Breakdown. I had a momentary breakdown. Driving back to Beirut last night, alone in my car, paying attention to Music for the first time in a month, I began to comprehend all that I saw this last week in the South of Lebanon; I finally let out tears. How does one describe destruction while giving it a unique touch, a local expression? I am beginning to think this is impossible because of the very nature of man made destruction. Villages in the South look like pictures I have seen of Hiroshima; they look like Berlin at the end of World War II, and they basically look like many other cities and villages destroyed in history; in a picture, frame per frame, it all looks the same.
Perhaps the inability to capture uniqueness in the material damage of war is ironic. It is ironic because everywhere I go I notice villagers trying to out bid each other with the extent of damage inflicted on their town. It is as if each village wants to prove that its suffering is the greatest. Even if the damage is not as great as other places, they turn things into an issue of relativity and say something like: Compared to the size of our town the damage is, of course, much greater than anywhere else; or our town was poor and hard hit already before the war, etc. They say this as though we are unjustified, and perhaps we are, in pointing out to people that other villages are more affected by the war; after all, does one only measure effect by assessing material damage or do the effects lie deeper? After the fact, it seems everyone wants to be among the most victimized, if for no other reason than to get a bigger share of the aid.
People. Children. This is where a sense of difference begins to appear, a sense that this is Lebanon and not any other war torn place on earth. I took pictures of kids in Aita el Chaab two days ago, and since then I have been noticing kids in different villages. My friend, Abed, looks at me and utters the words “culture of violence”. The phrase could not fit better the image of the kids we have seen. There is a sad and disturbing culture of violence emerging quickly from the rubble. In Aita el Chaab we saw kids playing “Israel and Hizballah”. There were dead kids on the floor, little girls shooting at boys, boys with sticks and toy guns, and a level of hyperactivity that was aggressive and unhealthy. This is the culture of violence that I am sure the Western media will pick up. But it will forget to see the unexploded rocket that appears in my picture so close to where the children play; it will forget to capture the pulverized home in the background or the street-turned-rubble where I stood to take the picture. Or perhaps it won’t forget but will fail to contextualize these kids for purely malicious reasons. And all this will give the world the proof it needs to paint the picture of the dirty Arab child, born violent, undeserving of self-determination and whose parents care little for him or her.
I felt numbness seeing all the destruction. There is something paralyzing about all these images: The more you see the more numb you get. I think I can now better understand what I felt in Auschwitz. Numbness. It raises a chilly feeling that this will happen again because it means nothing to see concrete blocks whether deformed by precision guided missiles or still standing to shelter empty space where people were once burned alive. Without the people to retell the stories, without their emotions, their screams, their deep pain that is visible in their bodily and facial expressions, there is only numbness to be felt in the presence of obscene devastation.
I felt this in village upon village in the South. Places where there was no Life, no standing infrastructure, and places where there was some semblance of Life and the possibility to rebuild. I felt this in Dahye when I visited it during the war, at a time when our existence was questionable and there should have been more reason to feel. Numbness. I felt this in front of every demolished house even when I made the effort to feel because I believed it was the right thing to do. And it is this numbness, this paralyses of emotion, to the horror inflicted on the material human Life by war, that we should fear most? This numbness allows us to forget, it allows us to be human without sharing in the spirit of humanity. Perhaps it was this that brought tears to my eyes in the car…a kind of emotional numbness, if you will.
Tired. Overworked. Claustrophobic under the sky. I am emotionally drained having thought of everyone but myself. And what have I been doing? For the last week I have been in the South, in a village called Deir Kifa located in between the Kada’ (district) of Marjaoun and Bint Jbeil. We went up last Friday, about 15 people working together on a Campaign for Civil Resistance with the intention to work with villages in serving their most dire needs and building longer term connections with people instead of doing the traditional charity work. We stayed in a friend’s villa in the village of Deir Kifa and slept on the floor on the same foam beds that we had provided to displaced people earlier this month.
Honestly, I feel we have been living a bourgeois life compared to the people we are trying to help, simply for the fact that we are living in a nice villa (even if there is no hot water or electricity) and not in the villages with which we work. I suppose there will be little to make me feel otherwise; these feelings of being bourgeois are built into the nature of our privilege vis-a-vis those with whom we work.
In the last week we have provided the village of Silaa which is located 5 minutes from where we stay with a week’s worth of food, and clothes, diapers, milk, a doctor’s visit, medication and we purchased a water pump to connect the village to non-potable water. We have begun work in two other villages, Kantara, which is still in close proximity to an Israeli army division, and Zibqine. In some villages I have seen other organizations working: I spotted Mercy Corp in Markaba, Qatar in Aita el Chaab and Bint el Jbeil, World Food in Kantara. But I don’t see their representatives, and I feel this type of charity is superficial. The international NGOs are trying to coordinate their activities through a humanitarian hub in Tyre, but we need to be building longer term efforts to link the South more directly with the country since the government will likely, once again, fall short of being a government and internal solidarity will collapse.
The way we work is by first meeting the head of the municipality and with the Hizballah representative in each town in order to get proper statistics of the village. For those who read only foreign media coverage, I must stress that one cannot work in the South without going through Hizballah. Besides being in control, they are also the most efficient, and usually the most honest and down to earth in the village, and don’t want more for the village than what is rightfully theirs. The representatives are very professional, know all the facts on the ground, and know the best way we can work to support their resistance without getting in the way. I have heard one representative from the Hizb tell us that although his house was also destroyed he did not need any aid, something most people are not ready to give up these days. I know I am talking them up, and though their work is admirable, I have some major criticisms. The biggest is that we have moved our humanitarian activities to the South and I believe this to be a Hizballah strategy and a wrong one at that. What do I mean?
