This guest post is by Tom B and entry in our non-fiction writing contest .
Back in the mid-1970s I spent a couple years backpacking in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Central, and SE Asia. The part of my trip which might interest preppers was my time in Lebanon. Those poor people really did experience the end of the world as they knew it. Due to minimal government interference in the economy, Lebanon had been the great economic story of the Arab world- but it had terrible sectarian and political differences and neighbors delighted to exacerbate and exploit them for their own uses.
My experiences as a non-combatant in a civil war zone were peculiar to the place and the time -a small agricultural village in the mountains of Lebanon in the fall of 1975- and may not be what anyone expects to experience themselves. Nonetheless, it is one example of what can happen when TEOTWAWKI hits, and how it may develop.
It may not be immediately obvious that disaster has arrived as it may develop slowly: bad, then OK, bad, OK, terrible, OK again, then calamity. I am not sure there is any way to tell in advance if things will get worse, or start getting better until the bad times have passed. Being prepared is about all one can do in some situations.
I was in Lebanon because my step-sister had married a guy from New York whose grandparents had been Lebanese, and they had left a big apple orchard and a farm house to his father. My step-sister and her husband had gone over to manage the orchards in the spring of 1975, but as of August they had not gotten word out to anyone about their safety. I was backpacking in North Africa, and decided to go see how they were. Meanwhile, what we know now as the Lebanese civil war was beginning to sputter along in ever less isolated incidents of violence before igniting in all out war.
The day after I arrived, my brother-in-law’s parents arrived unannounced from New York. They too had been concerned about safety, and about the apple crop. The orchard was theirs, the house was theirs, and they proved to be very difficult to get along with in a confined and high stress situation.
In the beginning a few people would be reported killed, mostly but not entirely in Beirut, followed by a few days of quiet. Then several more people would be killed, in what amounted to little more than crazy bar fights among highly stressed people, followed by days of quiet. Then a lot of people killed, followed by more quiet. The incidents would repeat, ratcheting up, then down, and up again, with no way to know if they would get worse or better. In hind sight, it was only the beginning of a horrific war known for atrocities by all sides.
Rumors were rife, and almost impossible to confirm or refute, but true or untrue, they affected behavior. The stress of surrounding violence and economic uncertainty affected everyone.
Every day from my arrival in late August until we got out in early November, we heard full auto weapons fire every 10 to 15 seconds, 24 hours a day. Usually it was far away, sometimes accompanied by the heavier and slower fire of heavy machine guns, sometimes the thud of mortar rounds or RPGs hitting, all day, all night. The night I arrived there was a wedding celebration in a village on the other side of the valley. All night the celebration went on with people firing mostly assault weapons into the air, sometimes belt feds. Over the following months we rarely knew if firing was random, target shooting, or fighting. The uncertainty just built more stress.
As my hosts intended to stay only through the harvest, we didn’t have much in the way of stored supplies. There was equipment and agricultural supplies for the orchards, but little to no stored food, and as my brother-in-law refused to have any weapons, we had none more effective than kitchen knives. We were entirely dependent on the goodwill of those around us.
Fighting in the Beirut affected the supply line: deliveries to food stores, gas stations, and other businesses in the mountains became intermittent. Many things simply ran out. Gas station attendants carried assault rifles to prevent robberies and line skipping. One day my brother in-law drove to Syria with an empty drum in hopes of getting gas. He came home hours later, empty handed: the border was closed.
All of the few kitchens I saw in the village had hot plates or stoves fueled from propane cylinders which people normally bought either at the village store, or at a supermarket in Beirut. When the fighting got bad in Beirut, which was about a 45 minute drive down the mountains, people couldn’t go safely to the supermarket, and the village store had no propane canisters so when we ran out of fuel we cooked on the kerosene space heater in the living room and on another in the master bedroom. Alternative ways of cooking, unplanned, saved the day.
We also grilled chicken on a charcoal grill on the back porch. As the the sun went down over the distant Mediterranean we listened both to the radio news as BBC Cyprus reported on the fighting in Lebanon, and to the live sounds of fighting coming up the valley from the northern suburbs of Beirut.
With almost no store bought food at times, we made do with our one major resource: apples from the orchard. We ate a lot of windfall apples: raw apples, apples sliced and cooked with sugar, apple sauce. On one of our forays into Beirut, my brother-in-law bought a juicer, so when the electricity was working we had plenty of apple juice as well. Any way we could vary apples.
Spam was in decent supply, and we ate a lot of it. Sliced, straight from the can, or fried. I haven’t eaten the stuff since, but that was what was available, so there were weeks when we ate it every day, and at most meals.
Potable water was a sad joke. We had a pipe laid directly to a small spring above the village, but the spring itself was open, and used by goat herders to water their flocks, so the water was contaminated. The water from the public fountain across the street wasn’t so bad but nearly everyone had bouts with diarrhea of the “I have to drop trou RIGHT NOW” variety. Sometimes Lomotil worked on it, sometimes it seemed to have no effect at all. More stress.
