Memories of living in Beirut 1981 - 1985

mogreby

Old-Salt
I went many times to Lebanon between 1999 and 2009 for mostly for work, mostly meetings but for a large part of 2008 and into early 2009 I lived and worked there again. The strangest time was the first half of 2008 when I was based in west Beirut. My staff always laughed when I called it that but initially I found it very strange walking about Hamra after dark, I'd only been on the west side two or three times in the evening in the years I'd lived there before. Then in May Hassan Nasrullah made a speech late one afternoon. A colleague called me straight away to warn me to be careful. I popped to the office and got body armour and a helmet then to a supermarket to get a couple of days food. when I came out there were men in black balaclavas with AKs taking up firing positions metres from where I was staying. I had to pass them to get back and I had to assure them that I wasn't a journalist... they were Hezbollah and they took over large parts of west Beirut in support of their parties political aims.

Due to the organisation being very risk averse I was pulled out, ironically I could only leave after the fighting had stopped and had to take a taxi to Damascus and fly to the office I was working for in Cairo from there. I stayed there a few days and flew to Erbil to do an assessment of the work we were doing there and to advise on whether we should continue or not.

I'd spent the 2003 Iraq war based in Damascus which was still a beautiful city then, I'd been lucky enough to have a colleague also based there whose spouse was with the Austrian embassy and they had a spare vehicle with diplomatic plates which I tried not to abuse, honestly. At the end of the war I went to the Iraqi embassy to ask for a visa, there was a large courtyard absolutely full with your fighting age males when I got there. The crowd parted down the middle and I was ushered to a desk at the front and asked in a slightly truculent tone what I wanted. A visa, I said. To fight or as a journalist, he countered. Neither, I said, to work for an NGO. **** off, he said, so I did. Shortly after that I was helping an NGO into Basra from Kuwait without needing a visa for Iraq. Having got the agency settled in Basra after one or two recces and some nights in an hotel whose name I never knew but which was distinguished by a big banner stating that “The hotel is open” I moved north to Baghdad and took over an NGO office there. That didn't last long with attacks on the UN and on agencies which had years worth of contacts in the local community already happening it was pretty clear which way the wind was blowing so I had to shut down the recently opened office and move back to a relatively safe Erbil.

Anyhow, back to 2008, in early October I was phoned by a French NGO asking if I would go as interim manager for a a UXO project in north Lebanon. Being at a loose end I jumped at the opportunity. We were tasked with removal of UXO from a Palestinian camp which had been destroyed in fighting in the summer of 2007. we had been hired by UNRWA and there was a local company contracted to remove the rubble from the site, they had been contracted by UNDP, we were paid monthly until the job was signed finished and Al Jihad (the rubble removal company) would be paid on completion of the task. From the beginning, therefore, there was a lot of tension and politics as we needed to be painstaking and Al Jihad (AJ) needed to be quick. AJ wanted to flood the area with heavy equipment none of which was armoured whilst initially we had very quickly from scratch trained two search teams which we were later able to expand to four. I was lucky to have two good EOD techs. The Lebanese army with whom we were supposed to cooperate didn't always give us the whole picture and wouldn't always say what type of munitions had been used. After four months the long term manager was able to come out and take up the position.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
I am cracking up at this.

(Presumably this was the place taken over by Al-Qa'ida around that time and retaken after a weeks long siege by the Lebanese army?)
Something like that except I was led to believe the siege was longer than a week, several months I understood.

Al Jihad made a name for themselves removing rubble from south Beirut after the 2006 Israel/Hezbollah war. they also carried off several large air dropped munitions and would show us the photos when we stopped them working because a measly mortar had been found and needed to be blown in situ.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
P1110026.JPG

Destroyed Palestinian camp - the view from the main road.

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The view approaching the main gate.
 
I'm sure they would have done if they humanly could have done. If nothing else Lebanon is the land of the conspiracy theory.

As I have no doubt you know.

As is Afghanistan and Iran and all middle eastern countries (The Iranians do have a point, considering what the UK and US did to the Mossadeq government).
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
As is Afghanistan and Iran and all middle eastern countries (The Iranians do have a point, considering what the UK and US did to the Mossadeq government).
Those borders don't draw themselves you know.

Yes, we have a pretty shabby (to say the least) history throughout the Near and Middle East and in parts of Central Asia.

Iran was great, Every time I went to a new government office I was harangued for between 20 to 40 minutes on British history and our role in Iran in particular and supporting the Shah. Meeting Iranians not in government generally involved a run down on British history and our role in Iran including not supporting the Shah enough.
 
Those borders don't draw themselves you know.

