A farewell to Beirut under siege

Published on rabble.ca | July 19, 2006 | Circulation: 140,000 unique monthly readers

Thousands of people were displaced by the Israeli invasion - these refugee children slept in a park in my neighbourhood. Photo by David P. Ball

BEIRUT — It will be one of the most difficult departures of my life.

I must leave behind this country, Lebanon, with which I have fallen in love. I leave a country in flames and smoke, flattened, suffering under the rumbling weight of an Israeli invasion — the country’s second in 30 years.

I leave with a heavy heart — with a mix of guilt at abandoning my local friends, fear for the future of this land, and a deep sorrow at what has been lost under the rubble of Beirut’s pummeled suburbs.

I spent today contacting all my friends here to say goodbye and wish them safety. Some — in the Beqaa Valley — who initially wanted me to come stay with them, thinking it would be short-term, said they’re glad I didn’t. They are now scared for their safety and it was a difficult goodbye. There was distress and dread in their voices. And much anger at the level of civilian casualties. Three hundred are now dead in only six days.

I will miss them, as I will miss the part of my soul buried under the rubble of shattered hopes. How long will the world turn its eyes away?

* * *

Only 10 minutes from my home, refugees have flooded into Sanaya gardens in north-west Beirut. When I visited, dozens of children are running loose on the playground equipment while women struggle to arrange their makeshift bedding.

The usual crowd of elderly men playing card games has been engulfed with hundreds of people from the suburbs, along with soiled mattresses and garbage bags full of the few possessions they could take.

Young men scrambled to get bread handouts from the back of a civilian car; eventually the soldiers had to come and intervene to distribute to families who did not have young men aggressively pushing on their behalf.

“We are not terrorists,” said Um Hamza, a Sunni woman who fled the suburb of Ouzai four days ago to live in the public park with her seven children. Her brother was killed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. “Why do you think we are terrorists? (The Israelis) are killing children.

“We are Sunni. We are not with Hezbollah. But now they are martyrs for this country. God will bless them. The U.S. only has to say stop and Israel would end this war. It’s not about Hezbollah. What Israel is doing is shameful.”

* * *

Fifteen minutes away, at Dar el-Fatwa, the headquarters of Lebanon’s highest Sunni council, the hall is full of bags and boxes being sorted by age — two months, six months, one-two years, three years, eight-ten years — the ages of displaced children to receive the donations of shoes, clothing, blankets, and so on. Volunteers said they were there because there was nothing they could do but help, given the situation.

“We’re waiting for food to come through,” said one volunteer who gave his name only as Mohamed to preserve anonymity. “We really need food (for the refugees). But the trucks are getting bombed on the roads.”

Another young Lebanese man, who also asked to remain anonymous, felt he had nothing to do but offer help.

“How can I help?” he asked. “First, by praying to God. Second, by giving anything I can to help these people — from my body, my energy, even money. I will try to dedicate my life. There isn’t anything else to do.”

* * *

The Canadian boats have announced early stages of evacuation. Many wait by our phones for the final call.

A friend of my friend Walid was killed when a bomb hit near a school he and other refugees were in. He was 15.

I talked to another acquaintance, Mostafa Karneib, and he is still in good spirits (at least on the phone) and will not leave the pulverized Haret Hreik suburb because of his three children with disabilities.

“It’s completely destroyed all the civilian buildings in my neighbourhood,” he said. “It’s like a nightmare. We cannot leave. My children are handicapped; they need help all the time.

“We still trust in Hezbollah. They can handle it. But if Hezbollah loses, maybe there will be a civil war.”

* * *

Friends from Bourj Al-Barajne Palestinian camp are preparing packets of food to get into the refugee camp. Its surrounding neighbourhoods have been largely destroyed, and inhabitants are under the equivalent of a siege since it is unsafe to leave. My friend said the humanitarian work is helping get her family’s minds off their fear.

“It’s so difficult to be away from your family, your people,” said Kholoud Al-Hussein, who has left her camp for safer areas. “Everyone is scared. We are scared to death. For sure, I’m also angry and sad, and upset at the stupid Arab leaders. They are a**-***** like the Israelis.

