacks to show the Saudis we weren't smuggling anything. At this point we didn't have a lift at that point so had to wait at the border for several days begging lifts from passing lorry drivers. There were plenty of Brits delivering to Saudi including one caught in a sort of Groundhog Day whereby he got to the border with a load of hospital air filters which were in sealed boxes to keep them sterile. The Saudi border guards opened them all and they were then rejected by the hospital so he had to go round again. Another was carrying sections of steel pipe which you could look through with a torch, they all had to be unloaded and looked through.

We got lifts with a couple of Brit drivers, it took two to three days driving across the desert basically following the tap line, we slept on the lorry tilts, saw a rain flurry and one tree. Other then that it was uneventful. We arrived in Sharjah in the UAE one evening around mid May and found the address of a couple Tim knew from his time in Jordan. They fed us, gave us a bad and ensured that we washed the clothes we'd crossed Saudi in several times to get the grime out.

The daytime temperatures were in the high 90's and humidity was very high too. I'd never been in a climate like it, this was the first time I'd been outside Europe and even then I'd only had a week in Germany at Bunde with the Royal Anglians as a Cadet. I figured that the climate was only going to get hotter if we went to India so I told Tim I didn't want to go further. He took it well and didn't complain too much, to be honest I don't think he minded not going further but maybe that was just what I wanted to think.

We decided to head back the Salt but this time the Saudis wouldn't give us a visa so we had to fly. Back at Salt we continued labouring for our keep with the odd day trip to the Jordan valley, Wadi Wala or the desert castles. We had a room each and three meals a day as well as 15 Dinar per month which I seem to recall was between £15-£20. in July we decided to go to Cyprus for a week mainly because we could afford the flight. On the way we had a 24 hour stopover in Beirut and were lodged in a school for deaf children situated just outside Beirut on the Damascus highway. Beirut was calm at the time but there were sandbagged positions at many junctions and four Syrian tanks hull down, facing east Beirut, just outside the school. While we were there the director asked me what I was going to do when I left Jordan. I said I hadn't thought about it and he asked if I'd come to Beirut and volunteer there? I said I wanted to think about it but inside I was thrilled at the idea. Beirut was exotic and exciting compared to Salt and like most 20 year olds the thought of a civil war on my doorstep was a bonus rather than a worry.

We carried on to Cyprus and had a day in Limassol before catching a bus to the mountains where we slept out as we had sleeping bags. Back in Jordan I was counting down the days till we left in September to hitch back. In the beginning this was the reverse of the outward trip except that we arrived in Aleppo in the evening and planned to stay in the railway station sleeping on benches before catching the train to Turkey the next morning. Within 15 minutes a van load of soldiers turned up and 'arrested' us for vagrancy and took us to a boarding house where we paid 10 Syrian Pounds – about £1 each for a night without breakfast but with plenty of fleas. Once across the border we hitched rides on lorries to Istanbul and there waited 3-4 days at a lorry camp for a ride out to Europe. I was lucky and got a ride that took me all the way to Harwich. At first I was made to walk through borders with my rucksack but later on the driver let me stay in the cab as we crossed borders. I arrived in the UK in late September Tim went to uni. and I flew back to Beirut in November 1981.
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Arriving in Lebanon and checkpoints.

I was collected from the airport by Baghdo, an Armenian who was temporarily volunteering in the school, it was a Friday and the first day of a long weekend when the kids who could went home to give the boarding house staff a break. There was generally one long weekend a month. Some of the kids couldn't get home because their parents were overseas or because they themselves came from abroad to the school.

The school itself had about 80 kids when they were all there and was situated between Louezeh and Jamhour on the Beirut to Damascus highway just above Yarze where the Ministry of Defence was. Most days were clear and you could see much of Beirut spread out along the coast.

We turned off to the right beside a supermarket and the school building was in front of us. To our right were four Syrian T55 tanks and there was sometimes a guard mounted below the school to control who used the road behind the tanks. Louezeh-Jamhour was a predominantly Christian area and there was some level of animosity towards the Syrians. By the school the road split, the right hand section going towards Baabda where the Presidential Palace was and the left hand road going uphill past several houses on the left and the College Notre Dame de Jamhour on the right before curving left and rejoining the highway.

Syrian T-55, Beirut, Spring 82.jpg

There were several buildings used as boarding houses, the top floor of the school itself, a flat on a small block further up the hill called the Avedian Building and then there were two almost Swiss style buildings, one called The Boy's Home and the second The Old Rectory. There was also a building on a level with the Boys Home but on the main highway called Pepsi Cola – there was a big pepsi advert on the roof – where the girls and very small boys lodged. The Old Rectory was where the school Director lived, he was a Dutch Anglican priest who had founded the school in the late 50's. He was on a sabbatical year in Greece for the scholastic year 1981/2. I was lodged downstairs in the Old Rectory to begin with.

There were no teachers present when we got to the school, Mary, the Matron and a Jordanian was there and two girls who lived in Saudi Arabia. I had seen and eaten all the same food in Jordan so tucked into salads and things for supper then spent half the night sitting on the loo and leaning over a handily place basin as part of the process of getting used to the local water.

After the weekend the school reopened and filled up with kids and teachers and several more volunteers appeared, both Dutch. Piet looked after the Boys Home and Marianne looked after Pepsi. To begin with I didn't have any specific duties, I filled in where necessary which meant watching the kids in the playground at break times and after supper driving the girls back to Pepsi. They walked to school in the morning in a long crocodile unless it was raining heavily in which case they got picked up. I also sometimes drove the acting Director, Mr. Samir to Beirut when he needed to go there.

The vehicle I used was an orange coloured VW bus, driving in Beirut was best described as exuberant. It often seemed as if I was trying to fit into a Red Arrows display whilst everyone around me tried to fit into someone else's display. Along with the driving I quickly had to get up to speed on the military situation. There were Lebanese or Syrian army checkpoints, militia checkpoints from several Muslim and Christian factions as well as Palestinian checkpoints from several groups (splitters!) present in Beirut. I also drove to town with Baghdo who was much more streetwise than Samir. Baghdo drove another VW bus with a larger engine which wasn't completely bolted to the chassis and would jump around in the engine compartment if you tried to reverse uphill.

Most checkpoints were straightforward, you joined the inevitable queue of traffic and inched forward, rolled your window down when you to the front produced some form of ID and had a quick chat with the guys. Some were flying checkpoints where guys got out of an APC or tank and stopped traffic – these tended to Lebanese army as other armies and militias usually wanted to control entry or exit to their territory. Often they were sandbagged positions with chairs at the street edge by a building that was used as resting or sleeping quarters for the guys not on the checkpoint. The Syrians seemed to have the most professional looking checkpoints with generally alert looking soldiers often wearing helmet and chest webbing and with an AK47 slung across their chests. Palestinian checkpoints could be sinister as particularly near the green line in down town Beirut nobody was in view, there was a sandbag enclosed firing slit and you had to slow or stop and then guess if the point was manned or not and if you thought it was you waited a little longer for an objection to you presence to be raised or not then carried on hoping you'd done the right thing.

