Lebanon News

Travelers hitch rides to airport as protesters block roads

Travelers arriving at Beirut airport use scooters to transport their luggage, Oct. 18, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Angry with a government seen as corrupt and incompetent, protesters blocked the road to Beirut’s airport Friday - but offered travelers scooter rides so they wouldn’t miss their flights. The usually busy highway toward Rafik Hariri International Airport was eerily empty on the second day of mass protests, save a few vehicles, some of which were freely driving in the wrong direction.

Through the thick black smoke billowing from ignited tires at the end of the airport highway, dozens of motorbikes and scooters could be seen weighed down by luggage and carrying passengers to and from the airport.

“We’ve helped thousands of travelers. We’re getting people there. We want to help them, it’s not their fault,” 20-year-old Hamshar on his scooter said.

Hamshar said he had been driving back and forth since 9 a.m., picking up travelers leaving and going to the airport.

Hamshar said he was not charging a transportation fee but that a lot of fellow protesters picking up travelers were.

“Sometimes people give me money, I won’t say no,” he said.

Surrounding the blockade, young boys and men pushing baggage trollies through the thick smoke asked approaching travelers whether they needed help.

Some charged a “small fee,” said 15-year-old Mohammad Ali, who said he usually asked for “around LL20,000” ($12) per trip.

“Sometimes I don’t ask, but they’ll just give me money,” Ali said, pushing a cart weighed down by five bags for a family heading to the airport.

Some travelers had opted to go on foot instead of pay what they said was an exorbitant fee to get past the obstacles and protesters.

Flustered, 33-year-old Lebanese-American Vicki Webb said that she had walked for 30 minutes with her bags before she could get to a point where driving was possible.

Webb flew into Beirut from Texas to visit her family living in the city.

In addition to the bag she was rolling behind her, a man she had paid was also carrying pieces of her luggage.

“It’s been 30 minutes of walking and being harassed the whole way. Some people are trying to help but some are trying to use you and profit off the situation to get $150 to get on a motorcycle to just to get you five miles,” Webb said.

Webb’s mother, Nada Bakhos, had to take a motorbike to pick her up. “I came with my car but I had to park it far away, so I took a motorbike to get to the airport and paid him LL40,000. He didn’t ask but I gave it to him because I wanted to,” Bacchus, 59, said.

When asked whether this was an inconvenience for her, Bakhos responded, “It’s amazing; this is what has to happen, because we’re fed up. Once I drop her off I’m going to go down and protest with them.”

A couple going toward the airport to go on vacation said they drove around Beirut’s side streets for half an hour before they got out and walked.

“We got here five hours before our flight so we wouldn’t miss it. We’ve been walking for 20 minutes now. I’m not surprised by what I’m seeing at all. It’s about time,” said 30-year-old Nada, who was on her way to Germany with her boyfriend.

The director-general of civil aviation, Mohammed Chehabeddine, told The Daily Star that the Lebanese Army was also ferrying travelers to the airport.

Chehabeddine confirmed that “people have definitely missed their flight,” although he said it was too soon to say how many travelers had been affected by the protests.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the power to do anything right now to help the travelers. We don’t have shuttles and neither does Middle East Airlines,” Chehabeddine said.

But he assured travelers that the Army was protecting people and that there was “no fear in people getting hurt.”

Farther away from the end of the highway, a chaotic scene took place at the airport entrance, where the Army monitored the protests and hundreds of travelers dragged their luggage on black scorched roads.

Walking toward the airport pushing a stroller was Joseph Khoury.

“This country is an embarrassment,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I brought my pregnant wife here from France to relax. We’re going to Dubai now and we’re not coming back.”

The protests broke out Thursday after the government announced a new tax on internet-based phone calls, like those over WhatsApp. Earlier this week, Lebanon was also hit with devastating wildfires that caught the government unprepared. Other long-standing grievances include a failure to provide basic public services like electricity and waste management.

As protests reached the largest size since the 2015 trash crisis, the telecommunications minister abruptly announced Thursday night that WhatsApp calls would not be taxed.

It was not enough to quell the protests, which continued Friday in many locations across Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 19, 2019, on page 3.

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