I mean that there seems to be no logical sense for the people of the South to return to their villages because in most cases there is no food, medicine, electricity, homes, water, nothing. What are they returning to? At first we thought this was a measure of their will, strength and perseverance. Now I am beginning to think this is a measure of desperation and irrationality. I feel that the Hizb may have prematurely excited the people into returning as a way to exhibit their victory to the country and the world. It was a way to express resistance, a way to tell Israel that the people will not be expelled. In some ways I cannot argue with this. But from a humanitarian perspective this is, simply, wrong. What we are seeing now defies logic: Families dusting the rubble out of their homes, picking up rocks one by one; old women making bread on a saj under the roof of a destroyed house, sitting on rubble, surrounded by dust, acting as if all was normal; kids playing war in the street to the perfect backdrop for their games: mounds of leftover homes. Is this what human beings are supposed to return to? In many villages there are no shops or infrastructure for shops to even try to reopen; there are no hospitals, clinics or infirmaries for medical care. All this will take time and I am not hopeful that these issues will be solved before winter, especially with a naval and air blockade still choking the country. And the aid will not continue in the proportions they are arriving in today. We need to provide some type of sustainable structure. At the moment the only such structure is the fear of an impending war that everyone is certain will take place within the year if not the next month. And today there seems to be a gas crisis again as long lines are queueing at the stations.
A few of us on the first day (and then again on the fifth day) went driving around the South to assess the damage and get a feel of the region we are trying to service. I had never been this deep into the South. In some cases we got within a meter or two of the Lebanese-Israeli border. We could see settlements only a stone’s throw away (no pun intended), and Israeli farmers (from unknown origin) in the distance. I had never been here before. Why? I don’t know but I feel it has to do with an underlying discrimination within many people in Beirut and the North towards the South, my family, I suppose, included. We associate the South with war, occupation, Palestinian refugees, poverty, and with I don’t know what, but definitely with everything but beauty, community, hospitality, high-culture, and a closeness with the rest of the country. And now it is all destroyed. Village upon village partially or completely brought to the ground. This, I am told, is victory!
Borders. Borders that make me want to cry and laugh all at once. Who are they trying to fool? It seems all of us, doesn’t it?! Being on the border, in the South, I could see what we are fighting for and the need to build and maintain a movement of resistance against Israel (there is a stark contrast between this border and the Syrian-Lebanese one). The border for me is no longer abstract, it is no longer just an image on a TV screen. I see now how tied we are to Palestine, how our south is a beautiful extension of their north were it not for guard towers, colonial settlements, and the presence of a well fortified, aggressive army. I hear the stories of occupation, that there was a huge population of Lebanese who needed passes to enter their villages, who were oppressed in similar ways to the Palestinians of today. It is all so real now. And all this makes it so vital for us to boycott Israel and Israeli supporters, and why it is critical for us to develop a culture of resistance that is at once academic, cultural, artistic, economic, political and of course, militant (let us be a bit realistic as America arms Israel to the teeth).
Thoughts. Most of them are sacrificed to the war, to the emergency of present needs and censorship in the name of security and wehde wattaniyeh (national unity). So many rushing thoughts. Again, depression, claustrophobia, determination. I return to thoughts of destruction; the last few days I could think of little else. I have noticed that many of us, in my group and people around me, including Journalists, have developed a very sick relationship with destruction. We run from village to village wanting to see; we are voyeurs. There is a desire, as if all this destruction is exotic, to see all the villages, as if there will be one village that will be the final shock, the one that will knock you out of the safety of your own existence and lift the blinds from your eyes to see the full truth of war and violence. But there never is, and the more you search the more you face paralysis until you speak to the victims. But how many of us are really speaking to the victims? Not recording them for a project, not taking notes to study them, not assessing their situation, just speaking with them, listening to them, and living with them to give them a little bit of the hope we feel. Not many of us do that.
All I could think of was how I wanted the world to turn back to a time before this devastation, this pulverization of our society. Each crater competes with the next in the villages in the deep South by the border. Even with all the people back, the small villages are empty: both of people and houses. We drove through the Kada of Marjaoun from Deir Kifa, moving from village to village — from Deir Kifa to Ghandouriye then to Kantara and Taibe, Oudeyseh, Kfar Kila, Khiam, Markaba, Houla, and so many villages in between. The stories you hear along the way, of people who lay dead in their homes for days, of others surviving rocket attacks on their homes, of those who escaped and the towns they went to, or of how they split the family up in order to preserve memory, all of this weighs down on you until you turn it into laughter.
There is one thing I have learned in this war and its aftermath: When you have nothing left, when even the hope you raise is stripped from you, when the war and the destruction becomes so brutal, there is only one thing we, each one of us, has left in order to remain human and keep our sanity: laughter. I cannot stress this enough. Everywhere we go people are laughing and have been laughing all through the war. And no, this is not the laughter of happiness, it is the sharp, distinct, deep laughter of resistance.
Sami Hermez is a Lebanese-American doctoral student of Anthropology at Princeton University currently doing fieldwork in Lebanon and working on humanitarian assistance in the South.