Travel report Return trip Lebanon 21 April to 30 April 2023
By Perry Roos.
Lebanon... A land of extremes that has not been at the forefront of the issues of everyday life for years, but also something that has never been absent.
What would it be like if you ever had the opportunity to go back?
I've figured that out in the meantime.
That started in February of 2023 via the Facebook page of Veterans for Lebanon with an innocent email to Bert and Jeannet asking if it was still possible to go on the return trip in April since there were a few dropouts. To my astonishment this was possible and after some quick consultation with my companion Henk van Didden we decided; now or never.
The introductory afternoon followed a little later where the almost entire travel group was present and where explanations were given of the purpose of the trip and the possibilities to visit the post(s) where they were stationed at the time. The great thing is that the trip consisted of various years of the troops, from Dutchbatt to Dutchcoy.
In addition to visiting the posts or locations where the posts once stood, this trip created an opportunity to discover and view the "rest" of the country, something that most veterans had no opportunity to do at the time. Shortly before the trip we were alarmed by the announcement from Transavia that the return flight had been changed; whether we had a problem with that...
With an adjustment in the program and a unanimous "Yes", the trip became two days longer.
Friday, April 21;
The Transavia Boeing 737 was ready and the entire party moved to Beirut where we arrived in the evening in the dark (we knew that; it's dark early there).
After the usual arrival procedures and collecting the suitcases, we are met outside the arrival hall guide by Georges Farah and driver Afif who neatly stows all the luggage in the private bus. We then leave for Byblos for the overnight stay at the hotel. The trip got us back into how Lebanese traffic presents itself; chaotic, but everyone takes each other into account... we were back again!
On the bus Georges provided us with pocket money in the form of exchanging $20, - which resulted in 2 million Lebanese pounds per person... A bus full of millionaires!
After arrival we immediately checked in and then had a generous dinner in the heart of Byblos. At the end the first day we were well fed and somewhat tired.
Some money from Georges... Busy traffic !
Saturday, April 22;
The morning starts with breakfast on the fourth floor of the hotel with a panoramic view over the countryside and the Mediterranean Sea stretching as far as Beirut; a wonderful experience following the darkness of the previous nigh; street lighting is rare in a country like Lebanon.
Good morning Lebanon...
After breakfast we walk to the remains of the local crusader castle which looks a little small at the front but behind turns into an immense terrain. It provides an impressive tour under bright summer weather.
Back on the bus and we set course for several smaller visits to monuments and a Roman bridge, short-term visits to get used to the country and its customs in the first two days. The Jeita caves are visited which is truly a breathtaking experience. The ban on taking photos, is handled in true Lebanese style, resulting in beautiful pictures! Then on to Harissa where a huge statue of Mary has been placed. We watch a beautiful sunset from that point. A dinner in Byblos completed the day.
Sunday, April 23
A day trip to Baalbek in the east of the country located in the Bekaa valley. Via the Damascus road we make a stop at "Sea Sweet Shop", a bakery / pastry shop where dangerously tasty baked goods of all shapes and sizes are sold.
Continuing on, the road gives a picture of the huge car trade in Lebanon; It's basically one long line of car dealers, from complete cars to the curious selections of car parts; complete front or rear sections of a particular brand. The middle part is seemingly not interesting anymore.
After about an hour we approach Baalbek and the complex is in sight. The Roman temples are an impressive experience and because of the enormous size and what is left of it you need a few hours. In the temple of Bacchus the Elf-Hour is enjoyed; all members of the tour group make a toast to an event or a person who is quoted or commemorated, which sometimes results in a special moment. We traditionally do this every day at a location where people are with a different speaker each time. Lunch is enjoyed at the Lakkis Restaurant just outside Baalbek, an extremely modern complex with excellent cuisine. After this gastronomic delight we continue our journey to Zahle. A stop is then made at the Lady of Zahle (again Mary comes into the picture, an icon that is revered in both the Christian and Muslim world) in the form of a watchtower which gives a magnificent view of the Bekaa valley. The tour continues to Tyre and the Platinum Hotel which is right next to Tyre Barracks. For everyone, the visit to the A.O in the south is now very close.
Baalbek ... here we are !
Monday, April 24;
The day everyone has been waiting for...
The visit to the UNIFIL Area of Operation is now really about to begin. From the hotel the bus turns onto the coastal road and the image is immediately recognizable from there. The target is Naqoura, the UNIFIL "capital" or headquarters. Along the way, some hurdles still have to be overcome in the form of Lebanese army checkpoints and there are fears that there will be another check in the form of passport control. These fears however appear to be unfounded as the postal guards are accommodating and we pass everywhere unhindered. Meanwhile, we drive into former Charlie territory and see 7-1A popping up in the distance, at least what's left of it. And where in the past it was necessary to wait for guidance from the enclave, it is now possible to continue driving unhindered.
