One week of war: Every decision is a gamble

A general view of damaged buildings in Beirut after Israeli warplanes targeted the area, 21 July 2006. (Haitham Moussawi/IRIN)

Sunday, July 16

We’ve been at home for days. We are glued to the TV, Internet and radio, listening for updates and thinking about what to do - implement a micro-level state of emergency or go on as usual? My husband Heiko and I are not sure. I am conferring with my mom on the phone; she thinks this is ‘War’. She has made a run to the supermarket to stock up on things and is urging us to come with our nine-month-old son Nessim and stay with her.

We quickly weigh the considerations: the electricity in our neighborhood is erratic (there is a generator at my mom’s); Nessim is bored and fussy (my mom and sisters can help); we have not stocked up on war-time essentials like candles, batteries, drinking water (my mom has). Another factor is psychological: our apartment is in Kantari, a residential area between Ras Beirut and downtown. Yet, when the sound of the shelling booms throughout the city, especially at the preferred hour of 4 am, drowning out the call to prayer, I get scared. I was never very brave when it came to war, even though (or because?) I grew up in civil war Beirut. My parents’ house is in Doha, a little south of the city, and sits on a hill, with a bird’s eye view of Beirut (and the shelling). Being slightly above the fray, geographically speaking, is a little more reassuring than being at the worm’s-eye level.

We decide to go. We pack our toothbrushes, a change of clothing, put out a huge pot of water and dry food for our three cats, and leave, driving like the wind along the new highway that hugs the western border of the Dahiyeh and plunges underneath the airport runway. The highway asphalt reflects the summer sun like a mirror; ours is the only car on the road.

Monday, July 17

We are not the only family to take refuge in my parents’ house. Our housekeeper Ghada is from Ramieh, a village in the south that sits on the border to Israel. She has moved in with her husband and little daughter, her ailing mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law, one of whom is married and has a young daughter. Ghada’s brother Ali, his wife and five young children have also joined. They all live in Naameh, a nearby neighborhood on the coastal foothills, also home to the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Palestinian armed faction that the Israelis love to bomb even during less violent times. Since the shelling began, Naameh has been a potential target, and some of the bridges that straddle the highway that passes under their balcony have been destroyed.

Ghada’s family suffered deeply during the civil war and although she was a child, she bears the scars and is very frightened now. One of her sisters, Mariam, who has five young children, lives in Aita al-Shaab, a village in the deep south that has been the scene of heavy shelling. Ghada has not heard from her since the war began. Her eldest sister, Hala, lives in the Dahiyeh (the southern suburbs) and has been displaced by the vicious shelling that has flattened entire neighborhoods. Hala, her husband and six children are living in a school with other refugees from the southern suburbs. They are being cared for by Hizbullah and the many NGOs who are participating in a formidable war-relief effort to help alleviate the plight of the more than 500,000 displaced who have taken shelter in the cities.

Tuesday, July 18

After another night punctuated by the window-shaking thuds of shells falling on the airport and southern suburbs, I was woken up at 6 am by my baby who, unlike me, was happy to start a new day: ‘bop, bop, bop’ he says to me with a wide smile showing all six of his teeth. My bones are aching from the stress of the unknown and erratic sleeping patterns but I scoop up my child and step outside into the front garden to greet the young day.

The sky slumps onto the earth in a brown-gray fog, trapping the heat of the morning sun. Beirut is out of sight; I can’t even see the sea that lies as silent as a pond underneath the bitter haze just a few hundred meters from where I stand. The air tastes bitter. The burning fuel from the bombed airport and Jiyeh depots have been burning for days, and whatever comes out of those hundreds of bombs rained down on the Dahiyeh, poisoned the morning and ruined our lives. They are taking away our air to breathe! Panic wells up inside me; I suddenly feel there is nowhere to run. I fear for my child. I grew up in war, but I never ever thought my baby would too. How do I protect him from something so out of my hands, something so deadly? So far over 300 souls have perished, a third of them children. I quickly go back inside.

Wednesday, July 19

My aunt, who has been weathering the incessant bombing in and around Sidon, got a 4 am phone call. When she picked up the phone, a recorded voice said to her in Hebrew-accented Arabic that she should not throw her fate in with those Hizbullah ‘terrorists’. ‘The State of Israel will utilize any and all forms of force to exterminate those terrorists hiding in their caves’, the recording said. This is a particularly obtuse form of psychological warfare, but it does make the skin crawl, if only because of the memories of Israelis speaking of violence in accented Arabic that come tumbling back from the 1982 invasion. My aunt, who lives alone, was furious. ‘If Olmert wants to threaten me, then why doesn’t he call me himself? I want to curse him to his face - what’s the point of shouting at a lifeless recording?’ she says angrily over the phone.