Yes, we have a pretty shabby (to say the least) history throughout the Near and Middle East and in parts of Central Asia.

Iran was great, Every time I went to a new government office I was harangued for between 20 to 40 minutes on British history and our role in Iran in particular and supporting the Shah. Meeting Iranians not in government generally involved a run down on British history and our role in Iran including not supporting the Shah enough.

Tell me about it - my last gf is Iranian - gotta luv 'em though.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
Tell me about it - my last gf is Iranian - gotta luv 'em though.

Like people anywhere, deep down most of them are OK, it's the government that needs looking at. That said, I have found the Shiite mentality a little depressing at times.

In 1991 I witnessed Ashoura in south Tehran with a member of staff of the British Embassy, after that we were invited to a pool party in north Tehran and the difference was staggering. North Tehran is in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, lots of trees and you never know what is going on behind closed doors. In this case there young Iranian ladies in bikinis, gin and tonic and a locally brewed vodka for which I have the label somewhere, not rocket fuel. A real labelled bottle with a sealed cap and the best tasting vodka I have ever had.
 
Like people anywhere, deep down most of them are OK, it's the government that needs looking at. That said, I have found the Shiite mentality a little depressing at times.

In 1991 I witnessed Ashoura in south Tehran with a member of staff of the British Embassy, after that we were invited to a pool party in north Tehran and the difference was staggering. North Tehran is in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, lots of trees and you never know what is going on behind closed doors. In this case there young Iranian ladies in bikinis, gin and tonic and a locally brewed vodka for which I have the label somewhere, not rocket fuel. A real labelled bottle with a sealed cap and the best tasting vodka I have ever had.

You have set my imagination on fire!
 
Like people anywhere, deep down most of them are OK, it's the government that needs looking at. That said, I have found the Shiite mentality a little depressing at times.

In 1991 I witnessed Ashoura in south Tehran with a member of staff of the British Embassy, after that we were invited to a pool party in north Tehran and the difference was staggering. North Tehran is in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, lots of trees and you never know what is going on behind closed doors. In this case there young Iranian ladies in bikinis, gin and tonic and a locally brewed vodka for which I have the label somewhere, not rocket fuel. A real labelled bottle with a sealed cap and the best tasting vodka I have ever had.

I have to say the Shia remind me of Catholics because of the multiplicity of Imams and saints and holidays for them and this fixation with invoking saints/imams etc.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
I've worked in Kabul three times, 96/7, 2004-7 and 2010/11. the first time was by far the most satisfying, before Afghanistan became an aid circus in 2001. I was there three months before Kabul fell to the Taliban and stayed until November of 1997. I arrived there in mid June 1996 as Head of Delegation for a Swiss NGO. We had two projects, one supporting a local NGO working with street kids and the other trying to make a difference to infant and maternal mortality in Kabul, at the time (and probably still) the highest in the world. I flew in to Bagram airbase as Kabul airport was considered too dangerous being in range of the Taliban rockets and artillery in the hills to the south of the city. After a quick lunch at the office I was taken on an orientation drive round the city. Early on in the afternoon I saw a guy riding an old Triumph, I didn't do anything thinking that if I'd seen one this soon there must be more – in the 5 years I was to be based in Kabul I never saw another one. Bugger!

The city is divided roughly into two, the north was fairly undamaged and well to do, the sough was to a large extent destroyed – this happened in the fighting after the Soviets pulled out and the Mujahedin set about one another. Our house and office were both in Wazir – Wazir Akbar Khan – the house was next to that of the Governor of Kabul and detainees would sometimes be brought there in the night and the screams would wake you up. The Red Cross could do nothing about it as it was not registered as a detention centre.

At that time there were about 80 westerners in Kabul in the aid sector, The UN Club was a focal point where you could play endless games of volleyball, there was also a squash court, a swimming pool and, amazingly, a bar with an awful lot of spirits in the cellar. No beer though. You could get a sit down, three course meal there or a bar snack of pizza and chips. There were some local restaurants in Shar-i-Naw offering fatty mutton with rice or the Intercontinental Hotel where there was a bookshop and a restaurant which claimed everything was made fresh but it often arrived still frozen on the plate.

There was shelling/rocket fire on a regular basis from the Taliban in the hills to the south of the city. There was no mains electricity so, like many, we had generators at the house and at the office. These were very unsophisticated machines and very noisy indeed. Both the house and the office were sandbagged at entrances and ground floor windows. The generators were sandbagged too but this was more to try to deflect the noise. Some houses had sandbags perched on wooden scaffolding outside upstairs bedroom windows but it always looked very precarious and we never did it. What we did do was to put film on the inside of the windows ad the house and office. It didn't stop shrapnel but it did stop the window disintegrating and becoming shrapnel in it's own right if there was a nearby rocket strike. It also helped by slightly darkening the windows and cutting glare.

