Dominated by gulf banks, government offices and chic boutiques, I watch an exclusive, sophisticated downtown Beirut go into lockdown. Private security and army occupy the pavements carrying heavy weapons while closely monitoring vehicles and civilians. Targeted assassinations, most recently of Minister Mohamed Chatah, as well as a trail of vicious bombings in Dahiyeh district of South Beirut, have pushed authorities into high alert.
I encounter two Syrian refugee boys. They persistently offer to shine my shoes in exchange for some food or coins. I see large billboards thanking Saudi Arabia for their 3 Billion usd donation to the Lebanese army along city streets. They sit next to more billboards selling 3MM security ‘blast proof’ glass ‘for the safety of your loved ones’.
Exiting towards the poorer southern districts of the city, it’s a world away from the affluence of downtown Beirut. Checkpoints are more frequent and the surroundings become more impoverished. The urban landscape consists of disorganised heavy concrete buildings, masses of people and chaotic bumper to bumper traffic.
Here communities are struggling to deal with their own problems, as a wave of refugees from Syria engulfs the poorest areas of Lebanon’s cities and towns. The taxi I’m travelling in is stopped as I near the refugee camps of Shatila. My bag is checked and body pat-downs are administered by soldiers. I then meet my contacts; two outreach workers, one female, one male, who work with a local charity dealing with the monumental refugee crisis.
In an apartment in Shatila, Ibrahim sits still, breathlessly looking at the three of us with a dead stare. The charity worker’s sitting at both sides of me look at each other with depressed frustration. Kadija, Ibrahim’s ailing wife, is straining to lay back on a mattress that runs along the small apartment wall. She lets out a cry of pain as her daughter eases her down. Once on her back, she still cries, gripping tightly to the arm of her worried daughter sitting on the floor between her parents. The family have arrived from Syria. Ibrahim is near 80 years old and in a critical condition. He lifts his t-shirt to reveal a protrusion of heavy flesh that hangs down below his waist line. I immediately mistake it for a giant tumour, but the female charity worker corrects me “It’s his intestines, only the skin of his stomach is keeping them in.”
The female charity worker is straining to hear her phone. She desperately tries to find a hospital that will accept him under UNHCR registration. She can’t get through to anyone. Repeat call follows repeat call. When she does get through, our small room goes into tense silence. She explains the chronic condition of Ibrahim. Then the call finishes. “They can’t take him either. They say they have no beds.” I look at the old man and I’m certain he’s on deaths door. His breaths are short and laboured. He can’t move.
Shatila is an area of suffocating little alleyways with no sunlight, fresh air or natural light. Ten thousand people reside here, a number growing fast as Syrian refugees seek out the cheapest accommodation. All that is visible when you look skywards, is a dense mix of power lines and crumbling concrete. I can’t imagine how an ambulance would even reach Ibrahim. The stairs from the apartment are steep and the narrow alleyways are packed with people and speeding scooters. It looks like an impossible situation.
Out on the street, the two charity workers walk and talk fast in Arabic, trying to come up with a solution. Ibrahim sits and waits.