Driving through lawless land to a calmer Beirut


I LEFT Damascus 45 minutes late because my driver was hunkered down at home in the Tal area north of the city during a bout of shelling. The bathed, shaved, and breakfasted stand-in who took his time to collect me lives on Baghdad Street in the centre of capital. “It’s quiet,” he said, as we pulled away from the curb, passing the bus stop where I picked up a 17mm expended shell from the pavement.

I had arrived in Damascus on the last flight from Larnaca in Cyprus. The flight was cancelled but then allowed to make the journey by the Cypriot authorities.

They had decided EU sanctions meant no more flights between the two countries, although Surianair continues to fly to Frankfurt and London.

I opted to go by road to Beirut rather than by plane. The flight goes via Aleppo where schedules are disrupted by the battle between the army and rebels.

Traffic was light along the autostrade. Syrians sleep late during Ramadan. Law-abiding drivers did not ignore traffic lights although much of the country is lawless. The army camp at the city’s outer edge was lightly guarded even though there have been clashes nearby. Out of the bleak, brown, rocky hills rose a new housing development, one of the dormitory suburbs built for civil servants or army officers and their families. Fruit and vegetable stalls sprung up by the roadside.

On lampposts in the middle of the dual carriageway were ads for Syriatel, one of the country’s two mobile firms, sanctioned by the international community but still operating. At a checkpoint on the other side of the highway was a line of cars making for the capital, while there were none at the checkpoint on our side. The soldiers waved us through.

We paused at the border town to fill the car with petrol. “It’s cheaper here than in Lebanon,” explained the driver.

A kilometre-long line of lorries waited at the roadside to get clearance to leave for Lebanon but only 30-odd taxis and private cars were at the terminal.

Formalities on both sides were minimal and we entered chaotic Lebanon, its roadsides littered with rubbish and its drivers behaving as though they were competing in the Grand Prix.

Chatoura, once a small, sleepy resort town grew into a metropolis during the 15-year Lebanese civil war and a place where Syrians did business when Beirut was dangerous.

Today banks and holiday flats flank restaurants. Syrians come to get away from the troubles and, with luck, deposit funds they would need if all-out civil war erupts. We whizz through Bhamdoun, and Aley, where many Lebanese go to escape Beirut’s heat and humidity.

Cars are locked in traffic jams in Beirut – as usual. At my hotel in Hamra Street, the electricity is off and on and the internet uncertain. Power and connections were better in Damascus.

Lebanon has never recovered from the civil war. The social fabric has not repaired, its infrastructure has not rejuvenated, its talented people have not returned.

Syrians fear their country could have the same fate.