When you hear the media phrase “Israel’s security zone,” to describe formerly occupied southern Lebanon, you might be forgiven for imagining a flat, barren no-man’s-land with little on it. But it is when you see its vastness, its deep wadis and soaring mountains, its thickly forested hillsides and grass-covered plains; and village after village after village, that you recognize unmistakably that you are in a country. And you can tell right away that there are people in it. I went to southern Lebanon with two colleagues from the United States. We were in Beirut for a conference. Part of the conference program had included a visit to the south, but this had been cancelled after the US Embassy in Beirut advised that it was not safe for its citizens to go there. Some saw this “advice” as a predictable effort to prevent Americans from seeing what Israel has done to Lebanon, with full US-backing for twenty-two long years. Consequently, many of attendees made their own arrangements to go south and tour the liberated areas.
My two colleagues (Louise Cainkar and Betty Anderson) and I drove down with a family friend from Beirut whose own family is from a small village in the liberated zone. Near the village of Tibnine at the north central part of the formerly occupied zone we met up with our friend’s cousin, A., who had left the occupied area sixteen years ago as a teenager and returned only after the liberation. We took a back way into the south, because we were told that the Lebanese army would not let people through without permits, but in the event we encountered no problems and were waved through all the checkpoints. There is good reason to believe that such restrictions as have been placed by Lebanon on access to the south are designed specifically to stop Palestinians going to the border.
Southern Lebanon was more hilly than I expected, and our first approach into it took us past a UNIFIL (United Nations peacekeepers) base and along a narrow road. Below us was a valley known as “Wadi al-Shuhada,” (Valley of the Martyrs), because, A. told us, it had been the scene of some of the earliest confrontations between the resistance and Israeli forces. High above us was the Houla outpost, a former SLA position. We wound our way up to the position, past a helicopter landing pad and into the heavily fortified camp. Dug into the hilltop, it has a commanding view of the valley below and the countryside around. Fixed firing positions constructed of concrete slabs and sandbags circled the edge of the position like the hour marks on a clock, punctuating the earthen walls. The outer perimeter is marked by rolls of barbed wire, and undoubtedly mines. There are several low concrete buildings in the center of the position. All around are the signs of a hasty withdrawal—debris and empty ammunition crates with Israeli army markings. A. tells us not to touch anything for fear that it could contain unexploded ordnance. We had to be careful everywhere we went, because southern Lebanon is full of Israeli-laid minefields that may take years to clear. Hilltop positions like the one at Houla are visible all over the south. Some belonged to the SLA, and the more fortified ones to the Israelis. Often, they would be placed on adjacent hills so that if one came under attack, the other could provide covering fire. But these measures were often not enough: since 1998, Hizbullah fighters twice overran the Houla outpost and on one occasion drove away in a captured enemy tank.
From here we drove on into the village of Houla. Like all the towns and villages we saw, it was festooned with flags and banners of Hizbullah and Amal. There were posters of Hasan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hizbullah, as well as montages with the faces of prominent Shi’a leaders. Captured Israeli or SLA artillery pieces had been painted in bright colors and made the center pieces of victory displays at traffic circles. We saw several captured tanks, one with a larger than life wooden cut-out of Ayatollah Khomeini standing on top of it. In the town of Bint Jbail, three boys played in a tank that appeared to be in good condition, except, one of the boys informed me, the battery had been removed, so they couldn’t start the enormous diesel engine. The boys were already expert in rotating the turret and raising and lowering the now silent gun, and were anxious to show off their skills. They appeared, if you pardon the pun, to be having a blast and pointed the imposing cannon towards an abandoned Israeli army fortress at a place known as Position 17.
Everywhere we went in southern Lebanon, the mood was celebratory and relaxed, even one month after the end of the Israeli occupation. People in the streets were friendly and only too happy to know that visitors had come from other countries to share the moment with them. At Fatma Gate, one family asked me where my companions were from, and expressed surprise and delight when I said they were Americans. Little children, on seeing our cameras waved and laughed and asked to be photographed making a victory sign, or standing on top of captured enemy equipment.
