Lebanon diary: innocence in the rubble

Published in the United Church Observer magazine | September 2006 | Circulation: 81,000

Children in Beirut’s Sanaya Park, where they have come to sleep after their area was bombed. Photo by David P. Ball

David Ball was in Lebanon when the bombs began to fall this summer. He was safely evacuated, but his life will never be the same, he writes.

Thursday, July 13

It was a gentle ‘thud-thud-thud’ that woke me up at 6 a.m. It didn’t seem like much. All I remember is the dreadful silence afterwards. I could hear a bird singing for the first time in my 10 months in noisy Beirut.

It took a few moments before the shock wave reached my apartment, shaking the walls and jolting me up in my bed, trembling. How innocent the thuds seem, before you feel the grinding tremor of the air strike, even from far away. Was it a bridge this time? Or worse, an apartment building?

A few hours later I found out what the explosion was. A colleague called to say that Israeli jets had bombed Lebanon’s only airport, only a day after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on the border, demanding the release of prisoners taken by Israel years earlier.

The night before, my friend Mahmoud had been nearly bombed twice near the Syrian border, after escorting Canadian volunteers out of the country by road. Before his eyes, the taxi in front of him was obliterated by an Israeli missile.

With all routes out of the country under attack, I dug in my heels, braced myself for a lengthy siege, stocked up on essentials and prayed.

Friday, July 14

It was an especially horrific night. I could hear many explosions in the distance, slamming into bridges and residences. I was up all night, listening to the screech of fighter jets. It is a terrible sound, a howling road like thunder.

I called 19-year-old Omar, who lives in the suburbs. He had mocked my fear the night before. Now he, too, was afraid.

“They are bombing so close to us,” he said. “We just saw the Haret Hreik bridge blow up. We are totally threatened.”

(…)

Thursday, July 20

At Dar Al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni council, the hall was full of boxes of clothing to be distributed to up to 800,000 refugees created by the Isreali bombings — almost a fifth of the entire country. Rania Shatila, a 28-year old Lebanese woman studying in Toronto, greeted me.

“The kids just finished school and instead of playing they have to hide from bombs,” she lamented. But for her, it’s not about one side or the other.

“I’m sorry for the Israelis too — people are suffering on both sides. But the response was not justified. They’re destroying Lebanon.”

Saturday, July 22

I finally faced the possibility of dying in Lebanon. As I grew to accept that possibility, I stopped fearing the bombs, and I began to spend my time volunteering to assist the thousands of refugees flooding into my neighbourhood. I saw families sleeping on the street, begging for bread. I stacked diapers for hundreds of babies. Where will they go?

When seven other young Canadians and I finally abandoned hope of getting an evacuation call, we pushed our way into the Canadian Embassy. I said my final goodbyes to my best friends — not knowing if I would ever talk to them again — and prepared to leave.

“Sometimes I feel scared,” said Ahlam, 20, who fled to the Beqaa Valley with her family. “They’re taking everybody’s life — civilians. I hope we won’t be harmed.”

I now know that living deeply is more important than staying alive.

Tuesday, August 1 — Back in Canada

As I write from Canada now, I cannot help but feel a twinge of guilt for boarding the evacuation boats to Turkey and fleeing the war-torn region. It was the most difficult goodbye of my life.

That journey has been well-reported. But what of the people in the region, once again caught in the middle of a spiral of violence? What will become of the Dirani family who fed me on New Year’s Day — now trapped and afraid? Initially they wanted me there with them; I chose, painfully, to go home.

What about my friend Kholoud? Her refugee camp was surrounded by residential areas reduced to rubble by nightly air strikes, and food is running short.

What about Mostafa, my taxi driver, who is from the hardest-hit suburb, but said he couldn’t leave because of his three children with disabilities?

In times like these, when we become a witness to atrocities, to death, to injustice, how can one not be enraged? I spent ten months falling in love with Lebanon — only to watch it be blown apart.

Now in Canada, I’m trying to heal. Any simple answers now would be naïve. As my heart ached on that boat leaving Beirut, I left my innocence behind amidst the rubble and shattered dreams.

Soldiers distribute bread to thousands of internally displaced refugee families. Photo by David P. Ball

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