Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Remnants from the 2006 war (7)

So, the war is over? The US and other Security Council members had already told us last week that we had to accept for now a “cessation of hostilities.” This deliberate ambiguity in terminologies mixed with a continuing painful debate about the deployment of the army and Hizbullah’s weapons have made the end of this war fragile and bitter sweet.

On Sunday night, I was standing on my balcony hearing the increasing number of the last bombs falling on the southern suburbs. I had the feeling one gets at the end of a bloody movie. The action is at its climax but you know the end is near. The next day I woke up to realize that it was finally the “new day” we have been waiting for in the last month or so.

Images of displaced people returning to their towns and villages in the south were filling all the screens. Life was regaining the whole country again.

But everybody was still waiting with anxiety the unfolding of events. Will Israel really stop its offensive? Will Hizbullah disarm? Will the army successfully deploy its troops in the South?

In other words, the vertiginous questions that had emerged during the war are still there. The uncertainties are still there and more threatening than before. The international community is relieved. They have done “their job” and come up with a resolution. Meanwhile, the Lebanese are left to deal with their divisions and contradictions. What kind of countries do the Lebanese want?

The Shiites have to heal the heavy wounds of the war.
Their houses were damaged, they lost their whole town, they lost the ones they love…

The other communities feel down. The prosperity and development they were promised just before the war now seem more than ever as sand castles. The idea of immigrating and looking for a better life elsewhere is haunting many Lebanese again.
One thing is clear however, the destruction and pain inflicted by Israel is incommensurate. As I walked through the ruins of Beirut suburbs yesterday, I saw tens of buildings flattened creating hills of rubble and turning my little walk into a hiking trip! People were flooding into the place to look for their houses and what was left from their belongings and childhood memories. A foreign journalist who works in Iraq whispered in my ears: “This is unbelievable, even the Americans have not caused such destruction in Iraq!”

Everywhere banners are comforting the people. “Israel and the US have destroyed your houses because they couldn’t face the resistance,” one of the banners said.

Visiting the southern suburbs was literally hallucinating. Amid the masses of inanimate concrete blocks and iron wires, I could see very personal objects, a birthday photo or a little doll. Objects that had a story or belonged to someone once, but that are left in a universe of total chaos.

In one month, some people lost everything! Everywhere, people are saying ironically: “this is the American civilization; this is what the new Middle-East looks like!”

That same day in the evening, Hizbullah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah reassured his supporters (most of the Shiites) that their houses would be rebuilt sooner than they had expected. The Shiites once again were embraced by Nasrallah. He also announced a “strategic victory” over Israel. The pride was greater than ever!

I guess it’s another counterproductive war designed by cold-hearted strategy builders in closed-door rooms. What they don’t really grasp is that they forged a new collective memory for the whole of Lebanon, one that makes the idea of an Israeli State “living in peace with its neighbors” even more absurd.

All those who suffered inside their houses, who lost a mother or a child, know now that their lives do not count for the US and Israel, that for the west they are an inferior race. Of course, the victims of this war might be feeling as well that their lives are vain when it comes to their dignity and their resistance. They believe in a cause, in the power of having a land. It’s a very strong spirit that wars cannot break. Who can blame them? You can manage to destroy a whole country but it is impossible to crush the will of people.

The next day, the rest of the Lebanese (those who were not subjected to the Israel’s ethnic cleansing) are reminded of their other neighbor: Syria. The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his first appearance on TV since the war started. His words were more cynical than ever. He rushed the Lebanese back into their little internal wars promising them indirectly that the Syrian hegemony over their little country will return in no time.

We don’t want Israel, we don’t want Syria, we don’t want Iran. We want an independent Lebanon! A leitmotiv one hears a lot here. But is it really possible to turn this small country into an isolated island?
For many, Lebanon is doomed and a victim of its great diversity and richness. Is there truly a way out?