But with the celebratory mood, it is impossible to ignore the high price the people of the south paid to free themselves from Israeli occupation. On almost every lamp-post in the towns and villages hangs a poster with the name and face of a young man who died fighting Israel. Their bravery and sacrifice liberated the south, but little attention has been paid to them by the outside world. If the western media paid any attention to these men—many as young as 18—it was to call them “terrorists.” or at best nameless, faceless “fighters” and “Islamic militants.” Many of them escaped the south to avoid being drafted into the SLA or taken to Khiam prison. But rather than remain in safety outside the occupied zone, they made the decision to return and liberate their land. Looking at their faces now, was like looking at a high school year book. What lives and hopes were taken from them by Israel’s futile and brutal occupation?
As for Hizbullah’s presence it appeared to be discrete. Hizbullah fighters were visible at all major sites, but were mostly unarmed. The Hizbullah men, appeared to be respectful and respected by the people around. They were clearly basking in their popularity. Hizbullah did not appear to be imposing any restrictions on people’s way of life. Women, for instance, wore a wide range of clothing from tank tops, jeans and uncovered hair, to simple headscarves and long-sleeve shirts. We only saw one woman wearing a black full-length Iranian-style chador, and a veil, and that was at a festival of Iranian culture near Bint Jbail. Louise commented that she saw a greater variety of women’s clothing in southern Lebanon than in Amman, where you might see more women who cover their faces as well as their hair. Rumors that Hizbullah would ban the sale of alcohol also appeared unfounded: Lebanese beer was clearly available at a roadside restaurant we visited on the outskirts of the predominantly Christian town of Marj’uyun, the former “capital” of the now defunct “South Lebanon Army” (SLA). My southern Lebanese friend told us that Hizbullah has pointedly refused to play the role of the Lebanese state, telling neighbors who asked for them to intervene in a local land dispute that they would have to wait for the return of the Lebanese authorities to solve their problem.
As we drove north from Houla, we passed close to the border, near the village of Markaba. From this point we could look to the east and south, far down into northern Palestine and the lush greenery of the Houla Valley. Across the valley—which forms a finger of land about ten miles wide stretching north from Palestine between Syria and Lebanon—we could see the snow streaked peak of Jabal Al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon), in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Closer in, several Israeli settlements abutted the border fence, their neat red-roofed bungalows clustered together and at points spilling—we were told—into still-occupied patches of Lebanese territory.
Further up the road, we had a clearer view into northern Palestine. We were at a high point, on the side of a hill. In the near distance below us, no more than a hundred metres away ran an Israeli road. In the further distance and far below, we could see the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Shemona. Because I have been to Palestine, this glimpse of the country through Lebanon’s southern border did not seem as poignant to me as it was curious, given the circumstances. But, I could only imagine the elation and sadness that Palestinians from Lebanon felt the first few days they streamed down to the border after the liberation to catch their first view of home and to meet long lost relatives for the first time. All along the border, the two countries are divided by nothing more than a wire fence. It is when you stand at this fence that you are faced with the absurdity and unacceptability of permanent exile for the Palestinians. Why should the Palestinians, unloved and unwanted in Lebanon’s appalling refugee camps, not take wire cutters, go through this fence and take up once again the care of the land and homes they left behind them?
Continuing up the road, we reached Fatma Gate, formerly the main crossing point between Israel and occupied southern Lebanon. Again, there were all the signs of a very rapid withdrawal. The Israeli installations—administrative buildings, and guard houses, were all intact, though somewhat knocked about. The kerb stones were still painted in a blue and white check, the colors of the Israeli flag. If you follow the road from the border terminal, to where it meets the fence, instead of a gate you see rows of eight foot high concrete slabs now blocking the way. Above the slabs rise high fences, and an Israeli watchtower with soldiers looking directly into Lebanon. Directly across from the watchtower, on the Lebanese side, Hizbullahhas set up a souvenir stand, with posters and banners for sale, and loudspeakers playing victory songs right into the Israeli soldiers’ faces. When we were there, there was a good crowd of mostly Lebanese coming to see with amazement the enemy that had for years punished them from afar, rarely daring to show its face.
At a place called Kilometer 9, we came across another former crossing point, known to the Lebanese as Turmos gate. Hizbullah had demolished most of the Israeli installation. A lone Hizbullah soldier, armed with a rifle, stood guard. Behind him, across the fence an Israeli guard tower bristled with guns and antennas. We asked the soldier why the place was called “Turmos Gate.” “I don’t really know,” he said, “maybe because once someone planted turmos (a kind of bean) here This is how people name things. They say Fatma Gate is named after a woman called Fatma who once had a small store there.”