I found it’s a good idea to carry a personal supply of toilet paper with me at all times, otherwise the only recourse was to splash water with your left hand- if water was available. And remember to eat with your right hand. That is the origin of Middle Easterners eating out of communal pots with their right hands: they traditionally used the left one to clean themselves. That also explains the Muslim practice of cutting off the right hand of a third time convicted thief: Besides being maimed, he can no longer eat out of the communal dish, so he is truly outcast.
The electrical grid extended even to our little village, but as the fighting continued it became unreliable. Much of the time we had power for the lights, but quite a few evenings were spent at least partially by candle light. Plenty of candles and matches were a necessity, and fortunately we had them.
My brother-in-law’s father decided to do major work in the yard around the house, blasting some outcroppings and using the rubble for building retaining walls to expand the garden area. Then in his seventies, he insisted on throwing rocks around, despite hired labor costing only a dollar a day, and despite the impossibility of getting him to a hospital in less than an hour if he had a heart attack. He got through it fine, but his insistence on helping caused more stress for an already stressed family.
The stress, in fact, is hard to describe, and is a subject rarely touched on in the Prepping literature. It’s debilitating: when communities are severely stressed, they react differently than they would normally. There are more arguments over trivial issues, and far more fist fights between people who normally are friends. From the moment I got to the village until we left Lebanon over two months later, we could hear automatic weapons fire all day, all night. While it was rarely nearby, several times a minute we could hear firing, never knowing if it would come closer, or how much closer, or come right to us. Rumors of atrocities were all around. Many people took them at face value, others weren’t sure, but the rumors added stress.
One night, shortly after we all went to bed, I was lying by the barred window overlooking the front porch when I heard whispers outside, then rifle bolts being pulled back and released. As I got down on the floor whoever was outside started firing, full auto. The shooting went on for only a minute or two, the last shot of each short burst blending with the first reverb as the sounds bounced around the stone village and surrounding mountain. Then there were the sounds of people running up the road toward the top of the village, more firing from there, silence, then a car driving past with lights out, then nothing.
We never found out who had been shooting, whether from the village or not. No blood on the ground. Just nothing. An emptiness. A vacuum. No one to rage at, nothing to react against. Just noises in the night, and then there were none.
The stress defined life in every way. My brother-in-law had been remodeling the old farm house for a couple summers. One of his ideas, completed the previous summer, was to turn a bedroom into a proper bathroom to New York City bachelor standards: Jet black fixtures and blood red tiled floor and walls. Walls tiled all the way to the very high ceiling. He had chosen high gloss ceramic floor tiles, slippery when wet and easily scratched by grit, so of course anyone wanting to use the bathroom had to remove his boots before going in. Then his father decided that the grout needed cleaning with a toothbrush. All of the grout. He ordered me to do it.
I was a guest, unwilling, but a guest, and we both expected me to pull my own weight. Fair enough, but for weeks he and his wife had proven themselves rude, despotic, and dictatorial to everyone also trapped in the house, always giving orders, never a request, never a thanks, vehemently finding fault with all but themselves at every opportunity. Abusing their son in front of his wife, their 6 year old, and me, calling him “a fool” and “worthless” and an “idiot” in front of us multiple times a day.
I started brushing the grout but after some minutes of thinking “This is insane. We are in a war zone, surrounded by fighting, short of food, drinking polluted water, and he is worried about grout.” I finally very carefully put down the toothbrush and stared at the wall, turned around when he demanded to know why I was stopping, and told him that if he wanted the grout cleaned, he could do it himself. I walked out, and never heard more about it.
Stress: being in a civil war zone, unarmed. Knowing that you are at the mercy of everyone who does have a gun. Stress: a gun fight outside my window, knowing that if just one of them fired a burst into the front door lock, they could come in and do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted. Stress: eating only apples, bread, and Spam every day for a week. Stress: Family members who are universally abusive. Stress: another family member who escapes into heavy doses of prescription pain pills, too drugged some days to work in the orchards or in the kitchen. Stress: Intermittent severe diarrhea. Stress: seeing a little girl emotionally and physically abused by her step-father. Stress: Barely able to stop oneself one night from beating the perpetrator with a cast iron skillet. Stress: Cannot escape. Stress: Cannot help. Stress: Trapped with people who abuse each other or cannot fight back. Stress: Still cannot help. Stress: Cannot leave. Stress: Withdraw to the bedrooms where we can still hear others criticize, bicker, and fight. Stress: Finally deciding to leave, walking out the door and down the road to hitchhike to the city and get a flight out, only to have a neighbor who works at the airport drive home and tell me neither he nor I can get to the airport today because the fighting is too bad. He will take me when he can next get to work, but not today. Stress: Going back to the house. Back to the bedroom. Write in my journal, in detail, every day. Set down some of the stress, write of the events. Preserve the experience in writing.
It doesn’t matter if you have lots of supplies at home if you are not. Some time after we finally got out of Lebanon, a large group of PLO fighters woke the village by ringing the church bell. As people walked to the church to investigate, they were told to start walking out of town. They couldn’t go back to their houses for anything. If they tried, they would be shot. So all but a few of the oldest were forced to leave with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
Then the PLO went door to door, shooting the locks off the front doors, taking what they wanted and vandalizing the rest: scissoring all of the clothes in the closets, gouging table tops and upholstery with knives, destroying all of value.
