The history of earlier drives into Lebanon shows that even as the Israeli war machine gains momentum, so do the chances of terrible accidents and atrocities. In 1982, under the protection of Israeli forces, Christian Lebanese militias carried out the now infamous massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Ten years ago, during a campaign against Hizbullah similar to the one now underway, Israeli gunners blasted a United Nations monitoring post at the South Lebanese town of Qana, where terrified locals had taken refuge. More than 100 civilians were killed in a barrage that lasted only a few ghastly seconds. International outrage quickly forced Israel to end its offensive.
The Israelis say they are being more careful this time around, not least because they don’t want to be forced to stop. “The presidential approval by Bush, the surprising level of support he’s giving Israel, the patience he’s giving Israel — it looks as if there’s a great amount of slack being cut to us,” says a senior Israeli security source, who did not want to be identified by name because he is not authorized to speak on the record. “Absent a Qana, it might go on.”
-from the article “Torn to Shreds” in last week’s Newsweek.
Bearing witness to a massacre only a few kilometers removed from one’s being (or home)
Coming into consciousness of, or bearing witness to, a massacre only a few kilometers removed from one’s being (or home), feels very much like the experience of being in the proximity of a very powerful explosion only at an extremely, extremely slowed motion. Taking stock of the information on time, place, and the toll of victims, watching televised transmission of rescue workers piling a kindergarden in rigor mortis, is identical to the astounding sensation of the air being sucked from all around, that typically precedes the explosion. And at some point, it all sinks in, the information processes into information, and the images breakdown into their compositional elements (rescue worker carrying four year old with hand stretched to the sky and fingers wide spread), and you explode, or implode, with some sort of a system shut down. For a split second your heart does not beat the way it is used to, and your lungs don’t quite inhale or exhale according to the book.
9:00 am, or somewhere around there. I am zapping between al-Jazeera, LBC, BBC, Future TV, and my new discovery of this war, Sky News. I have to finish some proposal text to send to funders to collect desperately needed funds to support the army of volunteers and the programs for displaced kids. I cannot disappoint “Nouna”, I have to be at the library at 10:00 am with the text in English.
9:05 am, or somewhere around there. Yasser Abou Halileh, who just landed in Lebanon from Jordan is catching his breath on al-Jazeera. He arrived to Qana and just reached the shattered shelter site. Qana was carpet-bombed throughout the night. The air-bombing was not a “surprise” to anyone, because the Israeli army dropped flyers advising residents to leave. The bodies piled in the shelter ravaged to rubble were of people too poor to afford the ride from Qana to Sidon or Beirut, or people with disabilities.
Qana, besides being an extremely poor village in the anemic economic orbit of Tyre, was also the site of one of Christ’s miracles, then a little short of two thousand years later it housed a UNIFIL base (UN peacekeeping force), and a notorious Israeli massacre of fleeing hapless southern Lebanese villagers at said UNIFIL base. Yasser and his team headed for Qana because rescue workers alerted the media to the possibility of another massacre. The shelling did not stop as rescue workers lifted bodies from under rubble.
You know the rest of the story. And Yasser’s story as well; it is no different from any correspondent that suddenly becomes a human being, a father, a brother, a son and Yasser was looking for words to put together into sentences to report the first report of the massacre. When he and his camera arrived, rescue workers were on site, slowly pulling bodies from under the rubble. Yasser is catching his breath and slowly, you can feel the air being sucked from all around him, children of all sizes, mostly small and extra small (some are barely a few months old), piled next to him, covered in ashen powdered concrete.
I realized that a vacuum cloaked me. I heard myself speak, I saw myself put my shoes on, pack my bag, feel tightness in my chest, say goodbye to my parents, walk out into the street. Walk out into the street. Flash of the voice of Yasser hiccuping wiith emotion. Nothing unusual about this Sunday morning.
Yasser must have been experiencing “the explosion” of “implosion” — that’s when I felt the air being sucked from all around me. I jumped from my bed and ran hysterically in the house looking for someone in my family to tell the news to. And when I did, I realized that a vacuum cloaked me. I heard myself speak, I saw myself put my shoes on, pack my bag, feel tightness in my chest, say goodbye to my parents, walk out into the street. Walk out into the street. Flash of the voice of Yasser hiccuping wiith emotion. Nothing unusual about this Sunday morning. Forgot the laptop. Forgot what I owed Nouna. Flash of the image of the rescue workers leaning in half to be able to go into the ravaged building. Back up. Back upstairs. Flash of baby lying on rubble, her cutie derriere dripping a pool of blood and powdered concrete. Al-Jazeera’s screen. Zap, maybe it’s a mistake. An exageration. Text message from Rula: “Are you watching al-Jazeera?” I grab my purse again, leave. Come back: the laptop. On the street, as I wait to hail a cab, I wonder why there is not a trace of powdered concrete in the air. I could taste it in my mouth.