The Road of Death
Taking the road back from Houla to the village of Meiss el Jabal, we reached a bend in the road. On a gentle hill above us, just beyond the fence, was a cluster of Israeli apartment buildings. It was from this hill that withdrawing Israeli and SLA forces fired deliberately at Lebanese civilians. To one side of the road lay the charred remains of a car, in which three had died on liberation day. A little further around the bend was the burnt out hulk of the Mercedes in which Abed Takoush, the driver of BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen had been killed by a tank shell. The place where the shell had hit the roadway was still clearly visible, and the ground burnt and charred. The car had been moved to the side, but it was easy to see how the explosion had ripped up through the bottom of the car, curling the floor in like the top a sardine tin. All around lay wreckage. We looked at it for a few moments—a seat buckle here, shattered music cassettes there. As we did so another Mercedes with four men, who looked like they were Hizbullah officials rolled by slowly, stopped and backed up to see what we were up to. The driver asked A. who we were. He told them we were “American professors” (as my two colleagues indeed are). Hearing this, the driver, who appeared to be the most senior (he had a walkie-talkie and a gun) raised his hand in a lazy salute and the car drove on.
The road slopes up steeply from the stark beauty of the Khiam Plain, and turns and winds up the hill towards the village of Khiam. At the top of the mountain, overlooking the plain, is a cluster of houses. We park near the remnants of three houses, which look like they have been recently bombed—still gleaming bathroom tiles stuck to the wall in one corner of an otherwise empty shell, demarcate the outlines of an uprooted daily life.
Ahead, there is a knot of cars and one or two tour buses, and a little store selling food and soda. A driveway extends up a gentle hill. At the foot of it is a triumphal archway—no more than a metal frame over the road, draped with banners and fluttering Hizbullah flags, celebrating the victory and the liberation of Khiam Prison, the camp where thousands of Lebanese civilians and members of the resistance have been held by Israel and its “South Lebanon Army.” Several Hizbullah fighters in neat black uniforms and baseball caps guard the entrance, amiably greeting tourists, most of them apparently Lebanese, as they make their way up on foot towards the prison.
From the outside, the compound is ordinary. The plain concrete walls give no indication of what lies inside and what was done there. Barbed wire along the perimeter, and water tanks with Hebrew markings indicate its relation to the former occupation. Immediately on the left and right through the main gate are two low buildings, one a kind of guardhouse, the other a kitchen. Against the guardhouse leans a wooden board bearing the names of all the people who died in Khiam. Further through the gate, one comes into a large open courtyard—a military parade ground. This, and the old stone buildings around the edges, are reminders of Khiam’s origin as a French military camp during the days of the French Mandate.
People progressed through the camp in small groups or trailed along with larger crowds brought by the tour buses. Former prisoners of the camp, accompanied the groups and showed them around. I loosely followed a group that was accompanied by a quietly spoken man with wire-rimmed glasses. Perhaps in his forties, he looked like a professor or a teacher. He had spent nine years in Khiam. The prison’s liberators have carefully labeled each room and building with its former use, in a neat, black painted script on the walls, in both English and in Arabic: “Women’s Prison,” “Men’s Prison,” “Guard Room” and so on.
A doorway from one end of the main courtyard takes you into a smaller courtyard with rooms leading off it. The first room we came upon was labeled “Interrogation and Torture by Electricity.” There were four more rooms labeled the same way. Each one, a bare office, with a few overturned chairs and desks. In one room, a burnt out fuse box hung from the wall. Our guide explained that when new prisoners were brought to Khiam, always in the trunk of a car, these interrogation rooms were the first stop. Interrogation would usually be accompanied by beatings, and if hostages refused to answer questions, the interrogators would tie thin electric wires around a finger on each hand, “like wedding rings.” They would then administer electric shocks, while pouring water on the victims hands. If the victim fell over, the torturers would beat her with a stick or kick her. Such interrogations lasted between one and two hours at a time. One of the rooms contained now empty filing cabinets. But the shelf labels could still be seen for the years 1994 to 1999. These torturers, its seems, kept good records.
