Every day, convoys of bulletproof cars roll into east Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, home ground of Shiite Muslim extremists, with Syrian security men on guard against kidnapers.
The passengers are Europeans based in Damascus. They are going shopping.
Some of the diplomats, U.N. officials, businessmen and oil workers have spent thousands of dollars at a time in the Ghazali supermarket for luxury foods and other items virtually unobtainable in economically troubled Syria.
Off the highway, 20 miles northeast of Chtoura, is Baalbek, an ancient Roman city that has become a stronghold of the pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalists of Hezbollah, the Party of God.
Hezbollah is believed to be an umbrella group for Shiite extremists who hold most of the Westerners missing in Lebanon. Some of the hostages have been reported held in the Bekaa at various times.
The supermarket, run by five Lebanese-American brothers, is amply stocked with good meat, smoked salmon, shrimp, French wines and fruit, not to mention salt, toilet paper, computers and washing machines.
“They have everything you can’t get in Syria,” a Canadian diplomat said.
Most of the shoppers believe that the dozen or so Syrian army checkpoints along the highway, the main route between Beirut and Damascus, are enough protection from kidnapers during the one-hour drive over the mountains.
“As long as you stick to the main highway, there’s no problem,” said Frans Ptuyt, a Dutch diplomat.
Another Western diplomat, who asked that his name be withheld, said: “Chtoura’s as far as we’re allowed to go in Lebanon.”
Plainclothes Syrian security men are posted inside the store to make sure that no one parks a car bomb outside or tries to to grab one of the visitors. A Syrian checkpoint is just 100 yards away.
“The area around here’s as safe as Damascus,” said Hasan Ghazali, one of the owners.
Shoppers in the convoys are from Canada, Austria, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Arab nations, Iran and the families of high-ranking Syrians.
American, British, Australian and French diplomats are banned by their governments from crossing into Lebanon because scores of foreigners have been kidnaped since 1984.
The Ghazalis made a videotape of shelves crammed with goods from all over the world, Hasan said, so the diplomats “can do their shopping at home. . . . They send their Syrian or Lebanese staffers to get what they want.”
He said the U.S. Embassy sent Syrian personnel with long shopping lists for parties it gave for former President Jimmy Carter when he visited Damascus this year.
Hasan and his brothers, who lived in the United States for 20 years before opening the store in 1980, greet customers at the door with coffee or tea.
Their domain is a gastronome’s paradise: exotic sauces from China, lime pickle from Pakistan, poppadums from India, coconut milk from Thailand, flat bread from Norway and caviar from the Soviet Union.
In the freezers are shrimp from Oman and Kuwait, salmon from Norway, Senegalese squid and fish from Argentina.
French champagne, Russian vodka, Puerto Rican rum, Mexican tequila line the shelves. The brothers even sell American root beer.
Out-of-season fruits are flown in regularly, including watermelons from Sudan, mangoes from India and Africa, South American papayas and grapes, dates from Tunisia.
American, British, French and German newspapers and magazines are stacked at the newsstand.
Everything comes through illegal Lebanese ports run by Muslim militias.
Nadim Ghazali said an ambassador bought $3,000 worth of cognac and wine not long ago and another spent $1,200 for cheese, wine and fruit.