Factions would often 'sell' a newspaper as a tax on passage and you could end up with several. I tried to prop the right one up in front of a box of tissues on the dash but if you were faced with a militia checkpoint in an unfamiliar area, getting the religion right was not always enough. I only got it wrong once and they must have taken pity on the foreign ******** as the guy reached into the bus through the window and removed the offending incorrect newspaper and dropped it in his brazier.

As a foreigner you also had to decide whether to use English and risk either having to wait until an English speaker was found to ask you questions or give an off the cuff language lesson as the price of passage. If you were in a Christian area French would work and I was starting to learn Arabic albeit very ungrammatical and often quite rude. Basically you wanted to answer as few questions as possible as one question could lead to another and even an innocent trip could be misconstrued in a world where paranoia and conspiracies made people more likely to misunderstand motives.
Beirut, June 81.jpg
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Day to day I was driving down into Beirut, more often to the east (predominantly Christian) side but also to the west (predominantly Muslim and Palestinian) side. the border between east and west was called the green line. As much business as possible was conducted on the east side for convenience but if a particular embassy or ministry had to be dealt with then you had to cross over to the west. The port was in both east and west Beirut but the airport was in south Beirut accessed via the west side. Queues were often long to cross and depending if there was fighting in a particular part of the city then pressure would mount on crossings in other parts. It was unusual for all crossings to be closed. Roads parallel to crossings were often closed with earth embankments that were supposedly either mined or covered by snipers. From time to time particular roads near the green line were subject to sniper fire and you either had to go another way or drive as fast as you could if there was no alternative. The post office where the school rented a post box was also near the green line and this too was sometimes covered by snipers.

The post office had to be approached on foot and you would see men hanging about on corners as you got nearby, they would tell you which side of the street to run down and where to stop, which corner to turn so that you could go and get the mail. Stupid when I think about it nowadays, just go back tomorrow but you had invested considerable time and effort to get this far so why not carry on. It never occurred to me not to pick up the mail and whilst I sometimes ran the gauntlet I never heard anything passing by particularly closely. You often did hear shooting and this may have masked sniping. The Lebanese outlook and joie de vivre often meant that whilst there was shooting going up and down one street life would go on as normal in streets parallel.

Most of the militia fighting when I was there was not to take land or resources but to protect what you had and possibly a bit of shelling to disrupt someone else's electricity or water supply.

The first shooting I actually saw was about mid December when the kids were in the playground after lunch, several of the tanks by the school opened up with heavy machine gun fire onto the highway a hundred yards away. I never found out what it was for although several teachers muttered about a stolen car and there was no return fire. The Syrians soon went back to drinking tea and smoking.

As Christmas approached both east and west Beirut had decorations in shop windows and the weather turned from cold to cold and wet. There was snow a few kilometres distant in the hills and stories of Syrian detachments cut off and starving – something which apparently happened most winters in Lebanon.

The school emptied for Christmas except for Piet, Marianne and myself, once or twice we were invited to the homes of teachers who lived locally but New Year' Eve we were on our own and made supper and had a couple of Lebanese beers whilst waiting for midnight. What happened was spectacular. Happy fire, mostly but not exclusively Syrian. The ratio of tracer was high and the sky over Beirut as far as you could see was lit up with wavering lines of light going into the air. Naturally there injuries and fatalities every New Year.

Tensions in Lebanon crept up from January, more overflights by the Israelis, more fighting in town, more preparation by the Palestinians – I only saw more sandbagging but people hinted weapons and ammunition stockpiling. Of course, this being Lebanon life carried on and most weekends I would drive a bus load of the bigger kids down into west Beirut to go shopping. West Beirut was favourite either to Hamra (roughly equivalent to Oxford St.) or to Raoche on the seafront where there was a flea market and you could get most things a duty free prices because the Lebanese customs and excise was both overwhelmed and well bribed. There were always lot of PLO shopping there, generally they sported red berets just put on like a flat cap, sitting on top of the head. Olive green fatigues really rubbish looking boots and an AK47 with a bag of shopping hanging from the foresight. They were probably levying taxes of their own as much as buying stuff but I never saw any trouble caused. People did get out of their way though.

The first time I drove to Hamra was the time I learn the Arabic word, Maloum! Which translates s 'of course.' I was taught it by Hussein, one of the senior deaf boys. We were driving down Hamra Street looking for a specific shop, we'd been round several times and traffic seemed to be getting heavier. The third time we drove down the street I turned to Hussein and asked if he knew where he was going his face lit up and he said, 'Maaloum!' that was when the policeman stopped me and pointed out that this was the third time I was going the wrong way along one-way Hamra street. He thought it was funny and Hussein charmed him chatting about stupid foreigners and pitiable deaf children until he let us go. To date Hussein still hasn't apologised either.

Late winter and early spring were very wet and when there was heavy rain in the mountains the drains would fill very rapidly and lack of cleaning and maintenance would be come obvious when pressure built up in the system to the point that manhole covers would be forced tens of feet into the air.

in the Spring I met a teacher from the local school for blind kids round the corner from us at Baabda and thought it would be interesting for some of the deaf kids to visit the blind school. I hadn't thought this through at all so when we arrived at the blind school the deaf kids were using sign language that the blind kids couldn't see and the blind kids were greeting the deaf kids by feeling their faces. all in all it wasn't one of my more successful ideas. We didn't stay long.

At Easter it was decided that we would drive Baghdo's VW to the school in Jordan, it needed a bit of maintenance and this was often expensive and of questionable quality in Beirut. The school in Jordan had a very good workshop for vocational training of deaf mechanics run by a one-legged Swiss mechanic who zero sense of humour but could fix anything. We set off first for Damascus and then for Salt.

Although I had a visa there weren't many British crossing and the procedure wasn't clear to anybody. I handed my passport through a window and it was put at the bottom of a pile about a foot high. You then waited until your name was called from behind the closed door to another office when it was your turn. The other office was the Mukhabarat or secret police and names were spoken rather than shouted so you had to listen keenly especially as the reading process mangled my name spectacularly. Once in the Mukhabarat office they wanted to know in broken English what I was doing in Beirut and why I wanted to go through Syria. I kept to English as they didn't speak much and I kept my answers simple. Eventually one of them cracked and said, 'Margaret Thatcher! Strong woman.' This was a subject that fascinated Arabs, a strong woman leader. Broke the ice at parties.

Once clear of the border it was plain sailing to Damascus and then to Jordan A week later we retraced our steps to Beirut.

Whenever President Reagan's Middle East Envoy, Phillip Habib visited Lebanon fighting would erupt or intensify as would overflights by Israeli aircraft, generally these were pretty high altitude flights but occasionally they felt the need to make their presence felt and would go through the sound barrier over the city. Looking back I guess most flights were scoping to Syrian SAM batteries in the Bekaa valley.

1982 was the 25th. Anniversary of the founding of the school in Beirut so a weekend of festivities was planned with kids taking part in activities on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday with parents, ministry staff, ambassadors and local dignitaries invited for the piece de resistance which would take place on Sunday 6th. June.

