“Helpless”

The aftermath of attacks by Israel on Lebanon, 16 July 2006. (Peter Speetjens/IRIN)


I hear it from my neighbours and friends, from phone calls coming in from loved ones abroad. I hear it inside my own head. We all just feel so helpless. How exactly does one face indiscriminate attacks from the air, land and sea? A sense of claustrophobia overcame me when all routes out of Lebanon were being cut off, one after the other. I wasn’t even thinking of leaving, but their moves succeeded in making me feel trapped. My solution? Call a friend living abroad - how trapped can I be if I can still communicate with the outside world? As trite as that might sound, it worked. The magic of psychology.

I have been thinking of my psychology classes a lot these days; specifically, the section on defense mechanisms. Denial has been my friend. It was not until I read the headline “War on Lebanon” that the reality of that sunk in. Of course, what else could this be? The bomb you don’t hear going off in the neighbouring southern suburb is landing somewhere else in the South or Beqaa. Hundreds of families are pouring into public schools all over the country, with barely anybody there prepared to receive them; but somehow, they do. The number of fatalities and of those injured clicks on like a counter on the news banner … they become numbers and we feel helpless sitting where we are, watching that number increase in the relative security of our homes.

I can no longer keep track of where the Israelis are hitting and how often. I’m stuck at the image of a school being bombed in Sour today — a public school housing families that were displaced from the South was bombed. Just like that. It all felt so familiar, perhaps because it is - a similar incident took place in Qana in 1996 when a UN warehouse housing hundreds of displaced families was targeted and brought to the ground. There were no survivors then. And today, this happens on the same day that Condoleezza Rice states that, if I may paraphrase, “a ceasefire now would not bring about desired results.” My shock and denial has now turned to anger. What precise results does the fair lady desire? How dare she and the whole host of politicians and political analysts appearing on talk shows all day intellectualize this war, these deaths, and our fears? How dare these ‘beacons’ of human rights reduce us to numbers and ignore our individual lives? We have become toy pieces in a game of Risk, and we are clearly not the players.

I guess this is really a war after all. Funny, when you think of it, because we weren’t ‘at war’ six days ago. We were planning trips, organising conferences, buying wedding presents, making dinner reservations, and trying to find time to go to the beach or up to the mountains. Overnight, a different routine emerged - count the number of bombs during the night, wake up to the news broadcasts which tell you where they landed, and promptly call friends who live in that area. That’s when yet another defense mechanism surfaces - humour. I am pleased to inform you that despite all adversity, the human spirit survives. I’d love to share one or two of those jokes with you, but you really had to be there …

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Maha Damaj is a public health professional living in Beirut. She returned to Lebanon in 1994 and has been working as a disability and human rights activist for several years.