*This entry was published in a blog on Beirut during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel published by the website of the german newspaper, Die Zeit.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Remnants from the 2006 war (6)

“I am tired of thinking of the big picture. It drives to despair to think about diplomacy and the Security Council. The only way to go on now is to ignore everything and concentrate on small achievable goals.” This is what a colleague of mine told me this morning.

Lately, we haven’t been able that there would be a way out for us anytime soon especially that the UN Security Council has seemingly given up on Lebanon. First, they wanted to issue a draft resolution that does not take into account the complexity and specificities of Lebanon. Any decision that would call for the disarmament of Hizbullah while keeping Israeli soldiers on Lebanese soil will only fuel an internal conflict. Despite the fact that France and the rest of the council’s members are convinced of the need to take into consideration the Lebanese demands, the United States does not want any concessions that do not blindly favor Israel.

Meanwhile, the war continues and for all those who think that Qana was a sad incident during this war, I say there are Qana massacres every single day. For suspicious minds, those who believe that Arab media is trying to manipulate the world and “invent” images of children getting killed, I say that I was present when they pulled children’s bodies from under the rubble in Chiyah (a southern suburb of Beirut) and I was at hospitals where children were suffering from burns and wounds and laid marks of shrapnel on their bodies. And if you don’t believe me, there were tens of “unbiased” foreign reporters.

The Lebanese media is an exceptionally vivid and powerful one. Freedom of expression is sacred in the media here. The debates on national televisions are highly diverse and are sometimes critical of Hizbullah. So for all those who believe war images coming from Lebanon are propaganda spare us your lectures and come here on the ground to see with your bare eyes! There are plenty of places were bodies are rotting on the ground, places that journalists cannot even reach! The horror and the terror that you see and witness are nothing in comparison with the reality of what’s going on.

I invite everybody after and if this war ever ends to pay Lebanon a visit and see with their own eyes what has really happened here. Self-defense? I am even tempted to laugh when I hear this argument! A couple of months ago, I remember how Israeli soldiers kidnapped Palestinian prisoners from a Palestinian jail humiliating prisoners and jailers there. The whole world did not see this as a provocation! That’s beside the point anyway. What is going on here is beyond any rational explanation.

Unfortunately, the world will soon get bored and turn a blind eye on the conflict. The tragedy will continue though whether the world watches or not! Today, I was sitting at the office in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut when we saw outside thousands of leaflets falling everywhere from the sky. The message was mean and direct, all the inhabitants of Chiyah, Burj al-Barajneh and Hay al-Sellom must leave immediately.

For those who do not know, all these names are those of dense neighborhoods in Beirut which had been more or less spared so far. This means that hundreds of thousands of people more than the million displaced already will be forced to leave their homes. Where will they go? The schools are already over crowded and children I have seen with my own eyes are living in deplorable situations where basic hygienic conditions are missing.

Yesterday, I was volunteering with a humanitarian group to play with the kids and help them deal with their traumas. Children are so innocent, they don’t realize really what’s going on, they want to play and have fun. Part of the activities is to allow children to express their feelings by drawing. They perfectly know that there is a war but it’s amazing how they have a capacity to evade it and imagine a rosy way out. I wonder for how long they could cope with this situation.

One nine-year old girl, Myriam, comes to me and tells me how much she likes to draw fish and the sea. She holds her younger sister’s hand compassionately. “I am praying all the time for peace, so I can return to my home” she says with a smile.

Again and again, I ask the world what is Israel achieving? Creating more hate, more frustration and more destruction. This will NOT solve anything.

Few minutes after the leaflets were dropped, my sister, who lives far from these neighborhoods, called me panicked saying that she wanted to move in with me.
“It would be safer to stay in a Christian neighborhood,” she said. I tried to calm her stressing that she was in rather safe Beiruti street. Shortly after hanging up, I kept thinking if that was something reasonable to say anyway. Is there really a safe place to stay?

*This entry was published in a blog on Beirut during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel published by the website of the german newspaper, Die Zeit.

