Continued from: From Child Soldier to Je Suis Boat People
First a bit of culture from Amsterdam, where I’m writing this
This here fellow in the poster had his ear chewed off by his girlfriend and got so upset he painted a luvly jubly picture of some sunflowers in a vase and sold it for $150 million. Of course, this being a story about culture it ends with him never seeing a single penny from his art.
Enough culture for one day. Back to the sparks that started the Lebanese civil war.
And why, you might be wondering, I would take Yves out of our way to stop for a coffee and a picture outside a mid range hotel in Nicosia, that was probably at the pinnacle of the hotel scene in 1975.
This particular chapter starts in Beirut, as one of the sparks that set off the Lebanese exploded around us.
The Massacre at Damour
The number of deaths at Damour massacre also vary widely – from 500 to over 2000 people slaughtered in the space of three or four days.
I once spent some weeks monitoring daily death tolls from post war violence in Baghdad. Authorities there would give a number, take a trip to the four or five main morgues in Baghdad usually gave a completely different count. Numbers are arbitrary in war.
With the news and savagery of the Damour attack the Lebanese army seconded all available vessels to bring people escaping the carnage from the beaches of Damour in southern Beirut to Jounieh in the north.
Our little big green cargo ship among them.
That meant my mother had to go from the outskirts of town where we were staying with relatives to Jounieh port to see if ships had been released and when we could leave.
On one of these days I spotted our ship leaving Jounieh harbour and in my addled state I thought my mum had gone without me. I started running towards the port with a vague plan about getting a boat and caching up with her.
As I headed towards the crowds of refugees disembarking, families separated, children crying in fear and confusion and people being loaded piecemeal into busses to take them away to make room for more arrivals, I heard shouting from behind. It was my mother and my cousin catching up.
Je Suis Boat People
Any case, a few days later the ships were released and those with tickets finally allowed to board.
What I had looked forward to as a great sea cruise adventure type thing turned into a nightmare that of memory searing proportions.
Now this is a cargo ship. A small rust bucket working the backwaters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The cabins available were the most basic sort of accommodation designed for one, efficiently packed sailor.
Tiny cabin, tiny cot, tiny sink and tiny toilet. We were allotted some 8 to 12 women and children per cabin – a cabin designed for a single solitary sailor.
The sea was rough and only got worse as we left Jounieh harbour.
To describe the conditions of 10 women and children crammed into a tiny cabin and the onset of mass sea sickness is going to be hard. Needless to say everything that can contain liquids, including sink and toilets, was full and still the weather worsened as did the seasickness.
Because of the worsening storm it was decided that the ship needs to return to safety to wait it out.
Unfortunately Jounieh harbour was too small for the ship to attempt a return, so the decision was to take refuge in Beirut Port.
Beirut, the flashpoint of years of political, religious and factional divides building up. A tinderbox of hatred and coked up guerrillas looking for a piece of glory.
We were advised lights out, be quiet, the ship will stay off shore but within the harbor. Small comfort.
It was here that we were joined by the men of the fleeing refugees who had been put in the cargo hold of the ship. Where else where you going to keep them?
Apparently that was too much for them, being knocked around with the luggage in a hold with nothing for a human cargo to hold onto.
Long story short it was 25 hours later that we arrived, limping, scared, beat, seasick into Larnaca port in Cyprus. The trip was supposed to take six to eight hours. Easy peesy.
We were allowed out of our cabins to get air and wait for officialdom to take its course.
The site of a hundred or more haggard refugees crowding the deck of a small ship is reminiscent of some of the scenes you’ll see today of people escaping one calamity or the other seeking refuge in the safety of European shores.
A bit of a faff later, when it seemed most of the fleeing refugees in our boat may not be allowed into Cyprus, UK and citizens of other countries not requiring as visa were finally allowed off the ship.
Hotel Cleopatra, Nicosia
The details are beyond me but I do remember entering the lobby of a rather nice hotel in the capital Nicosia.
I remember the dimmed lighting and the seventies style half sphere swivel fiberglass armchairs in the lobby. I remember my mother saying look at our state arriving in such a lovely place.
We were haggard, dirty, tired, traumatised escapees from one of the ugliest tit for tat escalation of ugliness in Lebanon.
Mostly I remember peoples reactions to us. People had been hearing wand watching what’s going on in Beirut and word that we had just arrived from there spread like wildfire in the hotel.
Everybody, I remember, came for a look at the refugees.
What was it like? What did we see? What’s going on? Could the news be right? Sit, sit, please, sit down right here, relax, here drink this. Don’t worry, you’re OK now. You be safe now.
It was people’s reactions to us that touched me most. They knew what we just came from and the depth and depravity the atrocities wed left behind in Beirut.
Everybody did what they could to help us settle in. We were live testimony to unspeakable atrocities that had just been unleashed in Lebanon.
This was the Hotel Cleopatra we’d arrived at in Nicosia, which is why there’s a picture of me and Yves standing in front of a hotel in Nicosia.
I told him there’s something needs doing before heading north and crossing the buffer zone into the Turkish north of Cyprus.
We sat at the coffee shop opposite the hotel and I told him the story and the reason why we went so out of our way for a picture.
Hotel Cleopatra. That’s it there, right behind us.