She is stuck in Sidon, as the entrances and exits of the city have been bombed repeatedly. The Israelis have also been terrorizing the Palestinians in the city by bombing around the refugee camp, the largest in Lebanon. Because it is the largest city in the south, Sidon is coping with an enormous amount of refugees from the southern villages under siege, and as it is also cut off from food and medicines, the humanitarian situation is verging on the catastrophic. A friend of mine who has been working in the relief effort talks of fleas and skin diseases and lack of hygiene. So many unwashed bodies crammed together in buildings with no facilities, and so many children, in the unrelenting and humid heat of the Lebanese summer. ‘It’s a living hell,” she says, “but we’re doing what we can, given our limited means’.

My younger brother, who found himself unable to cope with the situation, has decided to get out. Using his Austrian residency (which my family has from the days when we escaped from the civil war) he catches a ride with the Austrian evacuees out of the country. They ride all night on a Greek warship to Cyprus, crouching in the hallways. The next day they are airlifted by military plane to Vienna.

Thursday, July 20

Today is the quietest day so far, but that has an opposite effect on people’s nerves. Rumors are getting the better of everyone’s sanity. Many are saying that this lull is all about the massive evacuation of foreigners and that once they are gone the bastards are going to bomb us to smithereens. Today the US Marines have returned to Beirut to remove stranded US citizens, and their presence is not seen as benign. ‘We are the next Iraq!’ some proclaim.

We take advantage of the relative calm and make a run along the deserted airport highway to our apartment. Our neighbor Um Walid, who is taking care of our cats, is standing on the landing with her mother-in-law. They both lived through the civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion. ‘This just is how the invasion started,’ Um Walid said, ‘God help us’. Her mother-in-law, the old hajjeh, looks at me with tears in her pale green eyes: ‘Don’t leave your house, they will come and take it from you. I was here during the war and they occupied this building. They pushed us and said “Sit aside and not one word!” We couldn’t do a thing.’ My neighbors, like most people here, are trapped between the realities of their bad memories and the specters of their fearful imagination.

Heiko said let’s go, there is a ship we can get on tonight. I am not yet ready to leave because my mom doesn’t want to go (she doesn’t want to leave her animals) and my sisters won’t leave her. I am also afraid of the voyage. Isn’t this going to end soon? But tonight is bad and I don’t know if I can take any more. We were sitting around monitoring the TV and Internet and all of a sudden a massive metallic crash swept through the darkness … and then another one, pushing in the windows like an invisible monster. Nessim was sleeping in another room, I ran to him to protect him, with my body if necessary. He hadn’t woken up, but I picked him up once my legs could hold us both and ran into the hallway, shaking with fear. There is nowhere to hide from fear, it follows you everywhere. Two more massive blasts followed. They had finally blown up the bridge under Ghada’s apartment in Naameh, about two kilometres away.

Friday, July 21

Ghada’s husband went to survey the damage to their apartment. The bridge was gone and all the glass in the house was pulverized and there was shrapnel everywhere. My mom went out to look for medicine for her high blood pressure, but everything is closed. People are terrified, but more seriously we are under blockade. The airport has been closed for more than a week and the Israelis have systematically shelled all land routes out of the country in addition to maintaining a vicious sea blockade. Things are running out. I went to the supermarket yesterday and the fresh stuff was scarce; there were a few wilted lettuces on the shelf. What is there is exorbitant. A kilo of lemons is going for 10 times its price a week ago. When will food and essentials start running out?

Israel is massing on the border and there are rumors of a land invasion tonight. I am so scared and wish I had gotten out of here before now. When will the last boat leave? Are we in danger? I am so scared I can barely breathe. The worst thing about war is the unknown - new realities emerge every minute and every decision taken is a gamble.

Saturday, July 22

Wartime is a curious time, and the Lebanese settle into it like a favorite old armchair. With the first strike against the airport they started to fall into step. But this kind of war is different than any I have lived through so far. It caught everyone unawares, blowing in from the south with no warning. By the time I was old enough to understand that I was living in war as a child, the war already had been going on for several years and so the locals were already old hands at everyday violence. The lightening-speed at which things went from ho-hum to catastrophic this time around has resulted in what I consider the anomalous existence of wartime creature comforts: electricity (Internet! AC!), running water, traffic police - things like that. But for how much longer?

Everyday I struggle more with the thought of leaving. I know it is my responsibility to take my child to safety, but is it safer to stay or to go? I know that out there, the daily life of the world is going on as before - can I deal with re-entering that sphere of existence, knowing that my family, my country, (even my cats!) are in mortal danger? I don’t know, I just don’t know. At night I am sure I will leave tomorrow. But when the morning comes, like this morning, and the night before has been quiet, I think this will all be over tomorrow and we will all be safe.