Remnants from the 2006 war (5)

The other day I was walking by the beach and it was so saddening to see thick slicks of fuel oil polluting the coast with fish and see life dead soaked in a black viscous material. In addition to all the human losses and the destruction of infrastructure and buildings and roads, Israel caused a major environmental catastrophe by targeting a power plant by the sea in Jiyye, 30 Km away from Beirut. Now one third of the coast is polluted with more than 10,000 tons of fuel oil and we are simply helpless facing this biggest environmental crisis on the East coast of the Mediterranean.

People living outside the circle of a war cannot grasp its profound impact on humans. The numerous small and big tragedies generated lead me to one strong desire that of seeing an end to hostilities IMMEDIATELY.

For those who read my first piece of writing, I said that Hizbullah started the first sparkle of this war but I repeat it again and again the disproportionate response and the tragic course of events makes it a moral responsibility on people and governments around the world to stop this ongoing absurdity.

I believe that the United States and Israel have the biggest duty with this respect be it in the name of civilization and Human Rights they continuously lecture us on.

If we carefully study the course of events on the 12th of July, the starting date of the conflict, we see that Hizbullah’s operation of kidnapping the two Israeli soldiers was very much contained in the sense that they clearly declared their purpose was to free four Lebanese citizens who had been held in Israeli jails for a very long time.

On that same day, Hizbullah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah eloquently declared that he did not want to kill any Israeli civilians and that he only wanted to swap prisoners.

Of course there were underlying regional tactics in the operation - I am not trying to portray a naïf picture here - Israel’s violent response, however, did not nothing but confirm that it had premeditated objectives to wage its war.

Hizbullah’s launching rockets on northern Israel only came in retaliation to Israel’s systematic destruction of infrastructure and civilians.

Can we really talk here about self-defense? Israel could have dealt with Hizbullah’s operation in a military way sparing the death of civilian casualties; instead, it is continuing its war calling the hundreds of civilians dying “collateral damage.”

The western world saw the 12th of July as the beginning of provocation by Hizbullah but nobody there was told really about the countless violations of the Lebanese air by Israel in the past years. Also, just few weeks before the war started, a network of Israeli spies carrying targeted killings in Lebanon was dismantled, isn’t this provocation?

What is more tragic is that Israel is destroying Lebanon for nothing really. Hizbullah cannot be routed out by a military operation. Hizbullah is not an obscure group hiding in caves. It is a political party with a very big popular base. They have seats in Parliament. They fund many social projects, they operate schools and hospitals.

And the Lebanese had been debating about the disarmament of Hizbullah in an atmosphere of tolerance and freedom of speech. What was going on is one of the most vibrant democratic processes in the whole Arab region. Since Lebanon is a democracy, it was not simply possible for the majority to disarm Hizbullah by force!

This unique democratic model is now threatened under Israeli bombs. Even those who were the fiercest political opponents to Hizbullah’s arms see the current course of events as disastrously leading away from any hope for the group’s disbanding.

*This entry was published in a blog on Beirut during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel published by the website of the german newspaper, Die Zeit.

Remnants from the 2006 war (4)

Since the conflict started, I have been receiving daily emails from close and distant friends or simply people I met ages ago on a trip somewhere. They all write very compassionate words hoping for peace and expressing their support in these difficult times.

This sympathy of people from all nationalities keeps me warm despite the daily state of total depression I have been sharing with friends around me. The conflict is growingly weighing on our daily lives.

Every day, we wonder when Israeli will hit the next power station, when we will stop having electricity altogether, when we will stop finding our favorite food item on supermarket shelves… Plenty of questions floating in the air remain unanswerable, simply because the war is absurd.

Beirut which was once vibrant is now empty and sad. Endless lines of cars waiting at gas stations worried about the shortage in gasoline. The masses of displaced people passing time in parks and schools waiting anxiously for some news from family members trapped somewhere in the South.

*This entry was published in a blog on Beirut during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel published by the website of the german newspaper, Die Zeit.