10:15 am, or somewhere around there. Municipal building, 3rd floor, Beirut’s Municipal Librairy. Elevator working. Flash of rescue worker carrying a baby girl, barefoot, covered in powdered concrete. Her arm sticking out, upright in rigor mortis, her palm wide and fingers stretched as if she were trying to reach out. At the municipal library that morning, there was a training workshop for the volunteers from the NGOs that are in charge of overseeing the settlement of the displaced in the schools around Beirut. A training workshop for educational games and activities around the book and storytelling. I walked in, greeted Nouna and another lady, I know I was not very present, the vacuum still cloaked me. I just said to them, as best as I could make coherent sentences “there was a massacre in Qana”. Most of the volunteers had woken up and rushed to the workshop without hearing news.
I put my laptop in the office, and sat, stood up and started calling people. Everyone was choking in shock, rage and horror. Rula was out of her mind, zapping frantically. Only al-Jazeera showed images, BBC and CNN had a very down-played report. She beckoned me to make phone calls. Who could I call? I am nobody. I called friends, and more friends, people in the know and out of the know. Then a text message came: Protest in front of the ESCWA building at noon. I was beginning to breathe again. Condoleezza Rice was supposed to land in Beirut sometime around noon.
11:00 am, or somewhere around there. I was still sucked into the vacuum. Things moving around me were confusing, I could not quite mediate with reality. My mind was racing. The flashes of dead bodies were still coming. I needed to describe them, in gruesome detail to someone. Whoever I called, described them to me, in their gruesomeness: “Did you see that baby girl with her buttocks drenched in blood?” She was there in front of my eyes, off course I had seen her.
I typed something in English on the laptop. I called Nouna. We discussed it. I repeated the things she said to me so they would sink in. One of the attending volunteers could not hold still, who smoked outside, paced, and checked her cell phone about ten times, walked over to us and said she was going to the protest.
12:00 pm, sharp. I was back on the street. I walked towards the ESCWA (basically the offices of he UN and UN-related institutions) building. The street was filled with people, men, women, children carrying flags, Lebanese, Hezbollah, and Amal, walked decidedly, almost angrily in the direction of the ESCWA building. By the time I got there, there was a mob scene in front of the building. Young men (and a few women) were banging on the gates, throwing rocks to the windows that were bouncing against the glass and falling back on them. The release of rage was collective.
The sheath of vacuum around me, inside me, dissipated. The explosion/implosion was now happening to me. I felt myself transform into a magma of anger and sorrow at once. I felt my own rage channel to the crowd, I stood on the sidewalk, sucked into the magnetism of the mob, my body totally merged with theirs.
The sheath of vacuum around me, inside me, dissipated. The explosion/implosion was now happening to me. I felt myself transform into a magma of anger and sorrow at once. I felt my own rage channel to the crowd, I stood on the sidewalk, sucked into the magnetism of the mob, my body totally merged with theirs. The flashes from the al-Jazeera broadcast were no longer caged inside me. They were wafting away. The flags were pulled down and instead the masts in front of the fancy structure were now flagging Hezbollah, Amal flags and portraits of Hassan Nasrallah.
(When people later criticized the mob scene for “attacking” the ESCWA building - “Was it necessary?” - I was surprised they did not have that rage, or that they could not comprehend it.)
The crowd that unloaded into downtown Beirut was at that point mostly comprised of the displaced from the southern suburb. They shouted: “Hezbollah, Nasrallah, wel Dahiyah killa” (Hezbollah, Nasrallah, and the whole of the southern suburb).
On the other side of the street, at the foot of the Media Center building where newsmedia post their cameras and microphones and their anchors shoot their live shots, people were screaming at cameras.
The crowd was growing fatter and fatter, now people were coming more prepared, they had signs and banners, in Arabic and English.
I came across Mohammad, a friend, and finally, finally I could cry. I burried my head in his shoulders and wept helpless.
Mohammad led me to the Media Center building. I sat in one of the offices with windows onto the street. More and more people were coming. Army and internal security personel were also arriving. They stood by and watched. At some point a truck carrying some sort of a load of something parked in the lot across the street from the ESCWA building. It became a stage atop which various spokespersons stood and delivered speeches. I guess someone brought a voice magnifier, and someone else brought a tape and a tape player because soon there were also chants blaring. The flags flying on top of the crowd were now of several political parties: the “Free Movement”, the Communists, the Syrian Nationalist (the most overt supporters of Hezbollah). The most touching scene was of Sunni and Shi’i sheikhs huddled together, hand in hand, almost talking and then delivering speeches. From the window of the sixth floor, I could see their round head coiffe and robes.
Randa sent a text message from Cairo. I asked her to call me. She was weeping and I begged her to call her activist friends and organize a mobilization in Cairo. I wanted to weep, and hated myself for stiffening my upper lip. I borrowed Mohammad’s phone and started to call friends across the world, hysterically, begging them to organize protests. I was nonsensical. I woke my sister in New Jersey. My tears were now flowing silently.
I felt I was going to collapse. I had to leave and be quiet for a while.
I walked home, a long, long meditative walk in the punishing heat of a late July afternoon. It was 2:00 pm. Everyone urged me to write something, a “siege note” for Qana. I could not.