“For us, we are so worried that the Israelis will bomb the camps. We don’t have shelters. No one would survive. Hopefully they can find a way to stop this conflict, that’s what I pray all the time.

“I’m upset and angry, but I’m against any kind of violence or terrorism. So I don’t know what I would do.”

* * *

Now tens of thousands of refugees are flocking in from the suburbs that have been totally flattened. Some told me they feel no hope for the future. People are working on humanitarian assistance — mostly the mosques and civil society groups are mobilizing to aid them.

One family from near the airport has moved into my old house in Hamra neighbourhood. I stopped by yesterday for coffee.

“When I heard the first loud noise (of a bomb) I started trembling,” said 14-year old Noor Salameh. “My heart was beating very much. I was so frightened.

“It’s the first time I’ve witnessed a war.”

Her 11-year old sister, Farah, added: “I’m not so afraid, but at first I was,” she said. “I was so afraid of the bombs — they were near us. I have very many friends in the Dahiyeh (suburbs). I called my best friend but she didn’t answer.”

Her older brother, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was anxious for his friends in the suburbs as well.

“I just received a call,” he said, slowly. “The mother of my friend has died in an Israeli attack. The whole family perhaps — her sisters, his grandma.”

The same day, 23 civilians were killed in an open pickup truck, after being turned away from a UN centre. Their charred remains have been graphically shown on local media, a reminder that even the UN is not trusted by many to be impartial in preventing Israeli abuses.

* * *

I am well, myself, but I can’t say as much for my Lebanese and Palestinian friends here. They are terrified and see only civilian blood and the tragedy of a country destroyed, again, after so many years rebuilding from the war.

I broke into tears this morning as my friend’s father, in Arabic and broken French, told me goodbye, saying all these nice things about me. I could hear from the distress in his voice that he was no longer confident we would meet again and wanted to say something kind in case.

They feel abandoned by a world that lets Israel get away with whatever it wants, in total disproportion to the terror inflicted on it (look at the casualty comparison from Lebanon: 20 Israelis, 300 Lebanese; or from the Palestinian intifada: 300 Israelis, 3-5,000 Palestinians killed.)

* * *

Twenty-eight year old Rania Shatila, a Lebanese chemical engineering student visiting from Toronto, has been volunteering every day in the Dar al-Fatwa humanitarian centre.

“The kids just finished school, and instead of playing they have to hide from bombs,” she said. “It’s as if we are waiting for a judge to give his decision — when the next attack will be — but previously this judge hated us and we know he won’t be fair.

“Everyone is waiting — when will the next attack be? You see your relatives packing their bags to go. You’re looking at them and you’re still in your home thinking you’re safe, but in your heart you’re so scared — ‘Am I really safe?’

“It’s like they’re playing on your nerves. War is not just on land or air. It’s also on your heart.”

Terrorism is defined as targetting a civilian population to create fear, in order to pursue a political agenda. That is exactly the mentality of a suicide bomber, and sadly also the Israeli military which perpetuates the lie that any means is justified in the name of its own multi-trillion dollar security, gift wrapped by the U.S.

This is not a struggle for Israel’s survival, but its dominance of the region, as far as most are concerned here.

Shatila does not believe this is about Israel’s security.

“They are so scared — the Israelis — that they are attacking everyone. I’m sorry for Israel too; people are suffering on both sides. I want Canada to stand up and tell both sides to stop the attacks.”

* * *

I am also shaken by a conversation with some of my closest Lebanese friends who are terrified for their lives in the Beqaa, in a Hezbollah-sympathizing village. They thought it would be safe there and even wanted me to come stay with them until this all died down.

“They’re taking everybody’s life,” said Ahlam Dirani, 22. “Civilians… there are no exceptions.”

Now they just say to get out of the country.

“Please don’t look at Lebanese people as terrorists,” said Rania Shatila. “We have children who want to play and have fun, to go to the cinema. We have dreams, but now our dreams are as if in a fridge — we can’t live them.

“Are we going to live to see the sun in the morning? Will we live to see the moon tonight? We are counting hours and days, living day-by-day, and hour-by-hour.

“I hope you can do something for Lebanon — tell them about the children who have dreams.”

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