Towards the beginning of the war, Israeli air strikes target five of the six oil storage tanks at the electrical plant in El-Jiye city. El-Jiya is a small coastal city roughly 20 miles south of Beirut. The prevailing winds blow towards the north, up the coast, so this translates into most of the coast of Lebanon north of that city now being smeared with 50,000 tons of fuel oil.
On Friday my photographer friend Raoul, a British photographer named Mark and I headed up to the coastal city of Byblos to see how the fishermen there and local tourist economy were holding up. I’d seen some of the footage of the oil choked boat harbor in Byblos, and wanted to see it for myself.
After a nice drive up the highway north to Byblos, (there is much more traffic on the roads now that most of the air strikes have let up in the area north of Beirut), we arrived to find the harbor nearly completely filled with oil
“What a disaster, this is heartbreaking,” muttered Raoul while Mark and I stood by and nodded our disgust.
Byblos is a seaside city whose economy is heavily reliant on fishing and tourism. The city dates from the 5th millennium B.C. and it is believed that the linear alphabet originated there.
We spread out and took photos of the sludge filled harbor, an odd scene as the setting was so beautiful. Date palm fronds ruffled in the sea breeze as they stood amongst harbor-view restaurants with flags from various Arab countries fluttering. The salty air from the sea would have been nice, if it wasn’t for the tinged oily residue smell that by the end of our visit left me with a headache.
The bottoms of most of the boats, at water line, looked like a bad graffiti artist with too many cans of jet-black spray paint went on a rampage during the night. Ropes which tied the boats to the dock lifted up and down as boats shifted in the waves. As they stretched tight, rivulets of oil dripped from them back into the oil-covered water. It was so thick it looked like you could walk on it to pick up the garbage which was trapped in the oil.
After about an hour we decided to take a lunch at one of the empty restaurants. While the photographers carried on their work, I went to one of these and found three men sitting at a table smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and staring at the harbor.
“The Lebanese government definitely does not have the capability to clean this us,” Nabil Baz, the restaurant owner said to me after I introduced myself as a journalist. After ordering me a coffee, he said, “I heard we were going to get some help from Kuwait, but I don’t know how true this is or when they might start the cleanup process.”
The occasional local strolled by on the sidewalk beneath us; otherwise the harbor was empty, along with the empty fishing boats bobbing in the sludge, their tubs of nets sitting idle.
Nabil, while talking with me, would periodically look out over the harbor and shake his head, take a drag from his cigarette, then return to our discussion. As bad as the scene was, he believed the main problem for the fishermen, rather than the oil spill, was the Israeli naval blockade of Lebanon which has prevented any boat traffic to leave the coast for any reason.
“No fishermen are able to work at all,” he said, “I have no idea how our community will recover from this. We are going to need some serious help.”
Since the bombing of El-Jiye, a huge black smoke plume has been visible even from areas in northern Lebanon, beyond Byblos. The smoke varies between blowing up the coast or into the nearby mountains. From Byblos it appeared as a faint grey smudge across the sky, just off the coast. But that was only because on that day the wind was blowing more inland-so down in Beirut the plume was going towards the mountains.
Joseph Chaloub, a 55 year-old fisherman who has fished from the Byblos harbor his entire life, sat with us. He said that his greatest concern now was the lack of a cleanup operation.
“The problem is there is no cleanup, along with the Israeli blockade,” he said while pointing to the nearby Mediterranean, “Otherwise we could fish and survive. Now, it’s a catastrophe that people have lost their livelihood.”
In addition to the fishing industry, the overall economy of Byblos, like so many other cities in Lebanon who rely heavily on tourism for their survival, has ground to a near standstill.
“Everything is down now, only the local markets and the refugees are keeping our economy going,” a local banker named Tony Ashar who was sitting with us added, “Also there is no US currency in our banks to give to people when they want to make a withdrawal.”
Ashar explained that since Israeli warplanes bombed Beirut International Airport, the influx of US dollars to Lebanese banks, which rely on the currency for travelers since the value of the Lebanese currency is fluid and low, has come to a complete halt.
“We usually have US currency flown in, but now there’s a big concern that we may have to limit the amount of US dollars we can give out,” he continued, “So that makes it difficult for people to travel, which is a big problem since so many people are leaving the country now.”
I should add that the Lebanese immigration authorities are working 18 hours a day and issuing an average of 5,000 passports per day, as the flow of people out of Lebanon continues. Foreign nationals are still being loaded onto ships from the port of Beirut to be whisked to safety on nearby Cypress.
Mohamad Yasouk, an information technology engineer who was also sitting at the table, said that he didn’t believe the already weak economy of Lebanon could survive much longer if the war continued more than two more weeks.
“With the oil spill and the war, all of the tourists are gone,” he said, “I came to Byblos from south Beirut since my home was bombed.” He turned and pointed a short ways up the coast and added, “Yet even here two nights ago the Israelis bombed an Army radar nearby. The same one they bombed two weeks ago.”
Nabil, while forlornly staring at the sludge filled harbor and empty sidewalks again, said that this was what Byblos looked like in the middle of winter. “The tourists are afraid because of the war, then the few who are left here don’t want to eat the fish, even though the fish are caught further to the north and brought here. So our main economy is gone now.”
After our meal we drove back to Beirut. I’d been to the tourist beaches here a few days ago-to take photos of the flotillas of oil washing up on the empty beaches, which are usually jammed with tourists this time of year.
Pools of oil sloshed up with the waves, staining the beach and rocks. A group of Palestinian fisherman who used to fish the coast near the capital city sat staring at the waves as the sun began to set in late afternoon.
Several of them were sitting around in a small beach hut with a palm frond roof. They too were staring at the sea, as if to wish the oil away, and the Israeli naval blockade, so they could do their work. Instead of working their nets and earning money by selling fresh sea bass to the local markets and restaurants, the darkly tanned men were sitting around drinking strong Arabic coffee and smoking too many cigarettes.
“If we tried to fish, the Israelis would kill us,” said one of them who told me his name was Hafez. “Besides, nobody would eat the fish anyway even if we could fish. Now we wait for a miracle, something to take this oil away and stop this war.”