Remnants from the 2006 war (3)

It’s always poignant to realize that, after all, history does nothing but repeat itself! The whole world was shaken by the images of children being pulled out of the wreckage, caught by death in the middle of their sleep on Sunday.

More than fifty people were killed, buried under the rubble of a house in the southern village of Qana where they thought they could find shelter from Israeli bombing.

Almost the same incident happened ten years ago in the very same wholly town of Qana (mentioned in the bible as the place where Jesus Christ performed his first miracle of turning water into wine!)

Back in 1996, the killing of more than 100 civilians shook the world to its core and was enough to lead to a cessation of fire. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case in today’s more radical post-September 11 world. The US’s war on terrorists and terrorism can justify everything and anything from the torture of prisoners to the bombing of innocent civilians. Who said labor was an easy thing, especially when the newborn is a new Middle-East that the US has conceived?

As I zap from one channel to the other, I get slowly saturated by the images of cold dusty corpses and inhuman sounds of grief. Other images surface, those of politicians who condemn and accuse and others who apologize.

Also, trapped between these images are scenes from “The Beautiful Mind”, an American movie about a genius mathematician that was playing on one of the channels.

I ask myself: can we really find any logic in all these military operations? Is there any equation that can rationally link among all the current unknowns: the killing of civilians, self-defense, resistance, durable peace and above all the leitmotiv of the American administration, “sustainable ceasefire”?

Maybe Olmert or Condy have beautiful minds of their own and see the whole picture which we, the common mortals, cannot grasp!

Personally what I have seen in the riots of angry men and women who were attempting to destroy and burn the symbol of our modern world’s civilization, the United Nation’s building in Beirut, are hate and violence against as one of the rioters signs suggested “the silence of the lambs”.

I remember during one of my tours in the numerous schools of Beirut packed with refugees the look on an old woman from the south. I asked the futile question of how she felt being forced to leave her home and she looked at me with a docile, almost nonchalant gaze.

“What can I say my son, I’ve spent my whole youth fleeing Israel!” She recalled images of Israeli soldiers breaking into her house in a southern village more than twenty years ago. Strangely, those memories were more vivid and stronger than the recent stories of the thousands of displaced. Israel might justify its current military operation and prove its military superiority, but what it is really doing, is feeding the collective memories of hundreds of thousands of people in Lebanon and millions around the world. All this violence will not lead to a sustainable ceasefire. It seems so obvious that I feel ridiculous writing it. Images don’t die, feelings don’t die; they cannot but fuel more violence and more defiance.

*This entry was published in a blog on Beirut during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel published by the website of the german newspaper, Die Zeit.

Remnants from the 2006 war (2)

Pulling myself out of bed was very difficult this morning despite the continuous sound of rockets falling on the southern suburbs of Beirut. I probably wanted to believe that all this was just a nightmare.

It is true that I live in the Christian part of the capital, which is relatively secure, but with the Israelis escalating their assault each day, safety has become a dull notion.

It’s as if I had taken hallucinogenic pills; sometimes I see images of warplanes shelling bombs that explode into mushrooms or shattered glass falling on my head like a thousand daggers. Everything is getting mixed up in my head. Numerous clichés and noises are resonating endlessly within me. I am starting to feel incapable of processing more data. I am like an empty vessel bearing more and more stuff to the point of exploding. The pattern is the same: air strikes, demolition, civilians dying, people displaced, foreigners evacuating, hollow political declarations. The details are only slightly different.

We entered the second week of this absurd conflict. I am realizing how helpless we are. I tune in to international news channels and all I get is pro-Israeli propaganda. Why doesn’t the world just come and spend few hours in the south where people are stranded and running out of food?

Tens of thousands of people have fled southern villages and towns in the last week. Those who stayed are cut from the outside world after Israel had bombed bridges, roads, electricity and telephone infrastructure turning the whole zone into small separated islands.

