April 16, 2013

Your First Checkpoint

Normandy Checkpoint duty, Spring 1990

I was driving with my son, or actually, my son was driving with me, through town at night, when suddenly we stumbled upon an impromptu ‘haasjesh’; a checkpoint, near the St. George Hotel.
 Apart from the permanent checkpoints, the army or police now and then block the road (usually during rush hour, causing mile-long traffic jams) to check for things. I am not sure what kind of things, because I never ever get stopped. Is it because I am a woman? Or a foreigner? Or the combination of two? I do not know, but I never ever get stopped so I cannot tell you what it is they’re looking for.
My son has been through hundreds of military checkpoints in his life time, but always as a by-rider. So it was a first for him. And I got bombarded with questions: What do I do? Do I slow down here? Or later? Do I open my window a little bit, or all the way? Do I light all the lights, or just this one? Do I wait till he says ‘Tfadalleh’, or do I just pull up once I am next to him?

Downtown Beirut in 1990

It was funny to realize how we take these checkpoints for granted.
I remember my very first check point; It was called ‘Normandy’, named after the old Normandy Hotel. That hotel had been defunct since 1975, but the crossing was still named Normandy. It was on the port road from East to West Beirut, there where nowadays you have the entrance to Biel. I had been in country for about a month, had bought myself a little motorcycle and decided that I should explore East Beirut.
There were only a few checkpoints that connected the two city halves. Normandy (the port) being one of them, Mathaf (the museum) and Galery Semaan the other ones.
Living in Hamra, where it was relatively quiet at that time (we’re talking January 1990), I knew they were fighting in East Beirut. There had been ongoing clashes between (the then general) Aoun and Geagea, both in the christian camp, but in January of 1990, Aoun pitted against the Syrian army.

Normandy Checkpoint

And so while driving through the port area, I ran into this Lebanese Army checkpoint with my little motor cycle. Before the first lieutenant let me pas, I was ordered to come up and drink tea and I spent some time learning the inns and outs of a checkpoint. In those days there were hundreds of checkpoints. Every faction had them; the army, the Syrians, Amal, Hebzollah, Lebanese Forces, Aoun’s guys, everyone had them. They functioned as territorial markers
I did finally make it past that checkpoint into East Beirut. Dora was absolutely deserted; Not a soul in sight. I drove with my little motorcycle on the ‘autostrad’ and I saw no one!! 
That surprised my quite a bit. Where was everyone? Must be a quiet neighborhood, I thought. I did hear something in the distance that sounded like thunder and remember thinking, “strange, it doesn’t look at all like it is going to rain.”  And so I drove all the way to Dbayeh, stopped first at a checkpoint of Aoun’s forces, then a Lebanese forces checkpoint, and then another Aoun checkpoint.
Where is everyone,? I remember asking.
“Don’t you know?” they replied, ‘We’re being bombed!"
I thought that was a bit dramatic, as I hadn’t seen or heard anything. At the end of the day I drove all the way back again, seeing maybe three cars in total.
On top of the Normandy checkpoint

So how was it in East Beirut?” they asked me when I passed the army checkpoint at Normandy again in the evening.
Well, it was very quiet, “I replied. 
I was fresh in the country, and little did I know.
If you grew up in Lebanon, you probably don’t remember your first check point. But I remember mine. Do you remember yours?


Anonymous said...

was born here, so u r right, don't remember my first checkpoint.. ur blog is awesome btw. been following for 6 yrs. thank u..

Anonymous said...

you are loved by many people and when you do not blog for few days we worry about you and miss you

Sietske said...

Wow!! Thank you guys! You absolutely made my day (and probably the rest of the week too). I really appreciate your kind comments! :) Awesome!

Scirocc0 said...

Love your blog, i am glad that you still in Lebanon after all this ! :D most of the Lebanese are leaving,
anyway i just wanted to put a little note .. "Aoun's Guys" were the Lebanese army not his guys they were not a militia ... thank you