There were rumors that the people who looted my brother-in-law’s house were the workmen who had worked on rebuilding the garden in the fall. We will never know. A lesson from that may be to maintain a low profile. Be cautious of letting others know you have something worth stealing. Don’t let them see what you have, don’t tell them: Low profile.
We think small towns may be better places for preppers than isolated farm houses or cities, but when a hostile military force moves in there are only two options: become a refugee or die. Simple as that. Well armed though they were (nearly every man had an assault rifle) the villagers were out-manned and out gunned. Resistance would have been suicide. They walked.
That possibility might lead some to think that a geographically dispersed network of friendly places might be worth developing. Certainly the villagers largely had such networks: many went to live with family members in Beirut, and some sent their families overseas, especially to France and the US. Even if you have no contacts in other countries, valid passports for all family members would be necessary, and difficult to get after a breakdown.
Checks couldn’t be cashed because banks couldn’t clear the deposit checks. Cash was the thing to have. The apple crop was sold to a wholesaler, but he paid with a check which wouldn’t clear for months. There was no alternative. The Syrian employees, paid a dollar a day for the harvest, and allowed to sleep in a cement block shed, had to be content with checks which didn’t clear for months. There was no alternative.
Stores in Beirut stayed open during all but the worst days of fighting because the owners and employees had no other options: they had to make money to pay the rent, to buy food, and supplies for their families.
Several times we drove into the city to see if an appliance store had gotten in the new stove, washer, and dryer for the kitchen. My first time there the roll down metal security shutters were rolled up, but there were bullet holes in the glass window, covered with bumper stickers. Some of the appliances had bullet holes in them. Someone had driven by during the night and sprayed the shop because they thought the owner was giving money to the other side. So: cost him money so he can’t afford to give any away.
The next time we visited, the shutters were down, with over a hundred bullet holes, but the shop was open. The next time, the shutters were sieves and had a big round concave dent as well: it had been hit with a rocket. All the appliances and electronics, from refrigerators to reel to reel tape players, had holes, but the shop was still open for business: even in a war zone people had to make money to eat.
On one of those trips into town we stopped at a cabinet maker’s shop who was making cabinets for the new kitchen. There were sandbags across the end of the street and men with guns. When we told them who we were going to they let us in. The cabinets weren’t ready: there had been too much fighting to work on them. I noticed outside that the street light standards looked like cheese graters from the sidewalk up to about six feet. People had taken concealment behind them during the fighting. Every light standard on the block had hundreds of bullet holes in it’s lower six feet. Hard to imagine what that fighting had been like, but people were back at work. They had to eat.
Eventually, in early November the apples were harvested, the wholesaler’s check deposited, the workers paid with checks they couldn’t cash, and we took a service taxi along the safe route to the airport. It was so safe that the driver charged $125 US dollars for what was normally a twenty dollar trip. Well over $500 in 2012 dollars.
We made it out, though. And the driver would not take a check: just cash.
The next day the airport was closed due to shelling.
Months later, after the PLO ran the villagers out, they used the ground floor of our house as an ammunition storage bunker. Since it was built on the side of the hill, the ground floor was partly underground, and the floor above was poured concrete. The walls were cut stone and the windows barred, so it was a good choice. Later still, when the Syrian peace keeping force moved in the PLO didn’t have time to remove the ammunition, so they blew it up. The tile roof went up, the floor slab did as well, and the walls shifted out but remained partially intact. The slab ended about four feet above the ground floor.
If you go to Google maps and type in “Jouar El Haouz, Mount Lebanon, Lebanon” you will find the village I was in. Zoom in and you will see an orange tile roof inside (South) the tight bend in the road which runs through the village. That’s the Catholic church. The ruins of the house we lived in are directly across the street to the NW of the church. Zoom out a bit and follow the road South East and you can see blue reservoirs dug to irrigate apple orchards. Best Starkins and Golden Delicious ever. Crisp, juicy, tart to sweet depending on when they are picked.
I was back in the Middle East in the summer of 1977. The war was in a lull then and I was able to spend a few hours in the village. Some people had moved back by then, and showed me the vandalism committed against their property: the shot open doors, slashed clothes and upholstery. Anything to cost the other side. And, of course, I looked at the ruins of the house.
The most shocking thing I saw was a pair of teenage sisters who I had known in 1975. We had talked in broken French, English, and Arabic, teasing each other while picking apples. In 1977 they seemed happy to see me back, and pulled out their snapshots to show me what they had been doing for the last two years. In their snaps they were dressed in olive drab uniforms, carrying assault rifles, and at ages 15 and 17 had been defending themselves by killing the enemy.
I heard later that, when the war resumed full blast, their family got out and moved in with extended family in New Jersey. Later still, they moved back to Lebanon. TEOTWAWKI had finally ended for them.
This contest will end on October 10 2012 – prizes include:
- First Place : $100 Cash.
- Second Place : $50 Cash.
- Third Place : $25 Cash.
Contest ends on October 10 2012.
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