Instead I slept. My eyelids felt heavy from crying.
Maher called. I woke up. He said he was leaving with a team of journalists to Tyre. Did I want to come? (I did not know.) I should be ready in ten minutes if I wanted to come. I said no, I was not thinking and I regretted it for the rest of the day. Until now, when I write, I regret it.
Maher is a filmmaker. When this war started he was in Paris. He went nuts after a few days and decided to return. He wanted to be here for the war. He came on one of the ships that the French sent to evacuate French passport holders. His voyage was surreal, but that’s another story.
He has a project to establish a website to collect and disseminate the record of the lived experience of this war, lest it should lapse from the collective record again. He has started to distribute cameras to young filmmakers, artists, even volunteers to record, film, transcribe the mundane and the non-sensational everyday of surviving this war. The website is not ready yet, but as soon as it s, I will publicize it.
Maher had been itching to go to Tyre, closest to one of the sites of battle. He went with the convoy of journalists and humanitarian aid workers. If my rage took me to the street and the mob scene, his would drive him to the front, to the site where the hurt is most poignant. He told me he was going to Qana, and I was not surprised.
I called him the next day in the afternoon. He had indeed been to Qana, and visited the site, and smelled death. From his voice, I felt that something had happened, something that still impressed him greatly.
I called him the next day in the afternoon. He had indeed been to Qana, and visited the site, and smelled death. From his voice, I felt that something had happened, something that still impressed him greatly. His locution was more sullen than lazy, but I could barely make out what he said, and I kept asking him to repeat himself. He did not get exasperated, his voice was detached. He was speaking to me from a different world.
My heart sank. He said Qana was exactly what I saw on TV. He kept referring to going through Srifa as being very difficult. “Very difficult,” he kept saying. Nearly all of Srifa is destroyed. Limbs covered in powdered concrete emerge from between the ravages of collapsed buildings. No one has had the energy or courage to pull out the dead. The Red Cross and Civil Defense ambulances have been targetted relentlessly by Israel. When the guns will quiet, we will discover that Qana is small-time compared to Srifa. There is a pattern emerging now: Marwaheen, Srifa, Blida and Qana: terror to induce forced displacement (or pardon my French, “deportation”). Scorched earth and mass graves, this is how we achieve the New Middle East.
Maher said nearly 60 percent of Bint Jbeil has now become flat rubble. Most of its central area. There two limbs stick out of collapsed buildings, and the smell of death is everywhere. While rescue workers pulled out the dead from that shelter in Qana, the IDF was shelling the only functioning hospital in Bint Jbeil, a day prior to Maher’s visit. That’s how battered Bint Jbeil was, even its hospital the IDF decided was a Hezbollah stronghold and posed a grave security threat on the well-being of the children of Kiryat Shmona who prefer to go to school and not dwell in shelters after they have kissed the shells that their army will shower on Lebanon to implement UN Resolution 1559 and eradicate terror.
In the convoy to Bint Jbeil, journalists outnumbered the rescue workers, and they found a group of elderly men and women who were trapped in a shelter. They could not ambulate without assistance and had not eaten for four or five days. They were carried out and given some water and driven to places where they could receive the care they needed.
The BBC produced a number of excellent reports from Bint Jbeil, in their backdrop, I saw Maher’s face. His demeanor confirmed the impression I had after speaking to him on the phone. Maher had seen the face of death. Not death as in the sorrowful but inevitable expiring of everyday life, and not the death of a soldier on the battlefield. He had seen the face of organized, carefully orchestrated, mass-scale death, the planned death of hundreds and thousands as a solution to restoring power hegemony in a region.
You never leave a mass grave unscathed. Maher had seen several that day. Even if helping survivors seems like a life-affirming release, it will not alleviate the burden, the imprint of the face of death. I know he has been branded for ever now and there is not much anything that can be done about it. My forever beloved Marwan worked on collecting the bodies of victims in Sabra and Chatila after the massacre. Seeing the face of death was so overwhelming he left the country shortly thereafter. He moved to London and did not return to Lebanon for decades. You can still feel the brand of that mass grave in the lining of the timbre of his voice, in the lining to his gaze, there is a mute inconsolable sorrow.
I don’t know if Maher will leave Lebanon, but I know he will return to Beirut markedly changed. For the time being, the pull of the mass graves, of the people trapped in shelters, of bodies surging through rubble is too powerful — he wants to be near them. While the journalists he drove down with have left Tyre, he called last night to say he is tempted to stay. His voice felt as though he was called from a netherworld, Israel is now engaged in a massive ground offensive in the south.
This siege note took a couple of days to write. I could not find my words or sense of self after news of the massacre on Sunday. This siege note I wish to dedicate to Maher.
Rasha Salti is the Cinema East director at ArteEast, a New York-based non-profit organization established in 2003 to present contemporary Middle-Eastern artists to a wide audience in order to foster more complex understanding of the region’s arts and cultures and promote artistic excellence.