Direction Naqoura Italair
Driving along the coast we approach Naqoura and it is uplifting to see how that has changed.
A drive onwards towards Rosh-Hanikra, as travel via Israel, is not an option. The border is completely closed.
At the base we are warmly welcomed by two Dutch officers Annelies Koning from UNIFIL and Jordi from UNTSO and we are extensively informed about the current situation in the south. This is followed by a tribute at the local monument to the fallen (the exercise in the morning in front of the hotel gave the necessary hilarity but later on the spot it was good). There was also a visit to the airbase of Italair, with its 5 operational Bell Hueye's, now positioned on higher ground, for safety reasons.
Do we remember ? Check !
After an extensive lunch, we left Naqoura and set course for Shama, the location of post 7-2 and then Al-Jibbayn, post 7-5. At both locations there is little or almost nothing left of the post buildings we knew and the view has changed greatly due to the enormous increase in house construction. Yet the contours in the landscape remain recognizably the same. What is striking, before we reach post 7-2 is a huge base for Chinese troops, not simply a post... rather a fortress.
At location 7-5 we are soon noticed by the local "scooter spies" affiliated with Hezbollah who ask what we are doing and after some explanation and showing photos from the time, the mood quickly turns into that of recognizability and hospitality. It doesn't take long for families to be summoned to be reacquainted!
Reacquainted... ! ... And there it was...
After this beautiful meeting, the phone rings and we are asked where we are staying. We are expected for tea in Majdel Zun with the local teacher and his family. The point is we first have to go down into the wadi and then steeply up to finally end up in Majdel Zun. The paved road or path if you prefer (about the width of a hefty Dutch cycle path) is taken flawlessly by Afif who would later show his bus driving skills many times over. When we arrive in Majdel Zun, without realizing it, we suddenly find ourselves at the old location of post 7-4; at the time headquarters of Charlie and later Dutchcoy. Here too, a lot has been changed and added, but the roll call place and the heliport, which were paved in our time, can be found relatively quickly.
The tea session with 22 people visiting and the whole family including grandma of 94 (!) is a true happening; we are overfed with coffee, tea and all kinds of delicacies. The hospitality is unprecedented!
22 man ? No problem ! Gratitude...
After tea, a hearty farewell and the bus heads for the coastal road, the road to 7-17.
The road is recognizable, the buildings right next to it are not. Formerly an open area and now almost completely fully built! Soon we approach Al Mansuri and stop in the village square which produces recognizable images. After the short stop we descend further and finally stop at post 7-17. Back after all these years at your own post...an indescribable feeling.
-The post is for the most part still intact, pieces have been added but are uninhabited. The access is blocked by a fence and therefore cannot be entered. The original painting from the battalion and company days can still be seen for the most part, as is the marking of the names of the postal inhabitants at the time. The contours of the roadblock can no longer be seen as well as the guard booths that stood there, the first on the other side of the post, the second at the time adjacent to the post. The road next to it is now as smooth as a billiard cloth compared to the past and a lot wider-
Stepping off the bus, it is amazing to be there again; after exactly 39 years. The photo session does not stop until we are face to face with a resident, named Ali, who lives 50 meters away and who says 'hello' at that moment.
A moment of pure disbelief and amazement then takes hold of you. This is reinforced a little later when a car stops and suddenly in fluent Dutch; "Hello, how are you?? Nasser, a local trader from earlier times, also recognizes us and again we are astounded! The ensuing conversation makes it clear that life is not easy for these people. Both men have to earn a living in Côte d'Ivoire and briefly cite moments of the war in 1996 and 2006 around Majdal Zun and Al Mansuri.
Shortly afterwards we return to the bus and continue towards post 7-18 further north along the coastal road; in the meantime a bizarre experience richer.
I know you !!! Hello... how are you doing ??
Post 7-18 is not easy to find, the location itself is now covered with housing and it is just a guess where it stood. A little later it turns out that the correct location can be traced and here too the asphalt that was dumped at the time, for the benefit of the roll call place behind the post is found, as well as the location of an electricity pylon seen in photos. Here, too, someone suddenly appears and greets us; "I have a surprise for you!"
It turns out to be Hassan who interpreted a lot for the Dutch troops at the time. He also had a shop, known locally under the motto; "shop of the Hassan, if I don't have it I'll make it".
Again, stories are picked up and photos are viewed and compared and before we know it, night falls and we have to return to the hotel.
