By the time we returned to Siddiqine yesterday morning, someone had cleared the dead cows and hopefully adopted the new calf barely standing the night before. Other than that, there is little in the way of good news.
Large areas of Siddiqine, Bint Jbeil and many other villages and towns are completely devastated. We spoke to one driver whose car was piled high with foam mattresses. He said he was from the local village but couldn’t figure out where his house had been. I filled my camera with frame after frame of destruction, but soon realized the futility of it all, and limited myself to shots that had a unique and often ironic twist to them, such as the suggestion box framed with destruction in a recently beautiful new school where our team member Maryam had taught. I asked her a few questions while the camera was running, but the references to details of life before the invasion brought tears to her eyes where there had only been surprise. Why hit the schools?
Huge craters cut many of the roads and pulverized some areas of the towns. At least half the houses were uninhabitable, but many did not exist at all. There was talk of a special type of bomb or artillery shell that made a strange crater that was deep but not wide. Were these “bunker busters?” I took some pictures of unexploded ordnance on the ground, including a huge shell with the number 500 on it and some Hebrew writing. I’m hoping Huwaida will be able to translate it. Thankfully, I found no signs of cluster bombs, but brought back some shrapnel that is as heavy as lead but not as soft. Is it depleted uranium? I hope to find out. That is associated with “bunker busters”, and it’s my understanding that while the shrapnel is not particularly dangerous to handle, it turns to dust and burns when it strikes hardened steel, creating a cancerous long term environmental disaster. I hope my worst fears are unfounded.
In the village of Aita al-Shaab we found a family sifting by hand through the remains of their house. They found what they were looking for: the bodies of the grandparents, several weeks old and not all in one piece. They were no longer human beings, but rather masses of putrid, rotting flesh falling off the bones, leaving an unmistakable stench that was only partially mitigated by some coverings that the family had placed to try to preserve a shred of dignity.
In her grief, the daughter of the elderly couple launched into an indictment of George Bush and the U.S. relationship with Israel, which I was fortunate enough to capture on film:
“Let the people of America see our children. Let all Americans know what Mr. Bush has done to us, that this is his democracy, his “New Middle East”. We don’t blame Israelis. We have always known what they are. I have a two-year-old baby who can’t stop saying, ‘They broke my house. I want my house.’ Can the American president answer this child? Have the American people no reaction to the gifts of Mr. Bush to the people of Lebanon? He cares more about a dog than for the killing of an entire nation. Does he want to kill the people of the Middle East to create a ‘land without people’? We are the Middle East, and without us there is none. Heaven without angels is not heaven. I do not blame the Israelis. I blame Bush, who proclaims democracy and humanity and freedom and dignity, to be imposed upon the entire world with steel and fire, while he professes to believe in God. That’s what I want to tell Mr. Bush. I’m looking for my Mom and Dad underneath these ruins. To me they are everything, and even a grain of the soil of this land is more honorable than Mr.Bush. He cannot rule our country even under fire. Even if we are dead, we will be free. His great technology is useless. Is this the way to use technology? Let him learn how to use technology for good. He cannot rule us this way. We are honored to give our blood for our country, even our souls and our houses. We live under the sun of freedom, while he [Bush] has no honor. We’ve been looking for my parents for 22 days, but of course this is of no interest to Mr. Bush. Let Americans know that the hunger that they suffer is so that Israel can have the weapons to destroy Arab countries. I hope that Americans learn the reality of what is going on. We will stay here. This is our land. We are not afraid of them and their weapons.”
As we continued to survey the region, I had expected to see some of the 30,000 Israeli soldiers that were supposedly deployed there. My experience in Palestine made me think that there would be checkpoints and controls everywhere and that I would find myself face to face with Israeli troops throughout the trip. I was therefore surprised to see only three soldiers atop a tank on a hill above the road during the entire day. Even when we drove right next to the border, there was no evidence of troops on either side. This is occupation? What controls are the multinational force going to take over?