The evil will of those bastards Olmert, Peretz, Bush, and Rice is being implemented and no one is saying a word. Where is everybody? Getting your own folks out of here before things really get ugly does not pass for humanitarian intervention, world! Have you seen all the children dying? All the old people heaving their creaky old bodies onto sheets on the sidewalk, displaced from their homes for the 100th time? They buried 70 bodies in Tyre yesterday in a mass grave, plywood coffins lined up side by side. The death toll is topping 400 so far and thousands have been wounded. Has everyone forgotten 1982 and the 17,000 who perished because of the Israelis and their vicious hubris fanned by American megalomania? When will this stop? I am boiling with rage. How many more will have to die before anyone intervenes?

The jets are overhead again.

Sunday, July 23

We’re back in Beirut. We came back yesterday. Up in Doha my stomach has been tied in knots from stress and fear just thinking of the airport highway that we have to potentially cross with our baby if we decide to leave and wondering when, just when they are going to bomb the Khaldeh bridge and cut us off from the rest of the world, because the Sidon road is blocked and Beirut is the only outlet. It is another world up there on the hill, isolated, and one feels exposed and vulnerable.

We got into the car, I held my baby on my lap really tight, closed my eyes and sang to him, repeating the same words over and over. Heiko drove fast down the empty, glittering ribbon of road and in 15 minutes we were back in our neighborhood. In the week we’ve been gone, Beirut has transformed, or more accurately, reverted, from a pretentious and flashy city crawling with Gulf tourists here to consume alcohol and sex (and who all got out on the first day of air strikes, streaming like rats across the border to Syria in their four wheel drive vehicles), to a city of refugees, boarded up businesses and neighborhood thugs. Those who were local militia bullies throughout the war and found themselves emasculated in the post-war era have come back into their own.

One guy, who used to be the neighborhood boss of the Amal militia during the war and strutted around my street like a useless cock before this latest war, is already making trouble. I just witnessed an argument from my balcony between him and the police: he wants to mobilize a break-in to an empty building, supposedly to put up refugees. But these are the tactics harking back to the stateless civil war days, when militias would claim space in the city by putting up dependents in the houses of others (who either left on their own or were forcibly cleansed) and those refugees would come to constitute their power base. The neighborhood is already overflowing with people and refugees are everywhere; in the school down the road and in the school up the road, young men hanging out on the curbs, women hanging out the laundry, children chasing each other in the street.

I am already seeing the strain on my neighborhood, which is mixed Sunnis, Shi’a, Christians and Armenians. The two Christian shop owners on our street, Renee who runs the laundry and George, who sells plants and flowers, have boarded up their shops from the first day of this war and have disappeared. Our Armenian neighbor across the landing, Isabel, has left. But Abu Talal the Shi’a shopkeeper has remained open in between his absent Christian neighbors and is jacking up prices. Our Sunni neighbors are fearful. Walid, who is a policeman, and usually works at the airport, has been relocated to General Security headquarters and is working on surveillance. His group is composed only of Sunnis and Christians. The state has become wary of its Shi’a citizens. The neighborhood is unraveling along its sectarian seams. If this situation sustains itself much longer, the friction will get worse: now at least there are still policemen doing the rounds and disallowing break-ins. When will the state finally crumble? If we leave, what will become of our house, this land, our family and neighbors and pets? Are we back to civil war?

We went out with our son this evening to meet a friend at one of the handful of cafes still open in Hamra. We walked there. The scenes of street life (or lack thereof) gives one an uncanny sense of deja vu harking back to Beirut circa 1986: the garbage is piling up in the garbage cans and on the sidewalks, shops are shuttered, advertising billboards suddenly look crass and hollow and anyway don’t refer to any reality anymore. In time they will fade and tear, yet remain as a testament to a former time of frivolity. All these scenes I normalized growing up as a kid in the war; I had no recollection of warless times because I was born after the war began. Refugees are everywhere. On our street we were given unfriendly glances by young men lounging on the corner: ‘what are you still doing here?’ they seem to say.

I turned on the radio in the kitchen to listen to ‘Sawt al Shaab,’ the communist station that provides updates on the situation, interspersed with nationalist music. Fairuz came in over the static, singing about what a wonderful place Lebanon is. All of a sudden her voice cracks with static and morphs into the robotic voice of a man speaking Hebrew-accented Arabic. It is the same recording that my aunt heard on the phone at 4 am. I jiggle the antenna, trying to get away from his creepy pronouncements but there is no escape. I turn off the radio and leave the kitchen.

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Munira and her German husband live in Beirut with their 9-month-old baby Nessim.