BEIRUT (Reuters) – While tens of thousands of foreigners are fleeing Lebanon any way they can, some are determined to stick it out in the face of Israeli bombardment and blockade.Â A hardy few are even finding ways to get in.
“I was in France on vacation when this conflict broke out and I made my way back by plane via Jordan and Syria then came by taxi to Beirut,” said Bernhard Hillenkamp, a German who works for a children’s rights group in Lebanon.
“I’ve lived here for eight years and I felt like returning. My life is here and I am not going to change it easily. I also work with an organization dealing with children’s rights and I felt I should be here in a time of conflict. It was my choice.”
At least 40,000 foreign nationals have been evacuated from Lebanon since Israeli bombing began two weeks ago, most traveling to Cyprus and Turkey by boat.
Many found their own way out by taking circuitous routes to bypass the bombed and blocked roads to neighboring Syria as Israeli warplanes pounded Lebanon.
The mass evacuation of Western nationals is now drawing to a close but some who have lived in Lebanon for years refuse to leave, whether for the sake of work, love, defiance or because they have come to see this troubled country as home.
“The obvious reason is that I am in love with a woman here and I would not leave without her,” said Ralph Bodenstein, a German architectural historian resident in Beirut since 2002.
“This is also where I work. All my stuff is here and if I left I would have to stop working on my thesis as I cannot take everything with me … This is my second home now and that is one of the reasons why I will not run away in times of difficulty.”
With its own skilled and multi-lingual workforce, Lebanon does not have a massive Western expatriate community like many countries in the region. Still, many foreigners, often working as teachers, journalists or academics have made Beirut their home, some marrying Lebanese and settling down here.
Others are frequent visitors who see their decision to stay as a form of defiance in a crisis sparked by Hizbollah’s July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.
“I’ll be doing research and want to continue to do so in spite of Israeli terror,” said John Chalcraft, a British university lecturer, who is sticking to his plans to visit Lebanon in August. “Life should go on. And it’s not yet 1982.”
In 1982, Israeli forces invaded and occupied Beirut after heavily bombarding the Muslim west of the then-divided city. Even foreigners who stayed in Lebanon early in its 1975-1990 civil war mostly fled in the 1980s when Shi’ite Muslim militants began taking Western hostages.
Aurore Pastre, a French literature teacher, has organized a march for foreigners who have stayed to demand an end to the war that has killed over 400 people in Lebanon and 42 Israelis.
“I stayed because I am against the war. I found it very aggressive and unfair and this is a kind of resistance,” said Pastre, who lived in Lebanon for a year and was back visiting when the crisis broke. “Many Lebanese worry that it will get worse after the foreigners go so it is hard to leave friends.”
Many are willing to stay because Israeli bombing has been focused on southern Lebanon and southern Beirut so most areas are safe. Still, some feel world attention has been misplaced.
“I have no grudge against the people who are leaving but it is all the fuss that was made, all these naval fleets in the Mediterranean and helicopters flying around,” Bodenstein said.