17 JULY 1976, Page 13

Lebanon sweats it out

Helena Cobban

Beirut Ours was the first plane in from London after the airport reopened. We traced a wide circle out to sea, then back to the city reaching up to meet us, its stone glistening in the evening sun and part of it swathed in plumcoloured smoke. When we touched down on the sweltering tarmac the passengers set up a spontaneous round of applause and ran chattering to the windows to wave at the trucks full of peacekeeping troops lining the runway.

We were lucky to get in : three days later the airport was again closed, and we are thinking that it may be a long time before we have any direct link with the outside world. We found only one checkpoint between the airport and home. Travellers on the mountain road between here and Damascus report forty-two. At some they wave you lazily on, and at others they stop to talk, to give and receive news, to speculate what on earth a foreigner is still doing in a place like this— for the most part amicably.

Each night, as the street noises fade, we hear the thin strains of militiamen singing on duty. Then we hear small-arms fire from afar, or the deadly thumping of mortars and field artillery. Sometimes we hear the two separate explosions of a single shell—one as it is fired, one as it lands. A new sound joined the battle symphony some two months ago: the whistle of a rocket passing overhead.

If we have been living on our ears for nine months (counting the battles of spring last year as mere practice runs), then now we are all in a very real way living on our digestive tracts. We have been without water supplies for ten days. This is far harder to bear than the loss of electric power. The two are of course connected. We are now promised that they can channel enough wattage into the pumping-station to bring us all water a few hours a day, a promise which like all others in this war we regard with the deepest suspicion. Showers you can just about do without, if everyone else is reaching the same state of ripeness. For drinking water you can substitute beer or fruit juice. Saucepancleaning is vital as the flies daily increase their assault; paper cups and plates are in great demand.

But the real problem remains sewage. Already, even the smartest residential districts are starting to smell like open effluents. The British Embassy recently had an underground channel overflow into its basement. The administrator of one of the few officeblocks still functioning here complained that the staff were all using the lavatories there rather than those at home. Whereupon, she promptly ordered all lavatories but one to be locked. Apart from the health risk, of which everyone from the International Red Cross team down is chillingly aware, there is the terrible discomfort of planning one's day around reaching a suitable place at the time one wants.

All of which should not, but frequently does, distract the commentator from providing a lucid analysis of the most deadly war (in per capita terms) of modern times. The last recorded figures put the number of dead at more than 25,000 within just over a year. The UK equivalent in terms of relative populations, would be twenty times as high : five whole Oxfords, men, women and children, plus a few Birminghams peopled with the injured and mutilated.

Perhaps this has been the most convoluted war of minorities ever seen. Its main protagonists are a minority clinging fiercely to the reins of power, a majority trying to shake off minority status, and the Palestinians, a political minority everywhere. What all this means is that each group feels itself so threatened that, after the failure of more than forty cease-fires, it looks on the least compromise as the first step towards its own destruction. Add to this scene the Syrian intervention. President Assad's assertions that his intention was only to police a ceasefire now sound somewhat hollow to observers who have watched the mailed Syrian fist being brought down on Palestinian and leftist forces.

In itself that might not have altered much within Lebanon (though the wider implications for the Middle Eastern conflict are substantial) except that the Christianrightist forces for their part took this as encouragement to carry on fighting. The crown prince of the Phalangists, Beshir Gemayyel, found his overtures to leftist leaders overtaken by pressure within his own camp. So the Phalangist units were thrown into the battle against the Tel Ez-Zaatar refugee camp. We are now awaiting with dread the fall of the camp and whatever reprisal the leftist-Palestinian alliance feels called on to launch. This not only for the searingly obvious humanitarian reasons, but also because it could be the first step towards the implementation of that dread selffulfilling prophecy, the partition of the country.

Speculation as to whether the Christianrightist stronghold in Jounieh is capable of ever becoming either another Beirut or another Monte Carlo is as pointless as wondering whether this is really what the majority of Lebanese Christians want. But the ferocity of the assault on the besieged refugee camps, which have long been viewed by the Christian extremists as an open reproach by reason of their mere existence within what they consider their own heartland, indicates that partition is what these same leaders are now pressing for.

However florid the denunciations from Cairo, after the sad-eyed Major Jalloud had added his name to the list of those hopeful mediators who came, saw, and left in failure.

So we sweat it out. There are no grounds for optimism, wherever you look.