That's me.. Hassan:... and overthere was Sharif..
Tuesday April 25
Again up early and after breakfast back to the UNIFIL area, this time towards Buyout As-Sayyid 7-1A, and 7-19. The first one is easy to find but 7-19 is a bit harder to track down but with some outside help the road is found. This location is poignant as a result of the incident in which Sergeant Philip de Koning died on November 9, 1979. Soon, thanks to the local scooter brigade, access to location 7-19 is further prevented. They simply do not want to continue to help with matters that obviously cannot stand the light of day. There is no other choice but to go to the extreme of what is permissible and then turn around...
As far as it goes...
The journey continues, there is now a whole series of posts, we leave Charlie area and head towards Qana. First a visit to a cave for Mary worship and then towards the former headquarters of Fiji-bat. This place suffered in 1996 after a shelling by the IDF which resulted in several hundred mainly civilian casualties, dead and wounded. The silent witnesses of all this are formed by an impressive memorial, the still existing headquarters building (now inhabited again) and the few remaining Israeli tanks are silent witnesses to this drama.
Israeli T-55… Memorial
Next we drive towards Siddikine, the location of post 7-9, located on a hilltop with a panoramic view of the surroundings. The post itself is no longer in use but can still be entered, largely intact and recognizable by the large letters UN painted on the wall. Here too you can see, as everywhere in Lebanon, how a lot is being built in this area.
... and the surrounding area
-Then post 7-8 is visited, one with a tragic history.
On December 4, 1980, a fatal accident took place when Corporal Gerrit Jan van Barneveld fell out of the mast in an attempt to repair a cable in an electricity pylon and died on the spot.
This makes him one of the nine Dutch Unifillers that lost their lives during the mission...
The post itself is today in use as a house and the owner allowed us to lay a flower in memory of Gerrit Jan, the mast in question is no longer there but the foundation is still present and visible-.
Subsequently, posts 7-21 and 7-11 are visited in Kafra and Yatar respectively, under the permanent supervision of the Lebanese security service. And here too, curious scooter riders and motorists come from all alleys and streets to take a look at what we have come to do, the fanfare works well here. Here, too, the test of time gnaws at the locations because you have to search carefully to discover traces.
In passing, there is also a visit to the town hall at the moechtar who explains in a long speech what the world on the ground looks like today. Through Georges we learn the short version, that lasts considerably shorter! The moechtar, however, is honored and delighted with the visit and we are admired, photographed and filmed from all sides, something that shows goodwill for all parties.
In Kafra... ..and Yatar
Then we set course for Tibnine for lunch, but first an old acquaintance is picked up; Speedy climbs into the bus and with an unadulterated "hello, everything okay?" plus the entire repertoire he is known for and soon everyone is laughing.
Speedy ! Ali-Ben-Bevo !
... and pictures say more than words
Haris is visited; the old headquarters is deserted but it still stands and the old Ali Ben Bevo inscription is also found thanks to the instructions from a resident.
While walking we discover an old Dutch PSU cabinet that had found a new destination with a local resident, we don't want it back!
There will be another stop at post 7-16 Al Yatun and 7-13 Shribin, then the last post for the day; post 7-7 on the road under construction. This post has since been turned into a residential house, but the residents are still familiar with the old photos that are shown. Here, too, a cordial meeting follows.
And here too the stop does not go unnoticed by the locals, it is downright fascinating how we are welcomed almost everywhere and thanked for our efforts even though it has been forty years now... Driving through the area, it is now impossible to imagine that given the size of the area at the time, 1 battalion had to keep an eye on the whole area!
Wednesday 26 April
Today a special visit to the Hezbollah museum in the town of Mleeta.
Where it is the most common thing in the Western world that there are museums about, among other things, the Second World War, a museum has been set up here with regard to the fight of Hezbollah against the State of Israel.
The tour starts with the screening of a promotional film and then with a guide to view the museum grounds. That consists of cobbled together wrecks of what appears to be Israeli origin in a neatly ranked display (not the look-a like Merkava tank that is proposed anyway, it simply hasn't been conquered). The guide has done his homework and tells his story in almost flawless English. Continuing on, a walkway through a forest with trenches, shelters and lots of improvised weaponry to finally reach a beautiful viewpoint. Furthermore, some buildings with captured handguns and all kinds of military equipment from the IDF.
And last but not least a real souvenir shop where literally everything that has to do with the heroic battle is sold; flags, t-shirts, keychains, effigies of famous leaders, you name it. In short, quite special to see and to experience this, but it remains up to the visitor what he or she thinks.
