The calm before the storm
Today, we tried to buy clothing.
At the Nasra School in Achrafieh, both a 1 1/2 month-old baby and a 7-month pregnant mother of three are in dire need of pajamas, and of the 10 boys only 3 have more than one pair of shorts. It’s July in Beirut – meaning hot and sticky – and only so many families can hand-wash their laundry per day. People are donating clothing, but somehow we keep ending up with bags full of plaid business suits dating back to some winter in the mid-80s.
Gasoline, like everything else in Lebanon, is becoming scarce – and expensive – and we didn’t want to have to drive very far. It’s also hard to predict what stores will be open where. The last few days in Beirut we’ve experienced very little bombing – Israel is not going to bomb Beirut while the foreigners are being evacuated on prime time TV – so a semblance of life has briefly returned to the city. There was even a traffic jam in Hamra, in West Beirut.
After two hours, we had driven through almost every commercial area of Beirut, and still hadn’t located affordable PJs or shorts. Clothing in Lebanon is over-priced at the best of times, a reflection of the lack of local industry here. Now most of the shopkeepers say that their suppliers can’t make deliveries, that they have more clothing, etc, in warehouses but can’t get to them.
A sickly miasma of the calm before the storm is settling everywhere. The price of powdered milk has sky-rocketed, up to $12 per 3 kilo bag. There are no more candles on the market. At the Sabra Coop (a supermarket chain in a low income neighborhood) I saw women sweeping entire shelves of tomato paste into their carts, then moving on to the pasta and doing the same. The pharmacies’ cabinets are empty. The lines at the gas stations are impossible. Pampers for babies, cleaning detergents, rice, salt… everything is becoming more expensive as supplies dwindle.
As for fresh fruits and vegetables – what’s left is for the rich. Lemons are 5 times more expensive than normal. All the roads leading from Lebanon’s farmlands (the Bekaa valley, the South) are being bombed. And of course, all those ships coming in to evacuate the foreigners can’t manage to bring with them food or medicine.
Regardless of whatever the Israelis do to most of Lebanon (carpet bombing, land invasion, etc), Lebanon will be a humanitarian crisis. One that could have been avoided: had Israel not blockaded Lebanon and destroyed the country’s entire infrastructure; And one that could have been mitigated: had any country or international NGO refused to respect the blockade and brought in supplies.
Over 600,000 people have already been displaced, with hundreds of thousands stuck in the South trying to leave and too scared by the Israeli jets overhead to risk the roads. Lebanon’s population is only 4 million, so easily ¼ of the Lebanese may end up refugees. Beirut doesn’t have the supplies or ability to help. There are rumors that the big international NGOs have sent in relief crews with insane budgets ($1 million for food, etc) and are unable to spend it. There’s very little left to buy.
Meanwhile, back at Nasra School, Imane the infant is sleeping in a t-shirt knotted at the bottom, pregnant Oum Hassan is wearing her husband’s clothing and not leaving their classroom at night, and the boys are getting filthy.
Back at my calm apartment, I stand in my kitchen, and worry.
June 22, 2006