Let’s begin with some personal recollections by this lifelong journalist and former VOA staff reporter and manager over nearly six decades.
The Heils’ first overseas post was Beirut, then popularly and rightly known as “the Paris of the Middle East.” We arrived there in early 1965, and have since been gravely saddened during two disastrous events affecting all Lebanese:
—The deadly civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, and
—The horrific explosion in Beirut last August 4th, which killed more than 200 people, injured another 6,500 and displaced 300,000 of its residents.
That blast, in a warehouse on the shore of Lebanon’s main port, devastated acres in the country’s capital city and could be heard as far away as the island of Cyprus — a hundred miles across the Mediterranean to the west.
It’s difficult to imagine the impact on our friends in Beirut, and indeed, in an entire country known more than a half-century earlier as a model society in which Christians, Muslims, Palestinians appeared to outsiders to be largely unified, except for the fifteen-year civil conflict cited above.
On my first day as the chief of VOA’s Beirut bureau in 1965 and 1966, the seven-member staff generously welcomed Dot and me to a sumptuous luncheon perched atop a hilltop jutting above the capital in western Beirut. An unforgettable view of wave caps in the Mediterranean fifty meters below.
Our newfound hosts and lifelong friends reflected all three communities described above. They readily accommodated to their somewhat younger and inexperienced new boss — and a change in mission in an office accustomed to producing reviews of classic Arab dramas and literature. But I had agreed with VOA in Washington to convert the office to a news bureau. Upon our arrival, the Beirut staff quickly accepted the transformation, and several remain, lifelong friends of the Heils, today (several as U.S. citizens living near D.C.).
WHAT’S IT LIKE IN BEIRUT TODAY?
Recovery is understandably a years-long and arduous challenge for the seven million Lebanese and overseas aid workers seeking to rebuild a devastated capital city.
Dr. Mai Abdul Rahman, founder of the America-Palestinian Women’s Association recently went to Beirut to help out. In an article published in the current edition of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, she describes the challenges:
“Last December 13 was my first day preparing food for victims of the blast. Karantina is a mixed-use residential and commercial neighborhood just east of the port where the blast took place. I worked 500 feet from the epicenter of the explosion in a makeshift kitchen set up by a Christian Maronite priest.
“Father Abouna Hani Touk travels 22 miles from Byblos to Beirut five days a week to feed families displaced by the explosion as well as local and foreign volunteers renovating Karantina’s destroyed homes and shops.
“With the help of a small group of volunteers,” Dr. Mai continues, “Father Touk prepares 620 meals to feed explosion survivors and their helpers.” During the Lebanese civil war (Christians, Muslims and a range of ethnic communities) there were many fatalities on all sides.
“It’s most surprising,” Dr. Mai adds, “that these former victims who feared and avoided one another agreed after a couple of weeks of appeals by Father Touk to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and serve each other, including their former enemies.”
THE WORDS OF HOPE SPREAD
Alpha Association, a non-governmental organization led by Father Azar, a Maronite priest, recently began raising funds to help build trust and new friendships among Muslim and Christian youths in a southern suburb of Beirut. Both Sunni and Shia Muslims live there, along with Maronite Christians, and Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish refugees. Many of these displaced people live in and around a local Palestinian refugee camp.
“While these efforts are small and limited,” Dr. Mai Abdul Rahman concludes, “it’s in the interest of all Lebanese to help erase the sting of past tragic massacres and wars. It’s clearly in the interest of all Lebanese to strategically and purposefully create opportunities for people of different faiths to work together.
“It won’t be easy to forget the deep wounds of past conflicts, but it’s possible for the Lebanese people to begin trusting one another. The fate of the country depends on leaders like Father Abouna Touk and people of every faith working together.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More