Kabul life, June 1996.jpg


On 26 June 1996 Gulbuddine Hekmatyr was to arrive in the city to become the prime minister of the Mujahedin government who felt the need to become more overtly Islamic in an attempt to stop the Taliban claiming to be the only true force for Islam in Afghanistan. Hekmatyr was known for hanging about outside Kabul university in the 70's and throwing acid in the faces of women he felt were not sufficiently covered up. He had been a notable commander for hezb-i-islami against the Soviet Union in the 80's. I was invited to his investiture on the afternoon of the 26th. as were all other heads of agencies.

I never got to go because at lunchtime the Taliban started shelling and rocketing the city to herald his arrival. The shelling became bad enough that we decided it was time to go down to the cellar so I told staff to go.

Having checked the upper floor of the office was empty I went downstairs to find the cook was in the kitchen making tea for everyone. I told her to leave what she was doing and go. The men in the office thought that the women should go into the cellar but that they would be OK in the dining room.... I explained that we would all go down to the cellar. Outside the cellar entrance there was a gaggle of staff each inviting the next one to go down into the cellar first.

We'd practised this stuff and it had gone well, now when it was really needed it was falling apart. Some arses needed kicking and more explanations of why we did things would take place. After a couple of hours there was a lull in the shelling and we decided to get the staff home and go home ourselves. The shelling continued on and off throughout the afternoon and at 1730 I got a radio message from the office that we had received extensive damage but that the chowkidars were fine. Wanting to go and check that the chowkidars were really fine I hopped on a bicycle and pedalled round to the office. As it turned out the chowkidars were fine and the extensive damage was shrapnel through the outer wall and throughout the upper floor doors and windows. The plastic film gad done a good job and whilst shrapnel had gone through the windows the panes had held together and either stayed in the frames or fallen, whole, into the room. I told the chowkidars to bolt the outer doors when I left and to take their flasks of tea down into the cellar. I then pedalled home and went to the cellar there. We had boxes with blankets, food and water, torches and we carried VHF radios all the time anyhow.

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The next day was calm but we had a problem in the office. All the national staff walked barefoot indoors and so we had to clear the shards of glass from the carpeted rooms. Someone had glued the carpets down so I had to radio round the agencies to find one with a working hoover who would lend it to us.

Each work day in the office we had a communal lunch for anyone there. There would be a bowl of small green chillies in the middle of the table and all my national colleagues would take one and nonchalantly eat it in a couple of bites. I was encouraged to take one and they thought it was a little wet that I tore it into pieces and distributed it over my food. After the main course there was fruit and they seemed to compete with each other to find me the orange that was going to be the most difficult to peel – that had them in stitches.

Once a week, about 0800, a train of camels would walk past the office down the main street in Wazir to the market. Many of them would come back about 1500 except this time they were cut up and on handcarts. I'd never had camel meat before but minced it is excellent.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
Fascinating stuff. The sort of life path I wish I'd followed in hindsight.
I had a great time for thirty years and consider myself lucky to have been to the places I have and to have worked with some of the people I have. I've enjoyed some countries more than others but have never disliked where I was living.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
1st. July. Michel, head of the Red Cross here says that security over the coming weeks will degrade so I have decided that we will abandon the 1st. Floor of the office and all work downstairs so that we are closer to the cellar and an also benefit from the sandbags. The men in the office agree that the women should work downstairs but see no reason themselves to warrant going downstairs. I tried explaining that a willy doesn't afford much protection but this was met with blank stares so in the end I just told them that it was my decision and if they didn't like it they were free to resign. Nobody did.

Up to now all national salaries have been paid in Afghanis (Afs.) but their buying power is diminishing week by week. Having looked at the budgets I have decided that salaries will be set in US dollars at the exchange rate they were at when I arrived. They will still be paid in Afs. but at the exchange rate of the day payment is made. Everyone is much happier about this and it isn't costing my budget any more money.

Wanting to send letters to the UK I went with Shamim, the office manager, to the main post office. As we walked up the steps he was approached by a guard and searched. I offered myself next but the guard flatly refused to search me or oven to glance in my bag which I held open. This attitude is rather charming and quaint, I guess they're just pleased I'm not Russian. Inside they produced a stack of aerogrammes which were ridiculously cheap but I was assured would arrive – in my experience they always did.

