Saturday, April 16, 2005

Politics Aside: Spend Please

“We have lowered our room prices by 50%”, explains the young owner of the Beryte Hotel just opened in the new year. By the end of the month of January, the new venture seemed worthwhile with an 80% occupancy for its first month’s opening. But the promise of plentiful times took an 180 degree turn with the assassination on February 14, 2005, of former Prime
Minister Rafiq Hariri, killed about 400 meters away.

Across the road, along Beirut’s Corniche, Rana El Khoury, Operation’s Manager of the Palm Beach Hotel explains the shock waves caused by the bomb were disastrous. Sitting in what will be the restaurant on the ground floor, bellboys turned painters, resurface the walls while others adjust the new windows. “We had about 1.5 million dollars worth of damages in the
windows alone. We had to redo everything in the rooms: the curtains, the furnishings, the carpeting, everything.”

Next door, at the InterContinental Le Vendome also facing the sea, Director of Sales, Laurent Gabard describes a similar experience in damages and expands: “It is not only about the immediate cost of damages which hurt us, but also that the impact of Hariri’s death reduced business and tourism confidence in the country…We have seen a 70% drop in business in
comparison to the same time last year.” The number rising up to about an 80% decrease of revenues for other hotels is echoed in most of the empty lobbies throughout the city and country.

“Why?” Jihad Shoughari, Operations Manager of the Beryte Hotel prepares to answer: “Well, you know economy and politics are like siamese twins, you can’t separate the two.” The two go hand in hand. And as Hariri’s death plunged Lebanon in political turmoil, with an opposition engaged in a serious tug of war with the present Syrian backed government, businessmen and tourists have cold feet.

The already tense situation has not been made any easier by five more bombs exploding in commercial areas up to about two weeks ago. But as the explosions claimed few casualties, a regional director for a multi-national explained: “The bombs? Well, it looks more like economic terrorism rather than anything else.” The targeted victims were commercial centers,
clothes shops, and factories among other things.

“We don’t know how we are going bounce back” expressed Shoughari: “we need to see what will come of the elections.” And as Gabard says: “At this point we have to rely on the local market, but they don’t come to hotels”.

And locals have been rallied for economic revival. In comparison to a deserted downtown, as witnessed in the past few weeks, the trend has recently been reversed. Bahia Hariri, sister of the late prime minister, and Nora Jumblatt, wife of the opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, set up a campaign coinciding with the date of the start of the Lebanese civil war April 13th. The message: the war is over, let’s focus on our country and spend. Although the stage that was set up for free concerts has been taken down, the cafes seem to be reaping the benefits of the momentum with people coming through. The downtown is filling with Lebanese making a show of force for revival, and maybe even enjoying a stroll licking an ice cream.

In the meantime, hotels tighten their belts, reducing staff, saving on paper and electricity, waiting for a turn in the tide. Gabard explains that: “at least, in the past few days people have been calling to make some reservations for the summer, which is something compared to last month”.

And as Rana El Khoury of the Palm Beach Hotel says: “If we can get over this crisis, then we will spend a very beautiful summer... We hope to make an impact at the Dubai tourism fair in the beginning of May”.

A few doors down, Mr. Shihab, owner of the Bayview Hotel, sleeves rolled up, glasses on top of his head, speaks to a crew of men up on the top floor as they are preparing the open air restaurant for its opening next month. “What do you want, we have to go on, we are not stopping.” And as his wife put it: “The sea is still here, the sun is hot, come to Lebanon.”

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Breaking the Silence

Visually the mounting pressure for the Syrian pull out has been in effect with over the past month television reports showing military trucks filled with soldiers moving out, abandoning barracks and even crossing the border. But what of the secret services and the dismantling of their headquarters in Beirut and in the town an Anjar, in the Bekka valley, 58 km east of Beirut along the road to the Damascus?

