Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Is Lebanon Safe for Foreigners? It Depends on Whom You Ask

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Is Lebanon Safe for Foreigners? It Depends on Whom You Ask

Article excerpt

Is Lebanon Safe for Foreigners? It Depends on Whom You Ask

Is Beirut safe for foreigners? Well, it all depends on whom you ask. For a positive spin, try the Lebanese Ministry of Interior located downtown in the part of the old Government House that wasn't blown to bits in the 1975-1990 civil war.

"We can assure you that Lebanon is safe," says a ministry spokesman who deals with the foreign press and is used to that question. Proudly he tells how law and order is on the increase. Some 4,000 young men have joined the internal Security Forces. Of course some of that "beef" consists of exmilitiamen. They have been given special instruction in nationalism and law and order. When the final exams are administered, let's hope they pass.

Statistics are the spokesman's strongest point. In the confiscation category he reads out figures from the first six months of 1991: 2,000,000 counterfeit dollars, 3,300 pounds of marijuana, 132 pounds of heroin, and 20 pounds of cocaine. Arrests include 71 persons for murder or attempted murder, 233 on drug charges, 451 for stealing, 163 for armed robbery and 188 for entering Lebanon without a visa.

For a Westerner, getting a visa can be a big problem. A Canadian national working in Kuwait was refused a visa to Lebanon to see his Lebanese wife. Too dangerous, the Lebanese official said, even though the man has made several trips in the past.

Americans still have the 1987 U.S. State Department ban on travel to Lebanon to contend with. Some Lebanese consulates "arrange" matters. Others demand a paper from the U.S. government okaying the visit--an almost impossible request. It was this U.S. ban that caused the holdup of a group of American professional wrestlers at Beirut airport in mid-April. They wanted the Lebanese authorities to stamp them into the country on a separate piece of paper so that there would be no telltale stamp in their passports revealing that they had ignored their own government's ban.

A British woman who lived in Beirut in the early '80s applied for a tourist visa in March and had trouble she didn't expect. "I was asked to provide a letter from my employer guaranteeing that I would return to Britain and not seek employment in Lebanon," she explains. With that taken care of, she got her visa and enjoyed a week of fun-filled touring, never once feeling frightened.

Embassies still refuse to reveal the number of their citizens living in Lebanon. A good guess for the American community, counting only native-born Americans, would be 75. Most of these are women married to Lebanese men. The women are allowed to stay here because they are economic dependents. The half a handful of American men living in Lebanon have been here for years and depend on their street sense to keep them safe.

"I think the kidnapping is over," said one of these optimistic types. He was standing a mere block away from the spot where one of the first kidnappings took place in 1984. He admits the remaining hostages, two Germans, are a knotty problem but doesn't feel he will be a target.

The U.S. Embassy here in no way agrees. When Israel ambushed and killed Hezbollah leader Sheikh Abbas Musawi in February, threats to kidnap foreigners were again heard. The embassy sounded the alarm. A letter went out to one American woman who was asked to contact others in West Beirut. "Please pass the word that the embassy takes the threats directed at Americans very seriously," it read. …

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