The school was spring cleaned for classroom visits and a stage was built for a show put on by the kids. Then, on Thursday 3rd June the Israeli Ambassador to London was shot I think by The Abu Nidal Palestinian faction. Israel bombed the Cite Sportif complex in west Beirut for which we had a grandstand view. The show went ahead on Sunday 6th. But by mid afternoon it was clear that in apparent reprisal for the London shooting, Israel had invaded south Lebanon.
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Well, that news put a damper on things. So as not to have all the kids in the same place at the same time the school encouraged parents who were visiting for the party to take their kids away with them. Over the following week 90% of kids had gone home. We often had power cuts in Beirut but they became the norm straight away once the invasion was on. This was a problem as the amount of AA fire meant a lot more shrapnel on the roads and therefore more punctures. The Armenians of Bourj Hammoud were more likely to have generators so you had to drive around shouting, 'carraba ga? Or 'electraganchun ga?' both meaning is there electricity, the first a mix of Arabic and Armenian and the second Armenian only, to which the reply was often, 'Chi ga' no there isn't or 'ga' yes there is.

The Palestinians meanwhile were smearing mud on their pick up trucks to reduce the shine and therefore visibility from the air and hiding pick ups with AA guns on the back in subways and under bridges, popping out when a plane came overhead, I can't imagine that they differentiated much between Israeli and Syrian planes though. They were enthusiastic and the altitude of the aircraft didn't seem to matter, if they could see it they would shoot at it.

On Tuesday 8 June the war came close to the school for the first time. We'd just started breakfast in the school so 0805, 0810 something like that. The kids were left were sat round tables in the canteen. There were three loud explosions overhead, the first of which broke most to the windows scattering glass across the food and tables closely followed by the second and then a moment or two later the third. Amazingly although the glass went onto the food and tables none of the kids were hurt.

I was told at the time it was a Mig-23 chased by an F15 and the Mig going into a nearby hill. Baghdo later that day gave me a piece of twisted metal from the Mig. Except I didn't believe him, it had lots of protruding rivets and looked a really rough dark green colour. (I'd never been close to a Mig and expected it to be sleek and shiny).

I binned the metal, wish I hadn't now as it probably was from the Mig but the Mig might have been a 21 rather than a 23.

That afternoon I, along with the senior boys that were left, dismantled the concrete benches in the playground and fitted them in front of the school chapel windows – they had been cast with just this eventuality in mind earlier in the civil war.

School chapel.JPG

The school chapel with the windows being blocked to stop shrapnel. A shorter bench was placed flat and tied to the window bars then a longer bench was used to brace it from the ground.

By now most of the kids had got home and the teachers were a lot less present the boys that remained at the school slept in the chapel as the most secure place we could put them. The girls were still in Pepsi but not for much longer.

An agreement for the Syrians to pull out of Beirut was reached and I expected the tanks in front of the school to go. They didn't, instead they were handed to the local Palestinian commander who also established a road block on the highway just by the turn off to the school.

Syrian T-55, Beirut, Spring 82.jpg

Syrian tanks in front of the school taken from within the grounds. The highway was just the other side of the building in the centre of the picture. The Palestinians blocked the highway just be the road leading to the school.

Around the Wednesday or Thursday I had driven the girls back to Pepsi cola which meant the new Palestinian road block and turning into the Pepsi driveway, dropping the girls and reversing back out onto the highway with the intention of carrying on up the highway for a few hundred metres then turning right and coming back down to the school. There was no other traffic on the highway which in more normal times - pre invasion, just the civil war – meant there was a sniper operating but now everyone was just staying home as much as possible. I passed the Palestinian checkpoint, dropped the girls, reversed out and was just pulling away when there were a couple of shots past the van.

They could only have come from the checkpoint and I had the only vehicle visible so they were meant to get my attention, which they did. I stopped (no point trying to run for it uphill in a VW bus painted orange) and put my hands up then reversed back to the checkpoint still with my hands up, steering with my elbows. I don't know what had spooked them, they had seen me less than two minutes before and once they realised who I was and what I had been doing they were OK and let me go with no harm done. I drove off rather shaken by the incident and almost fell over when I got out of the bus and what had happened came home to me. The next day we moved the girls from Pepsi into the Avedian building to minimise the need to be on the highway.

I was spending, as far as possible, one night in each of the school accommodation buildings to make them look inhabited. One evening having a shower in the boys home I looked out of the bathroom window to see an F16 flying low following the highway which was about one hundred metres or so away. I could clearly see the pilot's helmet in the cockpit so I ducked down and finished my shower fast. I have no memory of any shots being fired at the plane so I guess everyone else was keeping their heads down too.

The first item on the BBC world service at 0600 on Monday 14 June was that Israeli forces had reached Baabda overlooking Beirut. This was on our doorstep so whilst I was impressed to be so close to the item deemed important enough the first on the BBC news it meant that the military situation would deteriorate both soon and nearby.


At this point there were five or six kids left at the school either their families were overseas or they were from areas of the country already overrun. It was decided that I would drive the remaining kids and Mary, the Jordanian matron from the school and to the school in Jordan, via Syria. We had to negotiate this with the local Palestinian commander who wasn't letting people leave the area. After 24 hours he did agree that deaf children had no place in the fighting and that we could go.

It was the Wednesday or Thursday 16th. Or 17th. Of June when we left, I drove up the road beside the school so as not to have to go past the road block on the highway. Once we turned onto the highway it felt very eeire. We were the only vehicle moving which normally meant there was a sniper about but there wasn't. As we drove we were passing burning tanks in what looked like hastily prepared positions on bends in the road. Later I was told that the local Christian population had been contacting the Israelis and telling them where the tanks were, artillery did the rest. Given that this was happening it was difficult to know how fast to go, instinct said to go as fast as possible but the likelihood that news of us being allowed to travel might not have reached all the fighters on the road and the fact that they were being shelled intermittently meant that possibly caution was advisable.

One bizarre incident was when a single Palestinian fighter stepped out of trees by the road and flagged us down. I would my window down and asked him if he spoke English? 'Yes', he said. Then there was a pause, 'Can I help you?' I asked, 'Yes' he said. Realising that the conversation wasn't going to go any further I asked if we could go. 'Yes' he said. So we did.

Crossing the Bekaa valley to the border was surprisingly calm probably because by then the Israelis had largely finished with the Syrian air force and the SAMs they had in the Bekaa.

At the border I was lucky and the Syrians waived that fact that I didn't have a visa and stamped me into their country anyhow. The rest of the journey was very simple with just the odd stop for a pee or a sandwich and to cross into Jordan. We arrived at Salt in the late afternoon and having dropped the kids and had a shower I took the bus to fill it with petrol. At the filling station the attendant noticed the Lebanese registration and asked when and where I'd come from? I told him and he said that the news was reporting that Israeli forces had pushed up the highway just this afternoon. I took this with a pinch of salt as Lebanese radio had been announcing the attack for several days already. Later I found that he was right and we had been lucky to go when did.

