Zahle gets back to work after double blow to town’s confidence
Posted on March 30, 2011
Here is the full article from a trip I took to Zahle Monday, which, for whatever reason, never made it in the paper:
ZAHLE: Like most of his neighbors in the pockmarked cul-de-sac, Father Georges Bahy was asleep when the bomb went off. The priest rushed from his bed in the adjacent seminary and picked his way through the concrete alleyway strewn with severed car parts and motor oil. He was greeted by a scene he could scarcely comprehend.
“I looked more closely and I saw an explosion had taken place in the church,” he says. “I felt very sad and I cried over it. No one knows why someone would bomb a church. There were no signs. No one gave out threats.”
The two kilogram bomb, which detonated at 4.15 am Sunday at Zahle’s Saidat al-Najat church, caused thousands of dollars worth of damage and drew the wrath of figures across Lebanon’s political and religious divides, who denounced the blast as a terrorist act designed to sow sectarian strife.
It was the second jolt to the system of the normally peaceful town of Zahle within the space of four days, following the kidnapping of seven Estonian tourists Wednesday evening.
Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet arrived in Beirut Monday to discuss with Lebanese officials ways of hastening the release of the seven men, who haven’t been seen since they were snatched by armed assailants on the outskirts of Zahle’s industrial morass in Wednesday’s waning light.
A security source told The Daily Star that efforts to locate the tourists continued Monday, with Lebanese Army squads raiding several Zahle premises, although available information was “not enough to [constitute] positive progress.”
“The issue is being followed up with great care, since the Lebanese state is very keen on the safety of those kidnapped because this is related to Lebanon’s national security,” the source added.
A continued source of frustration for security services is their limited access to areas in the eastern Bekaa, a region notorious for semi-lawlessness.
Zahle is a major tourist attraction for both foreigners sampling the delights of Lebanon’s verdant Bekaa Valley and Lebanese seeking summer refuge from the stultifying coastal heat. The so-called ‘Bride of the Bekaa’ has long been a tranquil antidote to the country’s turbulent urban centers. More than wine, more than its temperate air, Zahle’s main commodity is its stability, an asset the events of the last five days have thrown into doubt.
Businesses reopened in Zahle Monday as residents went about their routines with trepidation.
Nicholas Barrak has run his patisserie on Zahle’s main thoroughfare for three decades. He admits that the people of the town, for the first time he can remember, are nervous.
“Yesterday people were afraid,” he says, dusting icing sugar from his hands. “Today is a little better but people are still worried. Zahle is peaceful, we never have problems here. If there are more problems, we are concerned that people won’t want to visit. If something happens again, no one will come, not only foreigners, but Arabs too.”
Travel agent Faten Bitken said that while Zahle’s recent history had been peaceful in comparison to the rest of the country, incidents such as the kidnapping and the church bomb could impact negatively on the town’ tourism lifeblood.
I consider myself moderately adventurous, but three incidents in a month and I would go and drink wine somewhere else.
“We have a lot of bookings and until now we didn’t have any cancellations. But for the future, I don’t know. Every country around us is on fire now and we are watching the situation,” she says.
Hotel owner Nada Akl is not so upbeat. She says that ten people have cancelled their reservations since Wednesday’s abductions, leaving her with one solitary guest. She blames media coverage for spreading fear among foreigners.
“There wasn’t even a problem in the first place but Zahle’s name was mentioned,” she says, pointing out that the Estonians were snatched from an area on the fringe of the town. “People went to Baalbek but they didn’t come to Zahle. They had reservations in Zahle but cancelled because they thought the problem was in Zahle.”
One tourist who wasn’t cowed by the kidnapping is Michael Hodson, an independent travel writer from the United States. He sits alone on a dusty sofa, busily typing emails to placate concerned friends and family members back home.
“I assumed [the kidnapping] was just random. The bombing happened while I was here and it is troubling but it is more of an internal problem which hopefully won’t impact on tourists. If there is some sectarian thing going on, hopefully it’s not directed at tourists,” he says.
Hodson has spend the last few days taking in winery tours close to Zahle and says he still feels safe travelling through the Bekaa alone. But if more kidnappings occur, returning the country to the situation experienced in the 1980s, Hodson said he and other tourists would surely eschew Lebanon for good.
“If for some reason Lebanon got back to what happened in the 1980s, that would absolutely kill tourism here,” he says. “I consider myself moderately adventurous, but three incidents in a month and I would go and drink wine somewhere else.”
Father Bahy, like most of Zahle’s residents, remained defiant that the town’s harmony was not about to be torn apart by the two atrocious acts:
“There is no fear at all. We are steadfast here in the church and there is no fear, thank God. We are going to fix the church and continue as normal.”