No Questions ? Perfect ! The-is-it-not-Merkava
The next goal is the Green Valley where lunch is enjoyed in restaurant "Phoenicia", this is where the son of Afif, our bus driver, works. The location is dazzlingly beautiful and the lunch more than excellent. After lunch we set course for Beaufort castle with its rich history (dating back to the Crusaders) still has strategic value today. So much so that Israeli troops tried to blow up the site, which was not successful. The castle has been largely restored and is accessible. When you stand on top of it you immediately understand the strategic value, in clear weather it is possible to see far into the Golan plateau.
Then we drive to the Blue Line, the border wall between Lebanon and Israel. It used to be possible to cross the border, but this is no longer possible due to the hermetically sealed gate. It is a high concrete wall with a fence on top which has a tower with the necessary sensors every few meters. When you arrive in the town of Odaysse there is the possibility to peer into Israel from that location, it is actually nothing but the Berlin Wall 2.0....
Then back to hotel Platinum for dinner and overnight stay.
Green valley.... indeed The wall....
Thursday 27 April
The day starts with an official ceremony; the wreath-laying and tribute at the UNIFIL monument with the names of the fallen of all contingents including the nine Dutch names.
A serious moment that impressed everyone.
From there the visit to the Necropolis and the Roman Hippodrome, respectively the city of the dead and the Roman racecourse, the latter has the persistent story that the chariot scene of the film Ben Hur was shot here. Our guide Georges told us with certainty that this was not the case. The old part of town is really full of history including tombs, foundations and gates. The part of the city merges into the old racecourse of which part of the grandstand still exists and can be entered.
Then the journey continues to Sidon where a visit is made to the crusader castle which lies in the sea, the open air market (to get in for the big open air market in Tripoli later in the week) and the caravanserai. We also take the opportunity to grab a terrace right next to the road where the incessant traffic goes through the city (crossing the roads is an art!).
We continue towards Beirut to arrive on time at the Commodore hotel in the heart of the city in the Hamra district. The reason to be there in time is that we are expected in the evening at the reception of the Dutch embassy for King's Day... and you don't skip that, of course. The reception is held in a beach club on the seafront.
Needless to say it was a very special event and among the 1000 strong crowd there were a number of Unifil veterans with supporters who could give the occasion grounding among all the dignitaries, senior soldiers and other.
Last but not least; who would have thought it possible to eat a Dutch bitterbal on the spot in Beirut! After closing time, an afterthought was done in the hotel, but in the end everyone was in bed...something with until the late hours?
Wreath laying and tribute UNIFIL monument in Tyre
Friday April 27
Again up early, breakfast and then the trip to the next destination; the cedartrees in The Garden of the Gods.
But first a visit to the Saint Coeur school in the Bauchrieh district where the Veterans For Lebanon foundation has put so much work into building a wireless 5G network and being able to supply a significant number of laptops and fixed computers with all the necessary equipment. The devastating explosion in the port on 4 August 2020 caused extensive damage. Thanks to their efforts, the 2500 students and their teachers can use the internet again, which is extremely useful in their development.
Visit to the school... ...up to date again
A trip of a good 125 kilometers from Beirut to the Garden of the Gods. That doesn't seem far as the crow flies, but the winding roads into the mountains means that it takes about two hours to get to the destination. However, the trip is well worth it if only for the helmsmanship of Afif who unperturbed and with a permanent smile steers the bus over the mountain roads. What a Hero!
On the way we stop for a photo opportunity, we go higher and higher into the mountains and even drive through the clouds. However, the view is unforgettable and provides beautiful pictures. We arrive in Becharre, the birthplace of Gibran Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese poet and writer. The museum is visited which is located in a beautiful place with a panoramic view. It is also the final resting place of the writer, a place that can also be visited.
Then to the furthest point of this trip; the cedar forest. This special forest is one of the last places in the country where the centuries old trees still stand in a way that used to be seen throughout Lebanon. Most of these forests were used at the time for shipbuilding and the construction of temples. Unfortunately, at the time they did not think of tree replanting, but fortunately people now think differently and they have started with young plantings.
However, it takes a long time before a large tree grows, so it is a long term project. The walk through the forest is special, especially if you can still throw snowballs at each other!
We can be brief about lunch; 22 people entering a restaurant all together was never going to work well. Rarely seen a waiter (or was it the cook or something in between) literally running to get the now cold food served... .. Fawlty Towers in Lebanese! Since lunch was more than plentiful on other days, we could forgive this hilarious food moment.
After this culinary delight we descend to the Qadisha valley to visit the Kozhaya monastery. Of the original 200 monks who lived and worked there, only seven remain today. Nevertheless, worth a visit if only for the surroundings and view. Then back to Beirut.