From Jordan I flew back to the UK and was unable to get back to Beirut until 20th. September. I flew back to Jordan then got a taxi to Damascus and from there was able to get another with some local journalists who were going to cover the killings in Sabra and Shatila. The taxi driver didn't want me to tell the journalists what I had paid him for the seat in the car and gave me to understand that I was paying substantially less than the journos were. Now, whilst I'd love to imagine that I'm a great negotiator I suspect I paid way more than the journos did and the driver didn't want me to be angry with him. Anyhow, the journos were a genial bunch and one had big bag of fresh pistachios so we munched on those all the way to Beirut. They dropped me beside the road next to the school and I walked up the hill to the buildings.

Father Andeweg, the Director, was back from his sabbatical in Greece and had brought two more British volunteers with him, Sue and Keith and we were joined by Michael, another Brit who had just done a year in the school in Jordan. Michael was very practical but Sue and Keith less so, both devout Christians they had only seen Fr. Andy, as he liked to be known, in the stress free environment of Athens. In Beirut he was very different and you had to walk on eggshells around him.

The top floor of the school had been hit by mortars which were used in the Israeli assault on the Palestinian roadblock and tanks. The Palestinians had sensibly 'withdrawn' when the assault started and run through and around the school buildings, the mortars had followed them. For months afterwards we were finding bits of casing from 120mm mortars, usually phosphorous filled so that when we pulled them from the ground they often started burning again.

We cleared the buildings of wreckage and had no trouble in finding funds to rebuild as there was plenty of aid money for Lebanon following the invasion and the subsequent massacres in the camps. Even so, the school was closed for the academic year 1982/3 while the rebuilding took place. As the school was supported by Save the Children UK we had a visit by Princess Anne in November 82. she was only supposed to visit well controlled and secure sites in down town Beirut but wanted to go further afield. As there were British volunteers in the school we were chosen for the visit. It was very low key with only Lebanese army, Lebanese police and her own security detail to escort her. It made travelling circus seem quiet by comparison. She looked around and chatted to us and to the teachers before being whisked away again.


Book Reviewer
Christ, what a story. Fascinating stuff, do, please carry on - and let us know what you've been up to, since.


In early December I started writing cards as someone from the embassy had said they'd take and post them for me. I was sitting in the school kitchen and, as usual, there was harassing fire from four guns situated on a hilltop just the other side of the highway. They were firing into the Druze area of the Chouf mountains and sometimes were firing for up to 18 hours. I cannot imagine what it must have been like on the receiving end, it was bad enough being near the senders.... at one point I had written the card and was doing the envelope and suddenly I couldn't remember the guy's surname then a couple of minutes later I was wondering if I had his first name right, we'd been in the police at the same time and drank in the same pub in the town my parents lived in so I ought to have known these things. I guess disorientation is one of the points of harassing fire but if this was the effect it had on me during daylight then I pitied the poor buggers it was landing amongst come nightfall.

Between Christmas and New Year the weather was really bleak and not much could be done at the school so the volunteers and Father Andy made a couple of trips to placed we'd otherwise not have call to go to. The one that ticks in my mind was Dammour to the south of Beirut just off the coast road.

In 1976 during the early stages of the civil war a Christian militia had gone to a Palestinian Camp in east Beirut called Tel al Zaater, with support from the Syrian military they had killed some and thrown the rest of the Palestinians out. This was before ethnic cleansing became a popular term but undoubtedly it is what it was. In retaliation the Palestinians did that same thing to a Christian village, Dammour. In turn the Palestinians were cleared out by the Israelis in 1982. now much of the village was abandoned, one or two places were being lived or squatted in but mostly it was a sad place. It appeared to have been roughly cleared of ordnance as I don't remember seeing anything apart from empty cases. I did pick up a soviet map case which had PFLP written in biro inside, none of the maps were there nor were any any of the pencil or rubber slots filled. I also picked up a leather holster for a pistol that looks as if it is from a shoulder holster. I still have both and will post pictures at some point. We were very subdued as we left, the sadness of the place had really made us think.

Father Andy lived upstairs in the Old Rectory and in the evenings we would light a fire in the main sitting room downstairs and make a kind of punch to drink. Deaf adults who had already left school would sometimes visit and there was a TV and video player we could use. By now I was living in the Avedian Flats between the rectory and the school. Keith had inherited my old room in the rectory and Sue lived in the boys home next door to the rectory. Michael I think was living an a room in the school.

One thing pre-invasion I have just remembered – triggered by some music I'm listening to, was that I used to go once a week to the next village whose name escapes me (and it doesn't show on the map I have) because there was a video rental shop there and I'd rent three videos which would do the rounds of the various boarding houses then get changed the following week. The week Israel invaded I'd just taken out Raiders of the Lost Ark and For Your Eyes Only plus a film for the smaller kids. Due to the situation I was unable to exchange these films so we watched them a lot before I drove the kids to Jordan. They both hold strong memories for me and I have copies with me now I've more or less settled down. The music was Dire Straits – Communique. The VW bus I drove had an 8 track stereo in it and only two cassettes. One was Communique and the other was Supertramp. I don't know which album. The Lebanese tended not to use names but years for albums thus Communique was 79. Again, I have both Communique and a Supertramp greatest hits which has the tracks I remember. Sometimes when I hear them now at the right (or wrong) moment, they can bring me to tears.

Anyhow, back to by now 1983 and although still not officially open some kids did start filtering back to the school and gave everyone a wider focus than just the repair job they were engaged upon. This meant visiting government ministries looking for papers or support. I mostly got that job as my knowledge of Beirut was more than the other three. Baghdo had left the school over the summer and was looking to get a visa/green card to get to the States. I found the best approach to ministries and new to me government buildings was to befriend the doorman – they were all poor and working class and generally got treated poorly. Stopping for a chat with them often resulted in a shared cigarette or the production of a cup of Arabic coffee and as everywhere, they were a mine of information. They always knew who I should and shouldn't approach for a particular question. Then walking into the building and asking to see Mister or Misses So-and-so usually got me straight into the right office and saved an awful lot of sitting around and being shunted from place to place. By asking for someone by name there was an assumption that I knew the person I was asking to see and that they knew me.

Some days traffic was awful, often from east to west or vice versa. If you were sitting in a traffic jam the holy grail was an ambulance. If you timed it right then you could nip out of your lane into it's wake and get ahead, of course, everyone else knew this as well.

The school received donations of food from the Dutch government. Cartons and cartons of big tins if dried milk, tinned cheese which was OK on toast but pretty awful otherwise and tinned chickens. When quartered and roasted with a lot of garlic and lemon juice these tasted pretty good and in the school could make Sunday lunch the culinary highlight of the week. Nothing beat manooshie though, a local grocer would deliver it every Saturday to the school for breakfast. Basically an uncooked flat loaf has olive oil drizzled over it and zaater (wild thyme seed) is sprinkled on before the loaf is baked. That's a basic manooshie. On the one long weekend a month when the kids went home we'd go to the bakery and make our own which had chopped tomato, onion and some local cheese added to the oil and zaater before it was baked. This was much tastier than the basic version. There were some great places in town too, one of my favourites was near the Dutch embassy not far from the American University of Beirut.