Of course there was plenty of evidence that they had been there recently. They had painted graffiti, broken into some of the homes, put their cigarettes out on the furniture, eaten the food, smashed nearly everything that could be smashed and vandalized wedding pictures and pictures of the Virgin Mary. (Just to show you the misconceptions westerners hold about religious attitudes here, the house belonged to a Muslim man who simply liked to venerate this Christian icon of his fellow Lebanese.)
One of the most surreal parts of the trip was when we passed through the town of Ein Ebel. It was untouched, not a single bullet, shell or tank track. Not a crack in the road nor a wall overturned. It was as if the war had never happened here, and indeed in some ways it had not. This was the village of Christian allies of Israel who had served as proxy forces and torturers of their fellow citizens during Israel’s invasion from 1982 to 2000. Although there are no longer any direct confrontations between them and their Hezbollah neighbors, it pays not to stir things up. On the other hand, I ventured to the rest of our team (Ismail, who had used his car for the trip, Maryam, whose home is Siddiqine, Shirine, at whose place we had spent the night in Tyre and Aisha, an American filmmaker), that this might be the ideal place to buy gasoline; if any place might have a protected supply, this would be it.
We agreed and found the station. It was decided that as the oldest, I would do the negotiating, and that Ismail would be my “driver”. I got out of the car and asked if they had gas. They said they did and asked where I was from. I said I was American and they asked how I spoke such good Arabic. I said I was married to a Lebanese. From where? Rashmaya, in the northern Shouf mountains, from the El-Khoury family, related to the first (Christian) president of Lebanon and to the head of one of the important Christian clans of Lebanon.
Having thus shamelessly used my wife’s “royalty” and played upon the Lebanese sectarianism, I found all doors open to us. We filled with gas and one of their number guided us in his car along a special route that went near his house, where he invited us to return. Although we declined, it again confirmed that if we perceive a stranger as a friend, the causes of mistrust and hatred, of Christian and Muslim, Jew and Arab, “them” and “us” turn to dust. It seems so simple.
The blurring of borders occurred on our last stop, as well, in the village of Dhe’ira, on the way to the coast. The people of this village are part of a larger tribe, similar to Bedouin, whose community straddles the border with Israel. More than half live on the Israeli side, with families split down the middle. In many cases, the parents or grandparents live on one side of the border and the children on the other. However, no Lebanese are permitted to go to Israel and no Israeli citizens may come to Lebanon. There, in a bucolic setting of tobacco fields, a taxi driver, Bilal, invited us to his home after showing us some of the damage done by the Israeli invasion in his community. His own home had been untouched, and his hospitality was a welcome respite from the horrors we had witnessed during the day. Even the physical act of washing hands and face from the dust and the smells seemed like an act of purification. We thanked Bilal and made our way back through more destroyed villages to the coast and then north to Tyre.
Although the sun was almost setting in Tyre, Ismail was determined to make it back to Beirut. I was equally determined to send out yesterday’s report and download the pictures from my camera. We compromised. We found a Turkish journalist at the Tyre Rest House who helped me download my pictures and then we left. However the traffic jam was so great that the Lebanese soldiers advised us to turn back and try again in a couple of hours. That gave me the chance to send yesterday’s report and everyone else a chance to snooze on the beach while I toiled over a hot computer. I was seriously skeptical about reaching Beirut before morning, but Ismail’s optimism turned out to be justified. The Lebanese army had worked a few miracles with the road (though not the bridge over the Litani river), and we made it back in three hours.
I have already learned that some of our colleagues who took different routes had more direct and disturbing contacts with Israeli troops. We will meet late this afternoon to make some plans based on our factfinding and decide what actions we want to take. There is plenty of work left to do and we will have to find our role in doing it.
Paul Larudee is the former supervisor of a Ford Foundation project in Lebanon, a Fulbright-Hays lecturer to Lebanon and a contract U.S. government advisor to Saudi Arabia. He is one of seven volunteers of the International Solidarity Movement wounded by Israeli gunfire on April 1,2002. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.