Once a week I have to verify the cash in the safe against the receipts. We keep millions of Afs. as there is no bank here – we have a dollar account in Peshawar in Pakistan. The first time I did this Shamim said it might take all afternoon so we started right after lunch. My predecessor had counted cash by taking each individual note from a wad in her hand and putting it down on the table. I, on the other hand, (pun intended) pick up a wad of notes and count them by folding them down one by one which is much faster. This cheered Shamim no end and we sat and had a cup of tea when we finished. As we chatted he told me that it was a pity the British had left Afghanistan, look how advanced India and Pakistan were in comparison. There's no answer to that.

Throughout July there were ongoing problems with both the house and office generators, I suspect they were pretty crappy when we bought them and fuel is a constant problem, either it is in very short supply or it is filthy and clogs everything. Petrol for vehicles can only be obtained at the roadside, no petrol stations as such. You pull up alongside the vendor who will then dip a finger into the product and show you how fast it evaporates as a sign of quality and purity, you then negotiate the price and it is funnelled into the car.

Luckily we have three taxis on permanent hire for the midwifery programme and when they are not actually driving the drivers are very good at helping take the generators apart to clean the fuel lines.

Rumours abound – the latest is that the government will ban women from working, this turned out to be no more than a rumour but it all gets in the way and takes time to chase down and unravel and explain to national staff.

The office secretary has invited me to lunch at her home in Karte Parwan, a wonderful view as it is up a hill and the houses here all have a cellar that in winter would be filled with snow and used as a fridge throughout spring and into summer to keep food fresh. Her brother and sister were there any they all spoke English to an extent and Afghan food is great so we had a good lunch of meatballs, chips, Kabuli rice, meat on the bone and salad.

I'm getting Dari lessons, they are organised by a Christian organisation whose international staff bring their families and often stay for thirty or more years - -that's dedication. Mid month I had my first local haircut at Pirooz Barber in Shar-i-Naw. He didn't speak English and beyond being polite I don't speak Dari and to be honest I didn't like any of the pictures of haircuts he had on the walls so in the end I just sat in the chair and he got on with it. The result is fine and whilst I thought I paid very little everyone at the office as shocked that I have paid so much - about five times the going rate. Worse from my point of view is that nobody will give an opinion as to whether the actual cut looks OK or not.

There is curfew here at the moment from 2100 – 0400, checkpoints spring up and people get stopped but nothing really appears to happen if you are stopped, still, it seems sensible to be home before 2100 then there is no difficulty.

Head office in Lausanne has sent a photojournalist out to record the work we do for future fundraising. As we don't have direct communications with Lausanne nothing is simple. We can send letters or sometimes a message can go to the Red Cross who will ring up head office but it is all a bit Heath Robinson. Anyhow she arrived and we got her accreditation so over the next few days she will go with staff to see the work.

At the end of July I had booked to go on leave and as the journo had finished we left together on the Red Cross flight to Peshawar. The usual booking in time at the red cross office is 1030 but today it has slipped to 1230, then in became 1130 so we rushed over there and booked in and were driven Bagram to take off at 1400. on the way we out down in Jalalabad where I saw a hind helicopter taxiing on it's nose wheel. The Mujahedine government has several helicopters and some Mig 21s left by the Soviets for their client government which then fell to the Muj. No idea how well this stuff is looked after. We took off for Peshawar but diverted to Islamabad due to a rain storm, we sat on the tarmac until 1800 and took off landing in Peshawar at 1900. checked into a guest-house, left onward flight tickets to be confirmed and went to the American Club for supper.

Back at the guest house I'm told my BA flight from Islamabad is confirmed but my PIA flight from Peshawar is cancelled and there is a bus strike so no other way to get to Islamabad, The journo's flight to Islamabad is confirmed but her onward PIA flight is cancelled. Next morning we found a travel agent who had restored order in a matter of minutes, apparently he told PIA I was the head of UNICEF. That afternoon we flew to Islamabad and from there went our separate ways.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
Page 1 post 2 (I think) should be this picture of the Syrian T55s taken in the summer of 1981 as we drove past.
Beirut, July 1981. T55.JPG



Further down the page - how do you find specific post numbers - I said I'd photograph the holster and map case from Dammour. Here they are:


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You can just see where PFLP was written in Biro on the flap.

IMG_4218 (600 x 450).jpg
 
Page 1 post 2 (I think) should be this picture of the Syrian T55s taken in the summer of 1981 as we drove past.
View attachment 554769


Further down the page - how do you find specific post numbers - I said I'd photograph the holster and map case from Dammour. Here they are:


View attachment 554774

View attachment 554776

View attachment 554779View attachment 554780

View attachment 554783

You can just see where PFLP was written in Biro on the flap.

View attachment 554787
Lovely map case. Loving the thread also.

Post numbers are top right corner.
 
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