When they invaded the Israelis were welcomed with rose petals strewn on the roads in front of the tanks in some Shiite areas that had suffered for years under Palestinian domination. When it became clear that the Israelis weren't going straight back home the suicide bombs started in the south of Lebanon and were reported on the evening news, usually with a video of the explosion and a martyr's statement by the bomber to be. It all seemed so low key. No shouting or bombast, sometimes it was a girl. There were also roadside car bombs and these filtered quickly up to Beirut and targeting seemed random. It was best not to think about that.

The teachers enjoyed teasing me about the noisy British helicopter that flew daily to the Ministry of Defence just over the hill from us, they were right, it really did seem noisier than everyone else's helicopters. Then there were the tiny British tanks which I think were Ferrets. The British had provided a small presence in the Multi National Force that had overseen Arafat's departure from Beirut for Tunisia and had come back after the killings in Sabra and Shatila. One sunny autumn afternoon when I was in the school grounds two land rovers went by with British troops in. I waved and so did they. They were surprised when I invited them in for tea but they came. They had to bring the land rovers onto the playground and we had tea there as they wouldn't leave their weapons – hardly surprising.


Michael, Sue and Keith only stayed for the one year so when I returned in early September 1983 after the summer break I was the only Brit and the only volunteer in the school. Around the 22nd. Or 23rd. of September I got a phone call from the British Embassy suggesting that I leave the area and preferably Beirut and that there was a ship at Jounieh that Brits could take to safety in Cyprus. The embassy people wouldn't say why they were telling me this. I said I'd only just got back and would be staying but thanks for the offer. It was made very clear to me that this was my decision and my responsibility if I stayed.

I stayed. What they knew and I didn't was that the Israelis were going to pull out of the Chouf mountains that night and head south. I went to sleep blissfully ignorant. I was woken up at midnight by the sound and impact of rockets falling in the street about 10m away. There was little I could do so I rolled off the bed and pulled my mattress down between myself and the wall and waited, expecting the wall to be blown in at any second. After a couple of minutes the rockets stopped and I could hear people from the building out on the street talking about what just happened. There was no screaming so I assumed that were no injuries and moved away from the wall and into an inner corridor. There were more rockets at 0300 but again I didn't see the point in getting up. In the morning it was clear that grad rockets had been used by the Druze, probably to target the Ministry of Defence.

The trees had all been stripped of bark and leaves and there was diamond shaped shrapnel from the rocket bodies everywhere as well as several rocket motor bodies and guidance fin assemblies. The next night I slept else where as there were refugees in the area who would squat in unoccupied buildings. At midnight and 0300 the same thing happened smashing the window in the room I was sleeping in but I was fine. When I went back to the Avedian building a rocket had landed closer to the building and shrapnel had shredded the window frame in the room I'd been in the night before. After those two nights there were no further grad rocket attacks.

There was occasional shelling nearby (there was almost always shelling somewhere). All the shells that landed near the school were from the Druze and sometimes they targeted a Lebanese army camp that had sprung up where the tanks had been the summer before. We had a chicken run beside the playground and one of the chickens always seemed to have a harder time laying her eggs than the others. One day when a shell landed closer than usual the egg popped out with no difficulty at all.

The Army put a sentry post near the bottom school gate, the soldiers were part of a new unit and not well trained, one morning there was the sound of a rifle cocking and two shots so close you could hear the spent cartridges clattering onto the road. Later that day I went to see what had happened and there were two neat holes in the road by the sentry box. I wanted to see what it would do the sentry said. On quiet Saturday afternoons the bigger deaf boys would go and chat to the sentries and one afternoon as I drove back to the school from Beirut I was surprised to see that two of our boys had borrowed the soldiers uniforms and M16s and were standing in the sentry box.

There were upsides to being there too, fresh almonds straight off the tree and Lebanese Almaza beer on a warm September evening after a frustrating day in Beirut made it all seem worthwhile.

Fresh water and an electricity supply were constant headaches. Father Andy sorted out the electricity by getting UNICEF to loan us a generator big enough to run the school. He then had a builder put a brick shed round it and the Israelis came and wired from the generator to the school. UNICEF weren't happy that their loaned generator seemed now to be a permanent fixture but they got over it. In reality it was very small change in comparison to the amount of kit they must have written off during the war. The water supply always went off when it rained hard in the mountains. Sand would wash down and clog the pumps and filters that supplied the area and that was that. Enterprising Lebanese with tankers would then sell filthy water sucked from a nearby stream. This water was so full of silt that the water tanks would then all need cleaning out so that when the municipal supply came back it wasn't instantly contaminated by whatever lurked in the mud.

Sometimes it would rain for days on end and there would be run off coming down beside the road outside the school. It was a fairly simple matter for me to put a half inch pipe into the run off with a hose attached to the bottom end, feed the hose across the road between two more steel pipes to protect it when vehicles crossed it and slowly fill a ground tank from which I could pump water up into the roof tanks. I also doubled the number of tanks on the roof to give us more capacity and time for when the supply went off again. In each downpour you had to wait until the second day so that the run off had cleared grit and twigs from it's path before putting the collection system in place.

Having learnt sign language and street Arabic so far during my stay I started taking an interest in the script so one of the teachers who taught the kids English started to teach me classical Arabic from ladybird books. It didn't improve my spoken language but did mean that I could read shop and street names and the like. We had a neighbour, Abu Michel, who ran a coach company. If he wanted to borrow something from the school then I was always praised for how clever I was to learn Arabic On the several occasions I wanted to borrow something from him I my language skills deserted me and he had no idea what even the simplest words coming out of my mouth meant. Funny that. His son, Michel, was a bit of a waster and I would sometimes drive round a corner near the school and find him dealing something out of the boot of his car, I never took an interest in this so as to maintain reasonable relations but there was always something furtive about him.

One day the municipality (or whoever was responsible) decided to resurface part of the highway by the school, it needed it as a lot of tracked vehicles had been up and down it and it was in poor shape. In typical fashion the resurfacing was just filling in the cracks then putting the thinnest possible layer of tarmac over the top. It looked good. Then the electricity company had to dig a trench across to lay a new cable, not a problem except that they must have damaged a water pipe but didn't tell anyone, just filled the trench in and went off to get paid. Then the water company came along and dug another trench to sort out their pipework. The road was a bit bumpy after this but still better than it had been.

In the Autumn of 1983 the Americans headquartered by the airport were being shelled by the Druze in the Chouf mountains. To counter this the USS New Jersey started firing her guns at the Druze in the hills. I couldn't hear the firing but in the dark the whole wet=stern horizon would go orange and seconds later the shells could be heard overhead and seen to land. It certainly reduced attacks on the Marines and also supported the Lebanese army holding a single outpost in the Chouf at Souk el Gharb.

On Sunday 23rd. October I was awoken at 0600 by a loud explosion followed by a smaller one several minutes later. The first was the truck bombing of the Marine barracks at the airport and the second a similar attack on the French HQ. Following the Israeli invasion Lebanon had seemed to slow it's spiralling descent out of control. Now the spiralling seemed to gain momentum again with more fighting between militias in the city, more attacks on the Israelis in the south and a general raising of tension.


