Country Profile: Lebanon

Civil war, ISIS invasions, mountains of rubbish. Never a dull day in Lebanon. The country’s constant turmoil is exhausting, says Reem Haddad, reporting from Beirut

My 15-year-old daughter suddenly declared last week that she needed a break. A break from what? I inquired, imagining a teenage world of academic tests, peer pressure or girlish gossip. ‘From Lebanon,’ she said.

Lebanon is a country that goes through ‘waves’. The early 2000s saw a wave of assassinations, a wave of bombs planted in various neighborhoods, a wave of demonstrations.

More recently, a wave of refugees from the Syrian war entered the country. By October 2016, according to the UNHCR, Lebanon was host to 1.1 million registered refugees – around a quarter of the number of permanent inhabitants, and this in a tiny country of just 10,452 square kilometres (about the size of Devon and Cornwall in the UK). Refugee camps were quickly set up. Schools opened afternoon classes to accommodate Syrian children.

A family of Syrian refugees in a UN camp near Zahle, in the Bekaa valley
A family of Syrian refugees in a UN camp near Zahle, in the Bekaa valley. Photo: François Razon / Alamy

As the Syrian war showed no sign of stopping, even more refugees arrived and the streets were filled with begging Syrian children. Lebanon felt like it was drowning. Local unemployment increased as Syrians, in their desperation, took on jobs at lower wages.

Then, suddenly, the influx of refugees began to slow – not much, but enough to notice the difference in the streets of Beirut. Now ships off the coast of Tripoli, in the north of the country, were illegally shepherding refugees to Europe. We watched on television mesmerized as so many made their way into Europe. We were even more mesmerized to see some Lebanese of Syrian descent among them. Some I know well. They are now European residents, they tell me, as they grin mischievously during holidays back in Lebanon.

The historic market in the northern town of Tripoli. Photo: Mark Pearson / Alamy
The historic market in the northern town of Tripoli. Photo: Mark Pearson / Alamy

In 2014, a new wave: the kidnapping of Lebanese soldiers by ISIS. The Islamist group overran the town of Arsal, on the northeast side of the fertile Bekaa Valley. Fear gripped the country: was ISIS about to invade Lebanon? Panic ensued.

The Lebanese army, along with fighters from the Shi’a group Hizbullah, surrounded the stronghold of the militants and then, in 2017, launched separate offensives against them. The battle ended with an exchange of dead bodies and prisoners and with the evacuation of the militants; the eight kidnapped soldiers were found murdered.

Meanwhile, a wave of a completely different kind: the closure of Beirut’s waste dumps in 2015. Garbage piled up in the streets, even burying parked cars. The street leading to my apartment building was blocked with bags of garbage. The stench was unbearable. Night after night, the horrible odour of burning garbage would infiltrate our homes.

A series of protests, aptly dubbed YOUSTINK, erupted as thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protest. The garbage crisis lasted for eight long months. As I write, a landfill site has been created near the airport. But this is only temporary and much of the trash is still strewn all over the beaches, rivers and forests.

Rubbish dumped on the road in north Beirut: the country’s garbage collection system has collapsed.
Rubbish dumped on the road in north Beirut: the country’s garbage collection system has collapsed. Photo: Char Abumansoor / Alamy

The latest wave: our prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, suddenly resigned in November 2017 in a televised address during a visit to Saudi Arabia. This called forth accusations that he was being held hostage – the Saudis were unhappy with his accommodating attitude towards Hizbullah, which is backed by Iran.

Would a pro-Saudi camp and a Tehran-backed alliance take to the streets? Would Lebanon plunge back into turmoil reminiscent of the 1975-90 civil war? We held our breath.Lebanon map

After a month of invisibility, Hariri withdrew his resignation just as suddenly as he had tabled it. He claimed that the situation had been resolved after the government had agreed to keep out of the affairs of other Arab states; he resumed his post as if nothing had happened. We breathed again.

But there will inevitably be another ‘wave’ soon. I have to agree with my daughter. I, too, need a break from Lebanon.