I woke up early at the Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel. Last night’s tense taxi ride from the airport to the hotel was a fractured nightmare. After the drama of the first checkpoint (where I suddenly feared for my life) the second checkpoint had waved us through. Needless to say I was relieved to arrive at the Intercon Hotel. I didn’t expect to see my comrades in arms—the Frenchman and his family—again, after they fled to their room upon check-in.
<Feature map of divided Beirut in 1977 by seattletimes.com
Surrounded by comfort, I had fallen asleep immediately. But it didn’t shield me from bad dreams involving bad checkpoint guards.
The delicious buffet breakfast this morning rose my spirits. Afterwards, I asked the concierge to contact the American Embassy Beirut. She handed me the phone and walked to the front desk.
“This is the duty officer a raw voice pronounced. “We were concerned about you.”
I said, “Nobody showed up at the airport. I waited two hours. A French family offered a ride here—to the Intercontinental Hotel. I thought it would be safer than standing in front of some guard with an AK-47 all night at the airport.”
“Well, you were wrong. No one travels to and from the airport at night without the protection of the Marines or our contracted guards. It’s S.O.P. these days.”
What an idiot I had been. “I asked the concierge to call the embassy last night about one a.m. She couldn’t get an answer.”
That sounded as weak as my voice. I added, “I had Am Embassy Nicosia send a NIACT IMMEDIATE message to you.”
“Yes, we received it… a little late—no fault on their end. I’m sending a vehicle for you. Be packed and ready to leave in thirty minutes.”
“Okay, I’ll be in the lobby.”
When the duty officer hung up, I felt like the dumbest guy in the world.
Beirut’s Green Line
Before I proceed with the Am Embassy Beirut visit the reader may benefit from a short historical note on the effect of the Lebanese civil war on Beirut. Keep in mind that prior to my arrival I relied only on conversations with fellow techs for a historical perspective. We RCO techs at Am Consul Karachi had over sixty U.S. missions to support. Such were the times when overseas the International Herald Tribune newspaper was the main source of information besides the Foreign Service grapevine that the techs tapped into.
To recap what I knew about Beirut prior to my arrival: A civil war between Muslims and Christians had broken out in Lebanon in 1975. It had spread to Beirut where fierce fighting had destroyed much of the downtown area. As a result a “Green Line” was established approximately down the middle of the city, with the Christians on one side and the Muslims on the other. To complicate matters the Muslims had religious disagreements between the Sunnis and the Shiites and other religious groups.
What Happened to Beirut? | Comments From American Embassy Beirut Officials
The reality of the Lebanese civil war slapped America in the face on June 16, 1976. Newly appointed Ambassador Frank Meloy, along with Economic Counselor Robert Waring, were abducted while traveling to meet with the Lebanese president. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (a Marxist revolutionary group determined to liberate Palestine from Israel) murdered Meloy, Waring, and the driver.
Talcott Seelye (temporary Beirut ambassador after Meloy assassination): “The Ambassadors’ cars in those days were rigged with a concealed microphone in the ceiling. You had a button to the right of your seat that you could press if you were in a dangerous situation. That would trigger the microphone and then the microphone would play back to the Marine Guard office. So the embassy could hear what was going on and take steps accordingly. That button had never been pressed in the case of Meloy. Nothing was heard at the Marine headquarters. Either it hadn’t worked or it hadn’t been pressed.”
Additional Author note:
The ambassador alarm package mentioned by Seelye was the responsibility of RCO Karachi (the CEO-R radio tech). As far as I know, no one placed blame on the RCO office for the fact that Ambassador Meloy’s radio alarm had never been deployed).
George Lambrakis, the Deputy Chief of Mission (second in charge) in Beirut from 1975 to 1976 said that the city was a “completely lawless place.” Although an extremely complicated conflict, Lambrakis believed that the war stemmed from previous problems between the haves and have-nots. The haves being the Lebanese Christians for the most part, led by the Maronites, although some of the Christians, non-Maronites, Greek Orthodox, were primarily neutral or even on the side of the have-nots (the Christians historically had more power than the Muslims). Needless to say, it was complicated…
Complications that Fueled the Lebanese Civil War
- Decades of tension between the haves vs. have not’s (Christians vs. Muslims).
- Arab/Muslim discord within the ranks (Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Alamite).
- Influx of Palestinian refugees (including Palestinian Liberation Organization P.L.O. members from Jordon after 1970’s “Black September.”
- Rise of the P.L.O. (led by Yasser Arafat) as an international force in Beirut.
- Russian covert support of Palestinians/Muslims.
- U.S. tacit support of Christians.
- Lebanon’s origins stem from Syria. Syrian President Assad supported the Beirut Christian party to appease the Christian base in Syria.
- The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (the Marxist revolutionary group to liberate Palestine from Israel) assassinated U.S. Ambassador Melroy in June 1976.
- The omnipresent threat of southern neighbor Israel.
- The usual suspects: Mistrust, greed, quest for political gain, etc, etc.
George Lambrakis, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Beirut 1975-76:
“Beirut was a place in which no one was in charge. You ran a risk of being kidnapped and killed if you walked the street, quite apart from the shooting that happened periodically across the streets.”
In ’76 the Palestinian backed Muslims were winning. The Christians began to panic. They asked for American assistance (FYI: The American Embassy Beirut was located in the Muslim side of the “Green Line”). U.S. officials worked to return an ambassador to Beirut and reopen the old embassy. As a result of the events of early 1977 it happened in February 1977.
1977 Timeline of Events
Although the Lebanese civil war had calmed down in 1977, the danger in and outside Beirut was still imminent.
- January 3, 1977—A bomb blast in the Christian district of Achrafieh caused 50 dead and more than 70 injured near downtown Beirut.
- February 8, 1977—Kurt Waldheim, Secretary General of the United Nations, arrived to Beirut. He declared that the United Nations would broker a comprehensive solution in the Middle East.
- February 14, 1977—The ambassador of the United States returned to Lebanon. U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance met with President Sarkis in Beirut reassuring him that the United States would give its full support. Vance announced fifty million dollars in aid to Lebanon.
- March 10, 1977—The war had caused huge inflation in Lebanon. Meat, sugar, cheese, oil and chicken had tripled since before 1975.
- March 16, 1977—Druze leader Kamal Joumblatt, chief of the Lebanese left wing, was assassinated. The country went into mourning.
- March 19, 1977—An airplane with 182 passengers was hijacked between Turkey and Lebanon. Two hijackers forced the airplane to head towards Beirut where it landed at four p.m. The Lebanese authorities were able to negotiate with the hijackers. Ultimately, the passengers were released and the police arrested the hijackers.
- November 5, 1977—The Saheka forces (Syria-Palestinian militia) attacked the village of Aishiyeh killing 41 of its residents and displacing most of the others.
- November 9, 1977—Israel launched an assault in the South. An air and sea Israeli bombing of Lebanese towns and Palestinian camps claimed the lives of 110 civilians. The town of Ezzieh was razed.
Final author note:
When I arrived in mid-November 1977 Beirut, Lebanon resembled a war zone. Two Foreign Service Officers at post convinced me that there was more to Beirut than just the remains of conflict…