Wholeheartedly agree; I have sent a link for this thread to an HO friend and colleague who has spent the last four years working in Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt.
I'm sure you friend will already have read it by Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation is a very good account of the civil war in Beirut.


In late February 1984 Muslim units of the Lebanese army turned themselves and their weapons over to the Shiite and Druze militias there and fighting broke out between several militias. One day two deaf men who had been pupils at the school and who were part of the Morabitoun militia were caught up in the fighting with Amal, the Shiite militia. It is worth mentioning that the Morabitoun AKA The Looney Tunes were known for being more savage and wild than most, in Lebanon such notoriety took some effort to gain as competition was stiff. Anyhow, these guys were in a room chatting in sign language which meant you concentrate on the person you are communicating with, they didn't see an Amal gunman appear in the doorway so he was able to shoot them both with his Kalashnikov. One was hit in the elbow and the other stitched across his torso but amazingly, nothing vital was hit. They both landed up in the Barbir Hospital on the western side of the city near the Madhaf (museum) crossing.

I was asked if I would go over there as outreach from the school to see how they were. I agreed and on Monday mornings I would drive to the east end of the crossing, park and walk across. At that time it was not possible to drive across. I would also go to a cafe to meet other adult deaf and do anything else that needed doing on the west side. One Monday in March I drove down and parked as usual and walked the few hundred metres from the eastern end to the western end of the crossing. As I got to the western end a policeman asked where I'd come from, I told him east Beirut and he said I should turn around and go back as the crossing was bout to close for an unspecified reason. Fair enough, good of him to tell me, I turned round and set off back. Within a few metres two bearded guys in jean jackets approached me and said they'd seen me go one way, now I was going the other way, what was I doing? Who are you, I asked (pretty stupid question, who did I think they were?) Who are we, they said, who are YOU?

I explained that I was British (British weren't being kidnapped at that point), a volunteer, worth nothing, worked with deaf people, wasn't a journalist, wasn't a diplomat, really wasn't worth them wasting their time on. As this was going on I was glancing around. None of the Lebanese police or army would meet my eye, they knew what was going on and weren't going to get involved. Eventually I produced my passport, their eyes lit and they snatched it before heading for a side-street Instead of thinking, I'll get another passport, I went after them. Once in the side-street they stopped and asked if I had a pistol? A what, I asked. They showed me one and stuck it up my nose while they frisked me. Further down the street we went into a building covered in posters of Khomeini. This told me they were from Islamic Jihad, not very good news. (Islamic Jihad didn't kidnap for their own political ends generally, they took people and acted as brokers, if you needed a specific nationality to trade or execute for effect they could supply you with one.)

I was put in a room with six or seven chairs and it filled up with bearded men curious to see what they had. They all took turns at asking questions and looking through my passport. They were interested to know if I had been to Israel and if I had a stamp in my passport. I had been to Israel in 1983 but didn't think I ought to tell them that. The Israelis had not stamped my passport but had stamped a slip of paper I had to keep hold of and surrender as I left the country. One of the guys actually went through my passport upside down but I let him get on with it. I stuck to the facts that I was British, a volunteer, worked in a school for deaf kids and had no value to them whatsoever. After half an hour of this they let me go.

I went back to the crossing but by now it was closed and I was stuck so I went to see the guys in hospital, took them some cigarettes and biscuits, they were OK, hoping to be home soon. I went to the café nearby and met some deaf adults there and then because summer was coming I went and bought some sandals. At this point someone came up behind me and put his hands over my eyes. It was a deaf man I knew, he didn't know what had happened and thought it was funny. It shook me badly so I didn't stop for a chat with him but returned to the crossing. It was still closed, they guys in jean jackets were still there and they nodded to me. I walked away from the crossing to a street that was parallel but blocked with earth berms. There might have ben a sniper or it might have been mined but I was feeling pretty bloody minded and didn't care so I climbed the berm at the Muslim and walked down the street, climbed the berm at the Christian end and went back to where the bus was parked and drove back to school.

This was part of the problem with a civil war, there is madness going on in one area and yet only a few hundred metres away life goes on as usual.

After that I varied the crossings I used, the days and the time of day. I also let my hair grow a bit longer and stopped wearing the green Barbour jacket and German para boots I'd been attired in so as to look less military. I don't know if it helped but I felt better.

I'd gone to Israel the year before with Father Andy, you couldn't go direct because Lebanon was in a state of war with Israel so we had to go via Cyprus. In Nicosia we stayed with a Chinese friend of Andy's, Cherry Black who he had got to know when she had the Chinese restaurant concession in the Commodore Hotel in West Beirut. She had a restaurant in Nicosia so naturally we ate there and the food was excellent. There was a party of Germans there and seeing me use chopsticks asked for a lesson. The thought of a British guy, travelling with a Dutchman from Lebanon to Israel via Cyprus and teaching Germans to use chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant tickled me. That afternoon Cherry locked her door and lost the key. Of the three of us I was best qualified to kick the door open so kick it I did and made a neat, shoe shaped, hole in the plywood surprising Cherry who had thought the doors to be solid. Luckily later that evening we flew on to Tel Aviv. From there we got a shared taxi (Sherut) to Jerusalem and stayed in the guest house of St. George's Cathedral. I can't remember why we'd gone but I took the opportunity to visit east Jerusalem which enchanted me, narrow lanes winding past shops, a typical Arab town but with Israeli security present everywhere. Nonetheless, it was a relief to be away from the pressure cooker life in Beirut for a few days. To see the old city in the setting sun as the honey coloured stone lights up it is easy to see why Jerusalem is called The Golden.

In the summer of 1984 it was decided to send some of the older kids to Holland for a holiday. One or two of them hadn't come back to school that year and two of them lived in south Lebanon. Was I prepared to go and try to find them and bring them back with me? Of course I was, I'd never been to the south. Mr. Samir took me to one side and said that there was supposed to be a new Shiite militia in the south but nobody had any details, apparently they were called Hezbollah. I said I'd still go and so with one thousand Lebanese pounds expenses money carefully hidden in the lining of my bag I set off south on the coast road, went past Dammour and then Saida and arrived in Tyr late in the afternoon. I saw a land rover with a UN plate on it parked at the roadside so stopped to ask where the driver was. He was in a nearby café and turned out to be a British guy called Derek, working for the UN to try to reconcile opposing communities, mostly be arranging football matches as far as I can recall. Hearing that I was looking for a couple of nights accommodation he gave me a key and directions to his flat and told me to tell the family over he road that he had said it was OK for me to be there.

I found the place and spoke to the family who invited me to supper with Derek when he came back later in the evening. He had a flak jacket in the sitting room which I tried on before he got home. It turned out he'd been given it by BRITFORLEB, the British contingent of the multi national force in Beirut, he hadn't been asked to sign for it and nobody had wanted it back. I wanted it quite badly but was too shy to ask him for it and also didn't know how I'd explain it if I was stopped by the wrong people. We went over the road to his neighbours for supper of fried eggs and flat bread with Pepsi and tea. We ate on the roof looking over the Mediterranean. It was so much more relaxed than Beirut. The next day I set off to look for the kids. One family was meant to be in Tibnine and the other in Bent Jbail.