Up a little alley and around a corner from the electricity torture rooms is a slightly wider alley. One side is the wall of a cell block. The windows had bars on them and had been bricked up with cinder blocks so that only a few inches at the top were open to the outside. Straight after interrogation, victims were usually brought into this alley and chained or handcuffed to the bars while tied in painful positions, for hours or days. On the other side of the alley is a plain wall, possibly the back of another building. Against it are constructed about five concrete boxes, slightly larger than telephone booths. These were the solitary confinement cells. Each has a brown metal door with a book-sized slot that could be opened or closed only from the outside. Our guide explained that prisoners would be left in these cells for periods of months. The doors would be opened irregularly to allow a cursory cleaning, but certainly no more than once every four to seven days. Prisoners were kept in this tiny space in total darkness, living in their own excrement, and being fed moldy bread dropped through the slot. The guide invited visitors to enter the cell with him one at a time and close the door for a few moments. I did it. The asphyxiating darkness and heat were frightening. In addition to the appalling conditions, these cells were used as a kind of psychological torture. A prisoner might be told that there time was up, only to be told right away that their solitarty confinement was to be extended another month. It was hard for me to imagine staying in their an hour, let alone days or months.
The end of this alley opened into a small, triangular courtyard. As you enter the courtyard, on your right is the door to the cell block whose barred windows are visible from the alley. On the left is another long building labeled “Prison Number 3.” Directly in front, steps lead up to a concrete blockhouse—a lookout position, now manned by a Hizbullah fighter armed only with a cell phone. Against one of the walls was a steel telephone pylon, of the sort seen all over southern Lebanon. It is made of two steel girders spaced about one foot apart, and tied together with rungs. Attached to a rung at a point just above where I could easily reach, was a pair of handcuffs. Our guide explained that prisoners were hung from these handcuffs for long periods as a form of torture and “punishment”. Hanging painfully by his wrists, the metal cuffs, cutting into them, the victim’s head would be covered with a filthy hood. He would be frequently beaten. Once per day, the guards might stuff half an egg or a piece of bread into his mouth and a splash of water, without removing the hood. Our guide told us that this was the place a fifteen year-old boy had died after three days of being hanged, beaten and exposed to the searing heat. He was, you might say, crucified.
Of all the horrors, I found entering the regular cell block to be the most chilling experience. This was because of the sense that it had been frozen in time at the moment of liberation, and I could still see it exactly as the prisoners did. The building itself might have been originally constructed as a barracks. The structure was a simple rectangular building. On the inside it had been altered so that two rows of cells ran down the middle, back to back, with two passageways on each side along the outer walls of the building. Since only one side of the building had windows, albeit mostly bricked up, the cells on that side received a little natural light across the passageway. The cell row on the other side got no light at all. Each cell was no more than about five feet wide, and about ten feet long. Against one wall were bunkbeds for four people. At one end was a latrine, sometimes with a shower head above it.
The horror of the place was made palpable by the fact that everything was left as it was on the day of liberation. Women’s clothes—socks, panties and T-shirts hung to dry from bits of string or rafters along the ceiling. Blankets and beds were unmade and looked as if they had just been slept in. On one bed there was a “Dumbo The Flying Elephant” pillow case. How did this symbol of childhood and innocence find its way into this place? I wondered if it ever meant anything to someone. Perhaps to one of the many children whose childhood was stolen at Khiam, or perhaps to the child of an SLA officer whose hand-me-down it may have been. The walls inside the cells were covered in graffiti, written by prisoners, determined to register their existence. One elaborate design included a flower, a map of Lebanon, and messages and names, perhaps those of the artist’s family.
Prisoners had suspended cardboard boxes, often with Hebrew printed on them from the ceiling or just above the lower bunk to provide a little extra storage space in the cramped cell. In one cell, a small bucket that had previously held an Israeli-made household product was suspended above a bunk as if to to catch a leak. Darkness and a nauseating odor pervaded everything. Notices placed since the liberation warned visitors not to touch anything for fear of disease.
These were the “good” cells, that had been installed by the occupation authorities following a visit by the Red Cross in 1995. It was hard to imagine how much worse the regular cells could get, and then our guide showed us. Prior to the Red Cross visit, prisoners were kept in cells which were five feet by five, and about six feet high. Four to six of them were jammed in with no furnishings, and only a bucket for a latrine. Our guide, who lived in such a cell for several years, explained that it was impossible for all the prisoners to sit or sleep at once, so they would take turns to stand so that others could rest. The cell had no windows, the only light entering through a hole in the ceiling about five inches in diameter. That people can survive such an ordeal is a testament to an inner strength and collective solidarity that none of us can know we possess until it is tested.
