It was a brutal decision because the authoritarian Prime Minister was displeased with the first general rehearsal which took place two days earlier: the Indian population did not fully comply with the "people’s curfew". The state of Goa decided to go even further than what Modi initially recommended: all the stores, including those for basic necessities, were asked to shut down, and the borders of the smallest state of India - three times smaller than Lebanon – were closed, leaving all supply trucks stranded on the roads. "Everything happened very fast. We had pasta, rice, a few potatoes and then, two days later, we had nothing left. So, we had to go out at night like thieves to get coconuts," said Abir.
Some stores opened discretely, but their owners got beaten up by the police, and paramilitary forces of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were deployed on the streets. The local government is led by Promad Sawant, a young executive from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is extremely keen on enforcing law and order with an iron fist, while the neighboring state of Maharastra is one of the most affected by Covid-19.
"We were called ‘Corona’ on the streets"
Abir and her friends are trapped just like thousands of other tourists, alone most of the time, in small hotels in this piece of paradise which has been attracting backpackers, yogafans and party-lovers since it was discovered by the hippies in the 1970’s.
There are currently 20 Lebanese in three different locations in Goa. "Even the locals could no longer feed themselves. So we called the Lebanese embassy and asked for help. We were in a total panic," said Abir. "The embassy told us that an Indian businessman, who owns hotels in the area, would pick us up by car, and drive us to one of his villas, where we could stay. He finally turned up one evening at 11 p.m. with two small motorcycles...not enough to take us and our luggage. He was supposed to come back ... and we waited until 2 am, hiding in a street. Left without any news from him, we headed back to the beach."
Faten, 27, from the same group of five friends, tells the rest of the story. “A few days later, some stores started to reopen on the sly, but we never knew when and at what time. People were left waiting in long queues while stocks were scarce. We tried to venture out into the streets, but the locals kept shouting "Corona, corona", pointing at us and chasing us. It was scary." In Goa which largely depends on tourism, foreigners are accused of having imported the virus. The first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on March 25 in Goa which now counts seven confirmed cases. "We have become the symbol of the virus", said Abir.
The Lebanese Embassy has been sending food to the group somewhat regularly.
"Some evenings, we had nothing to eat,” Faten recalled. After several days, the embassy offered to take them to a hotel. " We should pay for the hotel but it was too expensive and we could not afford it. We had to save as much as we can since it seems there is no repatriation plan for us yet," said Abir.
"We feel abandoned by our country"
Faten decided to call the manager of a guesthouse where she stayed when she first arrived in Arambol. The woman agreed to receive them, while most hotels were refusing to accept foreigners. The Lebanese embassy coordinated with the local police to escort the small group. A masked member of the Indian security forces on his two-wheelers accompanied them in the deserted streets. But once they arrived in front of the guesthouse, they were greeted by a small crowd that firmly demanded their departure. The manager promised to expel them the next day. A new phone call from the embassy and a police intervention were needed before the Lebanese were allowed to stay.
At the beginning of April, the shops started to open more regularly, but the manager of the guest house forbade them to go out. "She was afraid that if we go out, we could catch the coronavirus and transmit it to her daughter and mother. We respected her decision," said Faten. The group of friends started looking for low-cost rentals. "The embassy called us every day to say that it has no news about a potential repatriation. We see foreign tourists leaving daily on charters while the Lebanese state is unable to bring its citizens back home. One wonders if this State really exists. Wealthier Lebanese from the diasporas, with good contacts with the political elites, were able to return home. But as far as we are concerned, we feel abandoned by our country," she said.
Overpriced return ticket rates
Ever since the beginning of the confinement in India, more than 3,500 foreign tourists present in Goa have been able to return to their country. "We are doing what we can to help Lebanese in difficult situations," said Rabie Narsh, the young ambassador who was appointed to India two years ago. "I explained the urgency of the situation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigration, but priority has been given to African and European states, where the epidemic is more developed. The capacities of the Lebanese government are limited."
Narsh explained that some 110 Lebanese, mostly young people, have registered their names to return from India and neighboring southeast Asian countries. Among them are a few businessmen. "In India, they are scattered across Goa, Gujarat, Kerala ... They are also present in half a dozen surrounding countries. They should probably be gathered in one place. Nothing has been decided yet," added the ambassador.
According to figures provided by Narsh to L'Orient-Le Jour concerning Lebanese wishing to be repatriated, 65 have been stranded in India for a month, 10 in Sri Lanka, 15 in Thailand, 15 in the Maldives, and few others in Nepal and Bangladesh. One of them suffers from high blood pressure. The Lebanese Embassy in India is responsible for a dozen Southeast Asian countries which do not have their own embassies. "For the time being, the situation is not yet critical, but quickly, the Lebanese citizens are going to run out of money and will be limited by the banking restrictions (imposed in Lebanon, note)," the ambassador said, referring to the high price of return tickets which some people may not be able to afford. "For the moment, I do not have an answer for them."
"We have read that the price of return tickets from African countries was 1,800 dollars. We dare not imagine the prices for India," Faten said, noting that "many foreigners have been repatriated for free."
Jinan, a 25-year-old Lebanese woman stuck in Sri Lanka - a thousand kilometers from Goa- is in no better situation. Contacted by L 'Orient le Jour, she explained that she had $270 when she arrived and now wondering how she can pay a return ticket at such exhorbitant prices. "I am planning to stay in the southern part of the country until the pandemic ends. Many Lebanese did not even report to the embassy when they knew about the price of return tickets."
Jinan, who came in February to visit Lebanese friends living in Sri Lanka, has been staying in a guesthouse and is currently facing a complicated financial situation. "I had to fight with my bank to be able to withdraw 100 dollars in April which does not allow me to buy everything because most transactions are done in cash here. For the rest, I do not know how I would manage," said the young woman.
India’s lockdown, initially set to last three weeks until April 14, has been extended until May 3. Suffice to say that these Lebanese forgotten on the other side of the world are not about to return to the country anytime soon.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 14th of April)
By the time Abir and her friends understood what was going on, it was already too late. On March 24, the 28-year-old woman was staying in one of the many shacks (bamboo huts) that line the vast, sandy beach of Arambol in the state of Goa. This is where a group of friends, who were taking a road trip across the region, were due to meet for a few days. At 8 P.M on that day, Indian Prime Minister...