Driving around and finding places was pretty simple and the only checkpoints I remember were UNIFIL. The Fijians were the best, they would invite me to stop and have a Pepsi with them. They were probably bored. Getting to a town or village and asking the first person I saw for a family called So-and-So with a deaf child produced results almost straight away. I'd decided to start with the furthest away, Bent Jbail and I soon found the family and the kid all of who were fine except he didn't have a passport. They promised to have him ready for the next day with a bag packed and a passport and they were as good as their word. I found the second kid in Tibnine too and arranged to go and get him tomorrow to drive back to Beirut.

Another rooftop supper, this time with a power cut, to make me feel like it was Beirut the family joked. The next morning I collected the kids and we drove back to Beirut never having had a sniff of Hezbollah.


One day I had to deliver gas bottles to the Pepsi building – all heating and cooking was done on bottled gas and the school had a regular delivery from the distributor but it was my job to ensure that the boarding houses and indeed the school kitchen always had spares for when one ran out. The school rented the ground floor of the Pepsi building and a the family that owned the building lived upstairs. I pulled off the highway and parked in the drive, there were some boys playing in the garden and something made me go and look at them. They were playing with an unexploded 81mm mortar. The nose cap had broken off and the whole thing was painted white. It had been fired, quite apart from the broken nose cone there were scratches on the body where it had landed heavily. To be honest I was less concerned about the boys playing with it but I didn't want it to detonate and injure any girls in the boarding house, I also didn't particularly want to do anything with it myself but I knew that if I told the boys to stop playing with it they would just laugh so I delivered the gas as quickly as possible not telling anyone in the boarding house what was happening outside or they would have come out to look. Then I took the mortar from the boys and wrapped it in a blanket in the back of the bus and gingerly drove it off to a nearby stream and placed it as gently as I could in the deepest part I could find. (In 2008 chatting to an EOD tech I discovered that it would have been an illumination round rather than HE but it would still have made a mess of people's day so I did what seemed the least worst option available at the time.)

Fighting in our area slackened off so it was decided to replace the windows lost over the previous few months. I got quite good at glazing and cutting larger bits of broken glass down to fit smaller windows but I screwed up royally when asked to measure the windows and order the glass for the Avedian building. This had large sliding windows and I got the dimensions spot on, what it got wrong was the thickness of the glass, I ordered 6mm instead of 4mm. Oops. It was all cut and delivered then we tried to fit it....

I went back to the UK for Christmas 1984, the situation was good enough to fly from Beirut airport, I arranged for a trainee teacher to give me a lift to the airport on the morning of my flight. He didn't turn up on time so I tried to call his family home but there was a problem somewhere on the line. I called a local taxi company and they agreed to come and get me. Then the teacher turned up with a friend, I left some money for the taxi driver and we set off. We drove down to Hazmiyeh and turned left towards Galerie Semaan with Chiah beyond. This was a long and straight road which led to a roundabout that would take us left to the airport. The crossing from east to west was completely open, no checkpoint of any kind and as we crossed over Habib, the trainee teacher, reached under his seat and produced an automatic pistol, checked the magazine and cocked the weapon. I suspect this was mostly posturing but it didn't fill me with confidence. Anyhow, they delivered me and must have got back OK as he was still at the school when I got back in early January 1985.

as well as other duties I was now housefather to the older boys who lived in the school and slept on foldaway beds in the main playroom which was used when it was too wet to go outside, this was on the top floor under the roof which was corrugated asbestos. Most evenings there was shelling in the hills above the school and if it came close I would move the boys downstairs to either the teachers sitting room which faced Beirut and away from the hills or into chapel. This seemed to be necessary once or twice a week.


In late January I was issued a work permit which even as a volunteer I needed. I showed it to Mr. Samir and he laughed. Apparently it says I own the school. On the strength of getting the work permit I can apply for a residents permit, funnily enough there didn't appear to be long queues applying for either when I went to get mine. The first came from the Ministry of Labour in Chiah and the second from the Surete at the far end of Furn el Chebbek. When I'd gone to the Ministry of Labour I'd parked in a side street nearby. When I had the permit I went back to the bus and was about to turn onto the main street when shots cracked past both up and down the road. I went back to the school a different way.

Back in September 1983 I'd had to take another way back to the school other than the one I'd intended. I was in the south of west Beirut in the afternoon and it was Ashoura, the day Shiite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein in 680 at Kerbala in Iraq. Processions, often dressed in black or white march along, beating themselves with chains to draw blood.

The Shiites of south Beirut are particularly demonstrative as I was about to find out. I was driving slowly down a side street intending to turn onto the main road and head home. I was going slowly because of the number of pedestrians, as yet I was unaware of anything special going on. I stopped at the junction, I had to anyway as there was a crowd lining the road with their backs to me. Looking past them I saw the procession. Adolescents and young men were marching along many with a stone wrapped in cloth which they were beating against their foreheads, the intention being that blood would run down as far as their belts.

Most of them were successful but for those that weren't there were men on the edge of the crowd who would pull a lad out of the procession and tap him on the forehead two or three times with a straight edged razor, just light taps but it did the job. Nobody minded or said anything. I'd never understood the phrase about feeling your blood run cold but that is the best way I can describe how I felt then. I backed up as quietly as I could as I felt that whilst nobody was hostile I could as easily be torn to pieces as not. I shared no values with the marchers and at no point could our lives compare. I witnessed Ashoura in south Tehran in 1991 and it was like a carnival compared to what I'd just seen. I drove back a different way.

I was issued my Residence Permit a couple of weeks later. The next day I was aback down in Beirut collecting 395 boxes of tins of milk, each box contained 6 large tins so I must have made several journeys, the next day I had awful backache. At the moment when I'm not driving they have got me typing up kids case histories to submit to a western charity for funding. I'm much happier driving than typing so drag Beirut tasks out as much as possible.

The woman who represents Save the Children took me to lunch in Beirut with Lady Roberts, wife of the British Ambassador. God knows what I'm doing in such exalted company. I was given two messages. Firstly, if I'm ever stuck in the West I'm not to walk over any more earth barriers but check into an hotel at SCF's expense, secondly, how much longer do I see myself as a volunteer at the school and what might I do when I do leave. Interesting and thought provoking.

According to my diary I spent several days clearing blocked drains round the school, they may have blocked as we are using less water. When the municipal water is flowing it comes at a certain time each day and then goes off. I have discovered that deaf children will turn on a tap and if nothing comes out they wander off leaving the tap open, then, when the water does come it flows straight out of the tap and we still have no water. As a result of this I have been changing as many taps as possible to ones you push on and which then turn off automatically.

