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Rebuilding Lives as Well as Beirut

text and photos by Marilyn Raschka

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The names of Lebanon’s drug pushers are internationally known: chaos, fear, desperation, escapism and the disintegration of family and society. These agents operated freely among fighters and civilians from the beginning of the country’s civil war in 1975.

Before the 15-and-a-half-year conflict Lebanon was unique in that it produced and exported drugs but didn’t have a serious abuse problem. The cannabis (hashish) fields were discreetly hidden behind facades of corn. Deep inside were landing strips used to fly the processed hashish out of Lebanon. But there was no hiding a drug abuse problem. It simply didn’t exist.

As state authority fell into the hands of militias, the big growers no longer feared the government. Small farmers learned quickly that the economic benefits of a hashish crop outstripped those of potatoes or sugar beets. No education or experience was needed to qualify as a middle man or smuggler of hashish. The drug business provided a quick economic fix for hundreds of once law abiding citizens.

The power of the militias grew, and so did the need for something stronger than hashish; the link between the war and the use of drugs was established. At first fighters used stimulants to stay awake. Later, drugs helped them face, and then forget, the atrocities they suffered and committed against rival militias and innocent civilians. Militiamen admit that they didn’t know which drug they were given but say, “It made us courageous.”

Meanwhile, the terrified population sought safety not only in corridors and basements but in bottles of pills.

Legal drugs were looted from government warehouses, pharmacies and Red Cross centers. Illegal drugs confiscated by the government also fell into militia hands. As border control became lax, smuggling increased and the flow of contraband drugs flourished.

Turkey and Iran provided the Lebanese with the know-how for the growing and processing of opium. Convincing the hashish growers to switch took only a couple of taps on the calculator to demonstrate the greater profit.

Drugs became cheap, available and in high demand as the violence reached deeper and deeper into every corner of the fractured society. It is estimated that, out of a population of about 3 million 20,000 Lebanese struggle with drug dependence today.

The plea for a center to treat drug addicts and alcoholics came from Dr. Antoine Boustany, a Lebanese psychiatrist trained in Paris. After conducting an extensive study of the problem, Boustany contacted the Sisters of the Sacred Heart congregation in Lebanon and convinced them to support the project. Together they approached the Pontifical Mission for financial assistance in building the center. About $400,000 was designated, and in January 1989 construction of a three-story extension to St. Charles Hospital began. Located in a suburb of Beirut, the hospital is owned and run by the order.

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Tags: Lebanon Health Care Civil War Alcoholism Substance Abuse