One month after the liberation, Lebanese people are still coming to Khiam to see where their friends or relatives and countrymen suffered and died. One woman came out of a cell block appearing overwhelmed and sat on the steps. With her were several children. She wore a T-shirt with the image of a young man on it. I asked her who it was. “This is Suleiman Ramadan. He stayed longest in Khiam and suffered a lot.” He was a Hizbullah fighter and was captured at the age of 20. Liberated at the age of 35, he spent nearly half his life in Khiam. The woman—his sister—explained that he had lost his leg due to gangrene, and had been tortured and beaten many times. “They stubbed their cigarettes out in his eyes.” I asked her if she had visited Khiam before. “Yes, I have come many times since the liberation.” And how did she feel, seeing the place where her brother suffered? “I feel like I will have a stroke.”
As I walked past a line of cells in another building I heard a soft voice behind me: “This is where the martyrs suffered, this is where they died. How could they do this to them? We must look after the families of all the martyrs and carry them on our heads.” As we stepped outside into the light, I turned around to see a woman, perhaps in her fifties, with a gold locket around her neck. On one side was the picture of a young man of about 21. I asked her who the young man was. Stroking the picture with her fingers, and speaking quietly, and with not a hint of self pity she said, “This is my son. He was martyred, but not here in Khiam.” Where? “In a confrontation with the enemy in the far south, in Iqlim al-Tuffah (The Region of Apples.)” She turned the locket over to show another picture of a slightly older man. “This is my brother. He stepped on a landmine. It blew his legs off and he died. We have three other men in our family who disappeared. We do not know if they are living or dead.” Appearing through a doorway, a man signaled to her to come, “mama, yella.” “That’s my other son,” she said. “He’s the only one I have left.”
Before coming to Lebanon, I had heard the BBC Arabic Service interview a former prisoner at Khiam, a young woman who had attempted to assassinate Antoine Lahd, the leader of the Israeli-controlled SLA. The interviewer asked her how she survived the endless days in darkness and the sounds of the screams and sobs from all around. One way, she said, was that prisoners would sing to each other through the walls and across the passageways. Her favorite was one from Um Kulthoum, and I sang it in my head as I looked into a cell—“raja’uni ‘alayak zay il ayam ili rah…” (They brought me home to you, like in days gone by…)
At one point, I found myself alone with a friend back in the small triangular courtyard. We stood silently for a few moments as the wind howled around us, and made metal doors and corrugated roofs clang. At that moment, we could not know, but could only try to imagine what it must have been like to wake up in this place day after day for years, never knowing if the wind would every carry in the sounds of hope, life and liberation.
Our last stop in the south was the village of Qana, north of the formerly occupied zone. Qana is the site of the Israeli attack on the UNIFIL compound on April 18, 1996, which killed 106 Lebanese civilians sheltering their from Israel’s “Grapes of Wrath,” and UN personnel, mostly from the Fijian battalion. The UNIFIL compound is still in Qana, in the center of town off the main road. Right off the main road, in front of the compound is a marble plaza with glass cases displaying photos of the dead, many of them school or family pictures of smiling young children. At the back of the plaza, a gate leads into the compound. A patch of charred ground where many of the people were blown to pieces has been preserved as it was on the day of the attack. A shed with windows to see in to it has been built over it. Among the debris is charred wood, bits of clothing and blankets.
Adjacent to the marble plaza, also along the main road is an official memorial in another wide, circular plaza. What appear to be three huge concrete arrow heads soar into the sky at the center of the circle. In front of them is a raised marble platform with a tablet recording the name of each of the civilian victims. When we arrived their young children were playing on the monument, as happy and smiling as the dead children in the pictures a few meters away. As they saw my camera, the laughed and cried out “take a picture of us.” I gathered them on the monument and complied with their request. Then they scattered and resumed their game of tag. There are so few playgrounds in the countries I have visited in the Middle East, that one could not blame them for taking advantage of a wide clean place to play, with no cars around.
I studied the tablets with the names of the dead. There were 25 people from one family. The youngest of them was Hasan Ali Balhas. His tablet read “Born 1995, Martyred in the Qana Massacre, April 18, 1996.” Across the road were several cafes. People from the town were sitting and having coffee, and smoking arghile (“hubbly bubbly”). Louise commented this was not an affront, but simply a reminder that life goes on. Even after events like Qana. It has to.
From Qana we headed west to the coastal highway, and north once again to Beirut, as the sky reddened over the Mediterranean.