In early March on one particular day I had to drive to Beirut three times, twice to the airport because the first flight was Father Andy leaving to Holland and Father Andrew who ran the Jordan school had to fly back in the early afternoon and then I had to drop someone in west Beirut who visited the school late in the afternoon. The boys bedtime was 2200 but as I was very tired they agreed to sort themselves out and I went to be early. Next morning I went downstairs to fine some of the furniture moved about in the teacher's sitting room. I went back upstairs and asked the boys if they had been down in the night? Yes, they said, the shelling woke them and was coming closer so they went downstairs but didn't wake me as they knew how tired I was. I explained that in such a situation it didn't matter how tired I was and they have promised to wake me next time.

By late March Mr. Samir was starting to get worried that I might be kidnapped in west Beirut. Inexplicably on Wednesday of the following week I was asked to go to west Beirut The next Sunday was palm Sunday and fifty deaf adults came to lunch at the school. One of them then stole the school dog! On the following Wednesday we took the kids in a coach to Faraya in the mountains for a day in the snow. During the day the school dog was returned....

Beirut loved cease fires, they had hundreds while I was there. Many were simply ignored and fighting didn't stop at all but my favourite cease fire began at midday one day, the shelling in town stopped and everyone took a breath. It lasted 6 minutes before the shelling started again.

Fighting was on and off all Spring. We closed for an Easter break and then reopened with few kids coming. Father Andy is away as is Mr. Samir at the moment. There is a long weekend coming and the teachers are asking me (ME!) if we should reopen after the long weekend. I called Mr. Samuel, the only committee member I could get hold of and he said do what you think best, great, thanks for that support then. The upshot is the from Monday 6th. May we'll close for a week and see what happens. Deep down the teachers are all afraid of Father Andy, he's not even here. Mr. Samir came back on Thursday, naturally this week has been quiet so in fact we could have been open, you just can never tell.

Father Andy returned in early June and has asked me to stay next year as well. I'm not sure, I can't go to west Beirut, I can't go very far south and I can't got to the Bekaa valley. My world is getting smaller almost by the day. Apart from west Beirut I rarely went to the Bekaa or the south but it is just knowing that I can't is weighing on my mind. Father Andy left again on the 11th. of June I suspect he wants me to stay to keep him up to date with what the teachers are saying and doing. I'm not interested in that.

Yet again some kids will go to Holland for the summer, this time I don't have to find any of them but I will accompany them to Holland via Jordan and then hop on a ferry back to the UK.

Making bookings in Beirut is always a lottery, on several occasions I have flown to Jordan on Alia and gone to get a connecting flight to Europe only to find that the onward flight doesn't actually exist, not it's full, it doesn't exist. The Jordanians must be sick of the Lebanese travel agents doing this to them. They were always good to me and put me on other airline's flights to get me to where I wanted to be with the shortest delay and the least hassle. So, I went to a different travel agent this time and made bookings for myself and the kids to fly to Amman and then on to Holland the next day with an overnight in the transit hotel at the airport. Once the booking is made you had to keep going back to get confirmation and the tickets. Phoning was no good even if you could get a line, you had to look them in the eye and get a yes or no for best results. I got confirmation of the bookings and the tickets on Saturday 13 June. I must have been more stressed than I realised as when the lady put the tickets in my hand I burst into tears. Very un-Lebanese where machismo is the order of the day. I then had to find out how to get to the airport as it was in not only west Beirut but the south of west Beirut, Hezbollah territory, Amal territory, Islamic Jihad, well you get the idea. There is a bus, I am informed that leaves from east Beirut and doesn't stop until it gets to the airport.

On 14 June TWA flight 847 was hijacked flying out of Athens after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing it landed in Beirut. Eventually most of the hostages were freed and the hijackers just went home. In the meantime the US and UK banned Middle East Airlines (MEA) from flying to their countries in an effort to put pressure on the Lebanese to beef up security at the airport. The Lebanese President promised that from now one no suitcase would go un-searched. Nobody would evade a frisking on arrival at the airport. Mending the huge gaps in the perimeter fence would have been a good move too.

Beirut Airport, Hijacked TWA, 22 July 1985.jpg

TWA 847 on an otherwise pretty deserted airport Apron. Beirut June 1985.

Sunday 21st June, we boarded the bus in east Beirut bound for the airport. I felt a little like Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man I'd been asking so many people if it was safe? We were taking back roads to the airport rather than the main highways, we came to a Christian militia checkpoint and were waved through without stopping. We came to a Lebanese army checkpoint and were waved through. We came to a Muslim militia checkpoint and were stopped.

Two gunmen got on board and looked at the passengers. I was the only one who looked foreign. “Oum.” they said, “Up.” I stood up they gestured for me to put my hands up, I did. They mad me turn around so that they could see if I had a pistol in the small of my back. I didn't. “Intu Fransawi?” “Are you French?” they asked. I pretended not to understand and EVERYONE else on the bus agreed that I was, indeed, French. They got of the bus and we carried on. Apparently they had been looking from Brits or Americans because our governments had banned MEA.

At the airport we loaded our suitcases onto two trolleys and approached the newly beefed up customs and security. They took one look at the cases piled high and waved us straight through. The airport was pretty empty but functioned well enough. We checked onto the flight and waited to board, the flight to Amman was 40 minutes only. After landing the flight was taken to a remote part of the airport and surrounded by Jordanian army, we were allowed off the flight one by one to identify our luggage and have it searched with a fine tooth comb. I had a beer with my supper in the privacy of my room in the transit hotel and the next day without incident we flew to Amsterdam.


Book Reviewer
Great insight into a time and a place I knew little about other than through news reports.
what is amazing is how quickly what in normal times would be a terrifying and high risk experience is normalised and adjusted too.
I had sat through and found fascinating a presentation from one of American the on site investigators of the usmc bombing. That gave a flavour of the city you were living in but distilled through the eyes of an outside investigator brought in and then left after his job was done.
these reminiscences are very readable and fascinating
thank you.


Great insight into a time and a place I knew little about other than through news reports.
what is amazing is how quickly what in normal times would be a terrifying and high risk experience is normalised and adjusted too.
I had sat through and found fascinating a presentation from one of American the on site investigators of the usmc bombing. That gave a flavour of the city you were living in but distilled through the eyes of an outside investigator brought in and then left after his job was done.
these reminiscences are very readable and fascinating
thank you.
It is frightening what you can get used to and adapt to, also the invincibility of youth helped a lot, a bit of bravado plus it was exciting to be in the midst of someone else's war, I knew this didn't insulate me from death or injury but I was always there by choice. I had a British passport and could have bailed out whenever I chose. In the end of course I did just that and I didn't go back for fourteen years. Some of my strongest and most enduring friendships date from that period of my life.

Lebanon creeps up on people, the Americans had planned for many eventualities but not the sheer size and audacity of the Marine barracks explosion. The fact that the French were hit simultaneously was a sign that nobody had grasped the abilities of their potential enemies. People saw what they knew and not what might be but also they saw from their own perspective, nobody else's.

Terry Waite, for example, saw the expediency of getting helicopter rides from Cyprus to Beirut with Col. North and apparently failed to envisage that others might interpret his actions differently from the way he did.

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