Taking Stock

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Summer of Despair in Lebanon

An Essay by Khalil Matta

Editor's Note:

Every summer for the past 12 years, Management Professor Khalil Matta has returned to Bhamdoun , Lebanon , the village of his boyhood home, to spend a few months reconnecting with family and friends. Professor Matta was in Lebanon this past summer when the Lebanon-Israel conflict began on July 12. Because he is a U.S. citizen, he could have evacuated in the days that followed. He chose to stay, and this is his account.

 

Just days before the war began, I visited the Lebanese-Israeli border with Louis Tabit ('54), his son Mark ('82), Mark's wife Jill and their four children. We had no idea at the time that we would be among the last visitors to this beautiful region for some time to come.

Before midnight on July 11, I drove the Tabit family to the Beirut Airport to catch a departing flight to the United States . We had heard some disturbing news accounts throughout the day, and they were very nervous. They flew out at 3 a.m., and at 6 a.m. the airport was bombed.

When I woke up that next morning and looked out my window, I saw a huge column of smoke rising from the direction of the airport. I remember thinking to myself that war had returned to my beloved homeland.

Since I was living in a Christian village, I was not too worried about my personal safety. Confident that Israel would restrict its bombing campaign to Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon and in the slums south of Beirut , I was also convinced that this conflict, like many other Arab-Israeli military confrontations, would be short-lived and would be over in a few days.

I was dead wrong! Although I was fortunate that my hometown village of Bhamdoun was not bombed, the war soon engulfed the entire country and would last more than a month.

At first, Israel directed its air force to destroy the roads and bridges that join the various regions in Lebanon and link the country to the outside world. They could carry on this campaign undeterred since Lebanon does not own any anti-aircraft weapons. Later, Israel 's air campaign destroyed such so-called military targets as broadcasting stations, cellular phone towers, power plants, factories and warehouses. Surprisingly, rather than focusing on military targets, the early air campaign targeted the economic infrastructure of the country.

When the Israeli Air Force first bombed the highest bridge in the Middle East three miles away from my hometown, I was curious and drove up to see it. With two huge holes in it, the bridge had been rendered impassable in both directions and repairing it would have required several months. Apparently, though, the military objective had not been accomplished. The bridge was targeted for five successive nights until it completely collapsed. It now would take two to three years and cost more than $35 million to rebuild.

As the war escalated, countries started evacuating their citizens. First the tourists left, followed in quick succession by expatriates and Lebanese with dual citizenships. Men, women and children waited for days in the open air to board ships bound for Cyprus and Turkey . In one week, the United States alone would evacuate more than 12,000 of its citizens. Despite the temptation to leave, I chose to remain. It just did not seem right to leave my friends and family to face the brunt of this war alone.

During the conflict, many Lebanese would be forced to leave their villages and towns to seek safety in other regions. Our village of roughly 500 residents would end up hosting more than 2,000 of these refugees. About a week into the war, I learned that some refugees had sought shelter in the public school at the outskirts of our village, so I went to see if I could be of any help. I encountered quite a chaotic and crowded situation. More than half of the refugees seemed to be kids, and they were running all over the place. Most of the refugees had been on the road for two days and they were hungry. Within two hours, though, some other villagers and I had every bakery in the region working to provide these people with bread. We brought in water, juice and powdered milk for the infants.

And as the number of refugees grew and international relief efforts faltered due to the Israeli blockade, we brought them electric generators, stoves, water containers, rice, wheat, potatoes and other foodstuffs in an effort to make the refugees self-sufficient.

Despite the struggle to keep up with an ever-increasing number of refugees and to deal with gasoline and food shortages, miraculously we managed by having everyone pitch in. It was uplifting to see Christians, Muslims and Druze; young and old people; men and women all join the effort. When a villager began to complain about serving the refugees, I reminded him that this cooperation was a milestone in Lebanon , a country which has been torn asunder by sectarian strife for decades. Because of what we were doing that day, I told him, “Never again will any of these Shiite refugees carry a gun against Christians.”

Due to these grassroots relief efforts throughout Lebanon , widespread hunger and outbreaks of disease were avoided despite the fact that nearly 1 million people—fully one-quarter of the Lebanese population—were displaced by war's end. Helping those refugees gave a special meaning to my stay in Lebanon.

The war ended as abruptly as it had begun when a U.N. sponsored cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 14. The refugees quickly moved back to their towns and villages only to find them in ruins. Reconstruction efforts began almost instantaneously. As much as I wanted to stay and help, it was time for me to head back for the start of the academic year at Notre Dame. Since the Beirut airport was badly damaged and the air blockade was still in effect, I took a taxi to Amman , Jordan , and boarded a flight to the United States.

On the flight home, I thought back over the past month, and I could not believe what had happened in that short period. More than 1,200 Lebanese people were killed and thousands more were injured, almost all of them civilians. More than a quarter of a million people were still homeless. The country sustained more than $5 billion in damage to its infrastructure alone. Tourism, the lifeline of the country's economy, lay in ruin.

Was this war really necessary? Was it worth the price that so many innocent people paid? I pondered that on my flight home and wondered how the leaders responsible for carrying it out were sleeping at night. The greatest casualty was undoubtedly the loss of faith in the future of Lebanon , which will take many years to restore. Many Lebanese, especially in the Christian community, have now given up hope and are looking elsewhere for their futures.

—Khalil Matta is a management professor and the MIS program director in the Mendoza College of Business. His expertise is in e-commerce and the strategic use of information systems.

 

 
 
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