Everybody around me has lost faith in “the international community,” in “Lebanon’s friends,” in “our Arab brothers.” What is a human life or two or even 300 (the death toll so far) worth when the masters of the world are discussing how to split the earth’s resources at the G8 summit in St Petersburg!

I switch off the TV. I don’t feel like listening to analysis about the reasons and consequences anymore. It’s all futile.

Yesterday, I actually decided to see “reality” with my bare eyes. I went with a group of journalists to the heart of the southern suburbs, to Dahyeh, where tens of thousands of Shiites normally live spiralling around Hizbullah’s strongholds.

As we got closer to Haret Hreik, Hizbullah’s headquarters, which was reportedly almost wiped out by non-stop Israeli raids, large photos of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s chief and a semi-god for Shiites, and other Iranian ayatollahs were more and more abundant everywhere. The streets were very calm and few cars were circulating.

I tried to think to myself what total destruction could look like.

At some point, we were stopped by Hizbullah fighters who had encircled the “hot spot” forbidding us from getting closer. We were only allowed to take photos around “hell.” As I step out of the car, I immediately felt I was entering into a different reality. The sight had a certain esthetic about it; nothing but annihilation; pounded cars, pulverized glass, buildings cut into two and masses of gravel everywhere separated by a crushed bridge. Beyond the heavy silence, the laughter, the arguments, the screaming of all those who used to live here just few days ago were resonating through the walls and the indefinite concrete structures.

Almost everybody left in a hurry after Israel dropped hundreds of flyers summoning the Dahyeh’s residents to leave their homes before the army would start hitting.
This area is one of the most populated of Lebanon. It was haphazardly constructed during the Israeli occupation of the South (between 1978 and 2000). For years, the area kept receiving floods of displaced people forced to leave their villages in the South.

I move towards the ruined bridge. I stand on one of its broken edges and feel like the whole energy of the place is pouring inside me. It must have been one of the most intense moments of my life, as if I was allowed to sneak into another mysterious dimension where time and space are entangled.

It’s weird now that I remember all this; I cannot but feel like it had never really happened. It’s like this sight of the war with its splendor and horror could not have been but a movie scene. Tomorrow I might wake up and find out I had been caught up in a nightmare.

We have no evidence the sun will continue rising everyday, but we still believe it will happen anyway

-Isn’t this Hume’s motto?

I am really scared the situation would last too long to the point of getting up one day and realizing that the war has become an inescapable reality. It’s just day seven, fortunately I still have this tiny hope that tomorrow will be different.

*This entry was published in a blog on Beirut during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel published by the website of the german newspaper, Die Zeit.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Remnants from the 2006 war (1)

“We are facing a real annihilation carried out by Israel,” with these desperate words, the Lebanese Cabinet expressed their helpless observation of the current situation in Lebanon.

For the past five days, Israel’s destructive machinery has been demolishing the country’s infrastructure: bridges, roads, highways, power stations, buildings, airports, whole cities and villages… The numbers of dead and injured people is continuously on the rise.

Among the hundred and fifty individuals or so killed so far, the vast majority are civilians and children.

Numbers do not count anymore!

We’re under a real sea, air and land blockade; a blockade worthy of “the middle ages” like a Lebanese official declared few days ago. In the already deprived southern villages, the situation is disastrous and people are running out of food and medical care. The highly populated area of the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hizbullah’s strongholds lies, has been almost wiped out. There’s a mass exodus of thousands of people leaving the south and staying in schools, parks, and empty houses. The country is almost completely cut off from the outside world.

Of course one can always adopt the American position and say, well, Israel has the right to defend itself; Hizbullah has fired rockets on Northern Israeli towns killing civilians as well.

But when you see a little girl shredded into pieces, it means we’ve entered the absurd vicious cycle of war where violence begets violence and logic and words are simply meaningless.

On Wednesday, Hizbullah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in order to press Israel to free four Lebanese prisoners. The Lebanese resistance group was founded in 1982 with the support of Iran as the result of Israel’s invasion of the country then.

Hizbullah was nationally and regionally praised when it succeeded in driving Israel out of the occupied southern parts of Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation.

