Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 44, 88

Letter from Lebanon

Is Lebanon Safe for Foreigners? It Depends on Whom You Ask

By Marilyn Raschka

Is Beirut safe for foreigners? Well, it all depends on whom you ask. For a positive spin, try the Lebanese Ministry of Interior located downtown in the part of the old Government House that wasn't blown to bits in te 1975-1990 civil war.

"We can assure you that Lebanon is safe," says a ministry spokesman who deals with the foreign press and is used to that question. Proudly he tells how law and order is on the increase. Some 4,000 young men have joined the internal Security Forces. Of course some of that "beef" consists of ex-militiamen. They have been given special instruction in nationalism and law and order. When the final exams are administered, let's hope they pass.

Statistics are the spokesman's strongest point. In the confiscation category he reads out figures from the first six months of 1991: 2,000,000 counterfeit dollars, 3,300 pounds of marijuana, 132 pounds of heroin, and 20 pounds of cocaine. Arrests include 71 persons for murder or attempted murder, 233 on drug charges, 451 for stealing, 163 for armed robbery and 188 for entering Lebanon without a visa.

For a Westerner, getting a visa can be a big problem. A Canadian national working in Kuwait was refused a visa to Lebanon to see his Lebanese wife. Too dangerous, the Lebanese official said, even though the man has made several trips in the past.

Americans still have the 1987 U.S. State Department ban on travel to Lebanon to contend with. Some Lebanese consulates "arrange" matters. Others demand a paper from the U.S. government okaying the visit-an almost impossible request. It was this U.S. ban that caused the holdup of a group of American professional wrestlers at Beirut airport in mid-April. They wanted the Lebanese authorities to stamp them into the country on a separate piece of paper so that there would be no telltale stamp in their passports revealing that they had ignored their own government's ban.

A British woman who lived in Beirut in the early '80s applied for a tourist visa in March and had trouble she didn't expect. "I was asked to provide a letter from my employer guaranteeing that I would return to Britain and not seek employment in Lebanon," she explains. With that taken care of, she got her visa and enjoyed a week of fun-filled touring, never once feeling frightened.

Embassies still refuse to reveal the number of their citizens living in Lebanon. A good guess for the American community, counting only native-born Americans, would be 75. Most of these are women married to Lebanese men. The women are allowed to stay here because they are economic dependents. The half a handful of American men living in Lebanon have been here for years and depend on their street sense to keep them safe.

"I think the kidnapping is over," said one of these optimistic types. He was standing a mere block away from the spot where one of the first kidnappings took place in 1984. He admits the remaining hostages, two Germans, are a knotty problem but doesn't feel he will be a target.

The U.S. Embassy here in no way agrees. When Israel ambushed and killed Hezbollah leader Sheikh Abbas Musawi in February, threats to kidnap foreigners were again heard. The embassy sounded the alarm. A letter went out to one American woman who was asked to contact others in West Beirut. "Please pass the word that the embassy takes the threats directed at Americans very seriously," it read. "We repeat the warning that Americans should leave Lebanon."

James Bond Would Approve

A visit to the U.S. Embassy itself reveals a security system equal to the world of James Bond. "Let's just meet near the main door," one official told an American who wanted some information. The few sould who venture beyond that door tell of painstaking security checks and escorted walks from office to office.

Located in the foothills above Beirut, the embassy grounds are presently covered in spring flowers that share the terraced hillside with coiled barbed wire. The diplomats themselves are highly restricted in their movements.

Beirut's American community tends to scoff at such security measures, but violence still lurks just below the surface of this society. A foreign couple in a car refused to give way to a Lebanese driver behind them, knowing that all he wanted to do was to push in front of them in the backed-up traffic. The honking driver persisted and, as he finally passed, his passenger, also a young male, ostentatiously twirled a pistol in his hand.

Nor are all the foreigners living in Beirut as fatalistic as they may appear to be. Shortly after the Musawi assassination, both a European resident and the guard in his building panicked when four burly armed men pushed through the foyer and headed for the European's apartment while the guard phoned a frantic warning. The men turned out to be from the European's embassy and had come to read him the riot act: either leave Lebanon or adopt certain personal security measures, which he did.

Ex-hostages Tom Sutherland and Joe Cicippio have expressed a deep desire to return to Lebanon, but the U.S. government and their families have convinced them that now is not the time. Ironically, both men tell how, during their long captivity, some of their guards asked them about the possibility of getting green cards for residence in the United States.

"People say we are courageous to stay," laughs one American. "But, of course, behind our backs they say we're crazy." Even the suave Ministry of the Interior spokesman suddenly changed his tune when a foreign journalist told him that after the interview she'd be taking public transport back to her Beirut apartment. Paling noticeably he asked, twice, "Are you sure you'll be okay?"

This year the to-be-or-not-to-be of being okay is still in the hands of the Syrians. Thousands of their soldiers man checkpoints and have their ears to the ground all through Lebanon. A withdrawal from many Beirut checkpoints in March was interpreted as a sign that they might be fading away. Then they reappeared in force in April.

As for the hard-core Americans here, the concerns they admit to run a different course. One worried that the show at the ski resorts would melt before Easter vacation (it didn't). Another figures the potholes are going to ruin her car (there's a good chance of it). Then there's one who can't decide whether to rent a chalet at the beach of in a mountain resort this summer. As with virtually everything else in Lebanon this spring, her decision is pending.

Marilyn Raschka is a free-lance writer who lives in Beirut, where she is an editor of the Americans for Justice in the Middle East newsletter.