‘Traumatised’ Lebanese expats fear for families as tensions with Israel flare

Cross-border violence causes concern even in a country accustomed to conflict

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Mahmoud Mardini has not returned home to Lebanon in two years. Now, plans for him to be reunited with his family there next month have been put on hold as the country faces the largest escalation of border violence with Israel in years.

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has traded border fire with the Israeli military for days after the surprise attack by Hamas in southern Israel, reviving memories of previous wars that left deep scars and the border bristling with guns.

Mr Mardini, an academic in Cyprus, was only 13 when the last deadly conflict with Israel broke out in 2006.

“For 16 straight days, we were stuck in our apartment block in Beirut with a minimal supply of electricity and water,” Mr Mardini recalled.

“We were experiencing all sorts of traumatising noises.”

The war between Israel and Hezbollah began on July 12, 2006, and continued for 34 days.

While Mr Mardini, 30, and his family were able to flee to Saudi Arabia through Syria on the 17th day of the conflict, many Lebanese could not.

It is estimated that about 1,200 people died during the war, the vast majority being civilians.

“I still remember my younger brother being traumatised to the extent where he did not speak or engage in conversation with anyone for a few months,” Mr Mardini said.

'The same girl'

Current tension on Lebanon’s southern border and Israel’s war in Gaza against the ruling militant group Hamas are triggering for Lebanese in more ways than one.

The air strike that killed hundreds of people at Gaza’s Al Ahli Arab Hospital this week has led to comparisons with the 1996 Qana massacre, when the Israeli army shelled a UN peacekeepers’ compound in the southern Lebanese town where displaced families were seeking refuge.

The attack killed 106 civilians. Israel has denied responsibility for the hospital strike.

Qana was a target again in 2006 when an Israeli missile hit a three-storey building where families were sheltering. At least 54 civilians, more than half of them children, were killed.

With no accountability, Mia, 31, a technology worker in Dublin, said she felt “anger, helplessness and despair”.

“I never properly processed the trauma of living through aerial bombing,” she told The National.

“Even though I'm literally on another continent right now, I feel like the same girl back in 2006.

“I remember I wouldn't sleep through the night until morning because my logic was that bombings are less scary during the day. I also remember I would turn off all the fans in the house because they sounded like warplanes.”

With much trauma to unpack, young Lebanese in the diaspora are mainly concerned about their families and loved ones back home as the violence continues.

‘What if this escalates?’

Due to a financial crisis, described as one of the worst in Lebanon’s history, and the consequent collapsing infrastructure, Mr Mardini fears the worst if his country is dragged into conflict.

“Lebanon has absolutely no chance in surviving another war,” he told The National.

“We have a collapsing healthcare system, collapsing educational institutions, a destabilised security situation, hyperinflation in an unprecedented financial crisis, malnourished communities, elevated poverty, inter and intra-ethnic conflicts, a refugee crisis, structural violence, threatened food security, rampant corruption, and the list goes on.

“Have we forgotten the August 4 Beirut Port explosion and the destruction it inflicted on us?”

The aftermath of the 2020 explosion was the main reason why Mia decided to leave Lebanon. At least 218 people lost their lives, and 77,000 structures were damaged in the blast.

“Nothing made sense after that day, and staying in Lebanon felt like an inevitable death sentence,” she said.

As difficult as it was to leave her family behind, including an ill parent, Mia felt she had no other choice.

“My family and I needed a lifeline. We needed someone abroad should anything happen back home – that's the Lebanese way of life, isn't it?”

Mia said she travels back regularly to check on her family but had to cancel tickets for two flights in the coming months due to the violence at the southern border.

“What if this escalates to another 2006 war? What then? My father is not fully mobile and my nightmare scenario is my parents having to evacuate,” she said.

While Lebanese expatriates may be physically distant, their minds and hearts are back home with their loved ones during these uncertain times.

'Non-stop crying'

Sirine Baghdadi, a media executive in Dubai, has been following the news around the clock. She says she had nightmares of the images and headlines from the Israel-Gaza war and its ripple effects on Lebanon.

“I thought it would be easier when you’re far from home, but it’s actually much more difficult,” she told The National.

“It’s just been non-stop crying for fear of my family’s safety and for everything else that’s happening.”

As is the case with Mr Mardini and Mia, Ms Baghdadi’s travel plans to Lebanon have also been halted.

“My family is telling me don’t come, stay where you are,” she said.

“Do you know how hard it is to hear that knowing they’re in danger? If I could just put them all in a plane and bring them here I would, but I can’t. I don’t know what’s going to happen, all we can do is hope for the best.”

Updated: October 22, 2023, 9:25 AM