Abdellah's eyes grew in size at the mention of the name of the town. "It is a very bad place": a processing plant for information gathered under duress. A place symbolic of intimidation and cruelty, another man who wished to remain unnamed explained: "It was to make us fearful, to put the fear inside our body, inside our mind."

The town of Anjar today is sleepy, with very little activity in comparison to the neighboring ones, which are bustling with busy market places, cafes and shops. The Syrian military however is omni-present in Anjar’s surrounding area where Syrian guard posts keep an eye on daily activities.

In the heart of Anjar, Syrian army barracks can be seen with soldiers manning its entrance. Trucks come in an out, and that makes up most of the activity in the town.

"I have been there twice" explains one man wishing to remain unidentified. As he lifted his pants, to show off his ankles, the skin around his legs was strangely scarred, bubbled-up white along the surface. "Electricity" he says. It has been ten years since he has been there last, and he still heads to the doctor for check-ups resulting from the abuse he received. When he came back to me: "his back was the color of the chest", his wife points to a mahogany cupboard. His account is not unique.

His first run in with the mukhabarat took place in the 80s: “there were 30 men, some in uniforms and some in civilian clothes. They came to my house after midnight. I was brutally treated in front of my family, my loved ones.”

But the worst was to come, blindfolded he was thrown into the boot of a small car and taken away the first time to the Hotel, Beau Rivage, an infamous place in Beirut, the Syrian mukhbarat headquarters in Beirut.

In his description of his beatings, electro-shock treatment, and starvation, he explained that during the 25 days he was detained he lost 40 kilos, half his weight. “It is not only pain, it is agony. It is something no words can ever explain.”

“At the end of my first visit to the mukhabarat headquarters, I was told that it was a mistake. They said they got the wrong man, but would not name who he was.”

Another man who had been spent time in Beau Rivage is unable to speak of his experience. In his home, his wife explained: “it is too difficult for him to speak, because speaking makes him relive it and he cannot [go there.]”

And there are others who underwent similar treatment, the scarred man described when in Anjar: “At one point, I was standing in a room infested with rats with forty other men,” and from all different sectarian lines, which make up the plural complexity of the society. “They will talk, but not today…they cannot speak up now, it is too soon.” It is still too dangerous for them to speak during Lebanon’s fragile political transition.

When asked whether he felt hopeful about the present day pull out: "What can I say, it is not enough. I hate them... What do you want when a man goes through what we did? What else can you feel?"
A person listening to our conversation explained: "It is not that we hate the Syrian people, but we hate the Syrian law.” The scarred man said: “I do not hate the Syrian people, in fact I am speaking for the first time to share with all victims of torture, and for those detained in Syrian prisons:”

And that will be a difficult task to arrange. Inherent is the string of words secret service, is the word secret. As a university professor put it: "What do you think, do you think the names of agents are on a roster. They are everywhere, they are the fruit sellers, the neighborhood shop keepers…" But more importantly those who run the country are still present.

"Here, I want to show you something". The scarred man took me for a walk around the block: "You see these fruit sellers, they are mukhbarat, this bakery, the same, this sandwich shop also". In all, he counted up 11 people working for the Syrians on the small residential block in West Beirut. "They are all over this neighborhood, and they keep watch." The shops had been recently opened within the past five years. "Now they are scared." As he walked around the block, he became more emotional, his lips quivering as he remembered more of what he went through: “You know, when we were offered food, we were beating, when we refused food we were beaten, and the same happened when they came around with water. We could do nothing.”

But with so many working under civilian guise, informants, the problem will be filtering out those who are less obvious, and those who are Lebanese nationals. A proper dismantling of the secret services top down is what is needed to guarantee a change in operations, and security for the population. And the battle is just beginning. For Lebanon to achieve the sovereignty it is fighting for, political deal making and effective compromises need to be set in motion to get rid of the Syrian secret services. But this will not be easy task after 30 years of presence, integration into Lebanese life and quite and a lot of money being made in the process.