When all this started on Wednesday _I can’t believe we reached this stage of horror in just five days_, a lot of Lebanese bared a grudge about Hizbullah’s operation.

A majority of Lebanese were probably saying: “Hizbullah is crazy, they have dragged the whole country into a war that none of us chose. The decision of making war or peace has to be in the hands of the state and not of a militia.” Most of us were thinking of their plans for the weekend. Baalbek’s festival was about to open with a musical by Lebanon’s diva Fairouz. Most people had plans to tan on the beach, to hike in the mountains, go shopping… but NOT GO TO WAR.

Officials, hotel owners, businessmen were talking about high hopes and expectations about this year’s touristy season. Hundred thousands of tourists were here, more were coming, everybody was happy about the growth all this would generate and then in the blink of an eye Beirut’s summer turned into a nightmare.

But the disproportionate reaction of Israel to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers and the killing of eight more leaves one with total indignation with Israel’s “barbaric and systematic war on Lebanon.”

None of this is new, what we have seen in Gaza and the Palestinian territories recently and continuously, should have fueled our imagination about Israel’s collective punishment in response to the kidnapping of its soldiers when the conflict started four days ago.

By now, we all pretty much understand that Hizbullah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah had opened “Pandora’s box.”

Many Lebanese think that Hizbullah has acted in coordination with Iran and Syria as a response to the international community’s pressure on Iran’s nuclear program and their mounting criticism of Syria for supporting violence in Iraq.

"The war is no longer Lebanon’s ... it is an Iranian war," said one of Lebanon’s staunchest opposing figure to Syria and Iran, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt on

Even Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora had repeated that the government was not aware of Hizbullah’s operation. “We’re the last to know, and the first to be held accountable,” he said.

Anyway, the war in Lebanon is ongoing with the total indifference of the United Nations and lack of real defense or support from the Arabs. Like during Lebanon’s 15 year-old “civil war,” we are living “the others’ war on our territory.”

“The situation is literally: fearless Lebanese men fighting with high-technology Iranian arms.” This is what a former Hizbullah fighter boasted to me about the Lebanese resistance guerilla’s capacity to combat Israel “for a long time.”

Of course, this declaration is not the least surprising. For the past year, everybody here in Lebanon has feared that Hizbullah would drag the whole country in a war against Israel, orchestrated by Iran and Syria.

Although Syria and Iran are repeatedly accused by the US and Israel of standing behind Hizbullah, both countries are still outside the conflict. “For the moment, it is only Lebanon that we are targeting,” are the Israelis saying.

But beyond all these considerations, I think Hizbullah, which is fundamentally a religious group, views the conflict as “the Muslim nation’s war” against Israel, a war that would avenge all the long years of humiliation inflicted on Arabs and Muslims by the Jewish State.

"You Arab and Muslim people must take a position toward your future, the future of your children," Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a video-taped message. "The peoples of the Arab and Islamic world have a historic opportunity to score a defeat against the Zionist enemy ... We are providing the example."

"Hizbullah is not fighting a battle for Hizbullah or even for Lebanon, but for the Islamic nation," he said.

How haven’t we understood all this from the start? Hizbullah has repeatedly said that it was “a Lebanese” resistance and that it was not intending to “liberate” Palestine, -they even fully integrated in the country’s political life with parliamentarians and ministers. Did we really expect that the Party of God (this is what Hizbullah means in Arabic) which believes rewards are in the afterlife and which base their ideology on sacrificing human life for a bigger cause could really accept becoming a mediocre political party?

It’s only day five of the regional war fought on a Lebanese ground. With both Israel and Hizbullah seemingly determined to make it the last war against each other, no signs of hope fights would stop are clear in the horizon. Will repeated calls for ceasefire from the Lebanese government and the international community bare their fruits anytime soon? Nothing is less sure so far!

*This entry was published in a blog on Beirut during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel published by the website of the german newspaper, Die Zeit.