A reportage from Southern Lebanon (II)
Youssef Bazzi - 20/09/2006
There wasn't a single car on the road that led from Sur to Al-Shahabiya, passing through Al-Burj Al-Shamali, Al-Bazouriya, Wadi Jilo and Jowaya. Most of the petrol stations and scattered houses that overlooked the main road were bombed out and destroyed. The flags and signs proliferated as we moved south, as did the smell of gunpowder and the glum families and knots of youths sitting by edge of the road staring blankly at passers by. It was if tiredness had settled on rooftops and faces alike, bending them out of shape, rendering them gloomy, obscure. The real horror began at Tabnin. We were now confronted by fragments of villages; the mangled corpses of homes; scraps of asphalt; humans like zombies. Outside one shop where we stopped a group of men sat sprawled by the doorway. Not one had shaved. Their greetings rose from their throats like hacking coughs, while their eyes stayed fixed on the shattered square that abutted a local government hospital. The shop's windows were flung wide, but its interior was a dank, dark cave after the bright daylight outside. The wares on offer were few and ancient looking, as if it had been boarded up for an eternity and only just reopened. It was easy to tell the difference between those who has stayed in Tabnin during the fighting and those who had recently returned. The returnees had an air of confidence about them, plastering up victory signs and Hizbollah statements and distributing mattresses and aid parcels to the needy. Those who stayed are more downcast following the movements of their upbeat neighbors with an uncomprehending gaze. Hizbollah's civilian cadres operate bulldozers, put up pictures and open offices where residents can record the names of the dead and injured. They are dedicated and enthusiastic. The Civil Guard and the Army have occupied the square. Ambulances are everywhere. The new pictures, the bunting and the posters--victory, they declare, "Our blood will prove the stronger!"--make the portraits of martyrs seem old. They fill the sky over Tabnin with yellow and the faces of the dead, the identikit faces and steady gazes of the dead that make you shudder. It is the dominion of the dead, the ghosts of the dead, death's fruit, dominating this town where half the inhabitants are gone and many homes destroyed.
Alone in the wasteland between Tabnin and Beit Yahun lies a cremated motorcycle. The truth of what happened in this war is suddenly comprehensible when we see this small charred relic. A wasteland, a fighter plane, a small motorcycle pursued by speeding rockets in a vast emptiness where fields and streams stretch to the horizon. The bike had been blown to the side of the road. This pathetic, isolated act of destruction tinges the whole land with intimations of its obscene, shocking force. The endless ravaged villages and blasted earth soon lose their impact through their very frequency. The motorcycle, lying alone in the landscape, hits us with the force of a single victim.
At Beit Yahun and Kafr Dounin we hear the wind whistling along the valleys and slapping against the ruined walls of razed buildings. A terrible storm hit this place and now the wind returns bearing its echo, its threat. We only saw one man here. He was standing on the edge of a crater trying to get his mobile cell to work. He looked like the last man living in a shattered world of stone. At Baraka Kafr Dounin goats were roaming untended under the midday sun, while an old woman lugged a bucket of milk towards a huddle of houses that appeared to have been completely destroyed.
"Where's your home, ma'am?"
She shrugged, uncertain how to explain the way to the one remaining room standing amid the rubble.
Coming into Bint Jbeil we discovered that we hadn't lost the capacity to be shocked. Outside the hospital stood a group of people lost in their own misery and despair. We pushed our questions back down our throats. A large car drove past. Inside, mounted behind its massive bumper sat a happy family: the father driving and beaming about him, the elegant wife with her multicolored, silky hijab sitting next to him and their three children sitting in the back seat capturing the devastation on camcorder. They were taking a tour of the scene of Hizbollah's victory. The inhabitants stared at the car and its passengers in dumbfounded astonishment. There was nothing in Bint Jbeil save dust, flies and a rank stench. Aal Juma Alley, with its narrow twisting passageways and stables had turned to ash. It was full of cars that had been flipped onto their sides or even onto their trunks, rearing skywards like black pagan idols. Devastation follows devastation down the entire length of the alley. Huge clouds of dust still hang in the putrid air -- air that seems to be made of flies.
The gulf between the happy family and the residents of Bint Jbeil is the gap that always divides the defeated from the sympathetic. A person who has to scratch around to rescue his worthless possessions--a plastic bag for instance--can never join the victors in their celebration. He is lost in an almost incomprehensible quest amidst the rubble, a refusal to acknowledge that the possessions of a lifetime, the very stuff of his memories have been violently engulfed and swallowed up.
My aunt was busy drying fresh mint in the sun outside her house. But her house was not a house -- no kitchen, no bedroom, no living room, just a heap of rocks. I couldn't understand the reason for all this trouble over a tray of mint. Where would she keep it? What would she do with it? It was as if she refused to change the smallest detail of her daily routine, carrying out domestic chores for a vanished house. As she stood up to go to her neighbor's house she looked at me with a strange smile and said (bear in mind this is a respectable old lady and longtime Hizbollah supporter): "Don't you think I've got a dancer's waist?" Her words took me by surprise. The only explanation I could think of was that by uttering this single sentence she was attempting to make a sudden break with the language and routines of her everyday life, to escape the habits and expectations thrust upon her by decades of war. She was imagining herself to be beautiful, a woman with the seductive hips of a dancing girl. She was--that instant--living somewhere else, tentatively sampling a life she had never led.
Amid the ruins of Bint Jbeil, Ainata and Aitaroun, people talked of money being handed out like confetti in front of the town hall. The cash was a miracle materialized between carpets of ash and the fly-thick, billowing dust.
From Bint Jbeil we went on to Safd Al-Batikh and Shaqra, down the endless valleys and naked, windswept hills to Houla, Al-Adisa and Bawabat Fatima. We coasted past barren orchards heavy with ash and the remains of slum-fat villages, and on all sides we saw the unmistakable signatures of artillery fire and aerial bombardment. This is not "Lebanon the Beautiful": our "cry from beneath the ruins" is one of death and blood.