Cedars of Lebanon... The Boss Afif....
Saturday 29 April
After breakfast a drive to Tripoli the northern most city along the coast that we visit. A densely populated and not exactly the cleanest city, with an eventful past. We start at the local crusader castle where a wide view of the city is possible and where the next destination comes into view; the large open air market of Tripoli.
As soon as we descend into the market, it is as if you enter a movie. A colourful mix of people, goods, food, jewellery, household goods and a thousand photogenic pictures. A maze of streets makes it easy to get lost here, so keep a close eye on each other. After some shopping and a few delicious sandwiches we continue the road to the bus and then drive to the old train station of El-Mina.
The true train fanatic would be reeling from what can be seen here; At least six antique steam locomotives wrecks are here in a setting that can hardly be seen anywhere else. Also victims of the war, clearly visible from the war damage but also the result of the residents who demolished the removable metal parts. After doing some research, these are mainly Prussian locomotives, the oldest of which dates from 1895. It produces special pictures. We drive back to the south and visit the town of Batroun. Here is still a large part of the Phoenician wall right by the sea that still serves as a seawall. From Batroun, back to Beirut and from a distance the location of the explosion in the port. Slowly the chaos is being cleaned up, although in the immediate vicinity the consequences are still visible in the form of boarded-up windows or even no windows at all and disappeared sides of buildings. In the harbour itself, next to the crater, there is still a capsized ship. Still attached to the ropes with which it was docked at the time. It does not seem possible to lift and dispose of the ship for the time being.
Souk in Tripoli... Past glory...
Sunday 30 April
The last day...
Breakfast and then check out from the Commodore hotel; the bus waits patiently for the many suitcases that Afif again stacks in the luggage area. We first drive to the city center for a walking tour through the area of the Green Line. This section was almost completely rebuilt after the civil war. For example, the Blue Mosque and the Maroni church stand side by side with various other places of worship linked to them. Close too it is the old cinema. The typical round building looks desolate and has been in an unchanged, destroyed state since the end of the war in 1991. It will remain in this state and will no longer be rebuilt as a sign of the madness of war. This also applies to the statue that stands in the central square and is riddled with bullet holes and damage that can still be seen on various other buildings.
Until a few years ago, the center had a fairly extensive business and shopping center and modern open air market. The explosion in the port has literally wiped out all hope here too. What remains are closed shop buildings, some looted and deserted streets that have been cordoned off by the army who keep an eye on them. It will be a long time before normal life returns here.
Back to the bus and on the way to the National Museum in Beirut. Here is an impressive amount of antiquities that have survived time and even the civil war. Some immovable works were covered in concrete at the time and unpacked again after the war. After the visit to the museum we go to the Chouf mountains, an area mainly inhabited by the Druze, and drive to Deir el Qamar for lunch. During lunch, Georges and Afif are put in the spotlight during the last eleven hours of this trip. Without these very dedicated tour guides, this trip would not have been a success. They are therefore thanked in detail!
Lunch ends and we get on the bus again for the last viewing of this trip; the Beiteddinne palace in the town of the same name. This is the summer residence of the President of Lebanon. A more than large complex with a large amount of rooms beautifully decorated with wooden panels and paneling. There are quite a few cedars cut down for this, it seems!
Small collage of Beirut... so many pictures... choices, choices...
After this visit comes the inevitable last ride; the one to the airport. Once there, Georges and Afif say a hearty goodbye, after which the travelling party enters the terminal. Enjoying the Lebanese chaos for a while, everyone finally manages to get to the gate with the announcement that the flight has been delayed by an hour. Another extra hour is added and eventually the aircraft doors close and the Transavia 737 sets course for home.
After arriving at Schiphol, everyone goes their own way again, it is then deep into the night, towards the morning when everyone comes home... Still full of a very special journey.
I never expected after 39 years to return to a country and familiar places in a way like this. It completed the circle, glued certain pieces back together and gave great satisfaction to see and experience how, despite everything, the population continues to live.
Did our mission make sense at the time?
Looking back, I can answer this question with a certain yes. When you experience how grateful the population still is after more than forty years and how welcome we are, this only gives a good feeling. Of course, we could not improve the world on our own and stop the conflict situation in the country, but we have nevertheless left such an impression with the work we have done that we are welcomed with open arms.
A lot of hearsay... But now I've experienced it myself.
Big thanks go to Bert and Jeannet who worked tirelessly for their company and made all this possible.
......... You will never forget Lebanon 1.0, Lebanon 2.0... never to be forgotten.
Photos: Perry Roos, Gerrit Kracht, Jeannet Kleine Schaars and others.