She was almost my age, my mother, back in the summer of 1982, that summer which holds my best-conserved memories. I look at myself in the mirror and I almost see her face staring back at me. The fine wrinkles on the forehead, a few grey hairs, and the new habit I am acquiring of pulling my hair up. How does one describe the changes in one’s features? Like looking at old pictures and knowing you don’t look as young anymore, though you also know you haven’t changed. Maybe more than anything, it is the eyes that betray us; - tired eyes through Kohol, our traditional black eyeliner, announcing to you and to the world that you are at war.
I can’t believe that I am living through this for the third time - one assault per decade. But I am a grown-up now, neither the nine-year old-girl of 1982, nor the enthusiast of 1996. I am 33 and I should know what to do. I should know the answers and all the magic tricks that would get us out of this, the same way I believed my mother did when she was my age. I blamed her, though, for allowing war to happen to me; I thought that was one thing she should have known better not to permit. She should have been able to change the world - after all that is what mothers are capable of. At 33, I am relieved not to be a mother myself, because despite all my good intentions, I still haven’t learnt the magic tricks to get any child out of the agony of war.
The most frustrating side of all of this is that I am a believer in nonviolence, with an MA in peacebuilding. It is funny that the posters with the call of applications for the “Third Annual Summer School for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding” still hang in the streets of the city and on the walls of NGOs we are spending our war times in. I was supposed to be assisting in that training. I would have told the participating youth about the difference between positions and interests, effective communication and some about empathy. However, I would have taught them nothing on how to save the life of at least one child in the time of war, maybe because I don’t know how to do it myself.
I spent the past three days today listening to one story after another from people who lived a horrible week in the south. Hundreds trapped in a tiny shelter for six days, dead bodies still under the rubble, and 150 people walking for hours in hope of reaching safety. I heard stories of the displaced - mothers with no water to bathe their children and diabetes patients losing limbs because they were without their medication for days.
The toll of the stories is too heavy, especially when I hear the usual question: “So you think what you are doing could be effective?” They are all giving me their stories, handing it on a plate of hope and trust, and I struggle with it all. I have no promises that I could keep to give in return.
Through the years, all promises of peace with dignity have betrayed them, those people whose stories I have heard. All the way from the Palestine-related UN resolutions since 1947, through the “Peace of the Brave” and the Oslo accords; most (definitely not all) of those babbling the peace discourse have been nothing but agents for a project which people of this region didn’t accept. Neither have the intellectuals or activists, at least through the eyes of a southern Lebanese farmer, ever made a difference. They say, well, thousands have demonstrated against the war in Iraq but it happened anyway. They say we had a UN resolution for the Israeli army (IDF) to get out of Lebanon for 22 years, but it was only implemented because of the armed resistance. Nasarllah, on the behalf of Hizbullah, promised them dignity - dignity, maybe through a lot of pain, but at least that is one group that people feel have delivered.
My friends, too, hold me accountable to this same set of beliefs, teasing me and placing bets that I would eventually hold arms if the IDF invaded and reached Beirut, the city they know I adore. I guess they know what would be my tipping point; I saw this happen to the city back in 1982. After two months of living through the Israeli siege of Beirut, the IDF planes filling its skies and managing to injure my father and eight-year-old brother and damaging the house in which I was born, the saddest part was seeing the tanks on the streets of the city. They were on the Corniche - this is mine, I thought, and they can’t be here. After all, the seaside pavement was almost my backyard. I had pictures taken there since maybe the day I was born, and from the same spot where I used to watch the sunset, I had to stare at the people who had been bombing the places where I played, now strolling around them. I couldn’t understand it then, I wouldn’t bare it now. I say I will lay in the tanks’ way and let the tanks roll over my body if they may. I say the world will be with us and will be watching and this can’t continue. But I myself have too many arguments to counter that. The world has not really been watching in the past 14 days; have you seen the death of any Lebanese making the headlines in the past two weeks?
True, I struggle with it, I want to be true to the people with the stories; I want to be true to myself and my own need for dignity too. And yes, I am still a believer in nonviolence, through a belonging more humanistic than national, but I need results. I need at least one small miracle, at least one kept promise.
Muzna Al-Masri is a human rights education activist in Beirut with an MA in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding.