A reportage from Southern Lebanon (I)
Youssef Bazzi - 19/09/2006
"From beneath the ruins we cry: Death to Israel". Hizbollah has erected, hung and plastered this slogan all over the roads and villages of southern Lebanon. It's not hard for us to take it these words literally: the south and its people really are beneath the rubble and ruins, dead, damaged and desperate, but still enveloped in the armor of their defiance, "Death to Israel". In the same way, we can interpret Hizbollah's declaration of victory as a triumph of will, a statement of defiance in the face of death, homes leveled to the ground, abandoned villages, cities and towns turned to wasteland: destruction's malevolent dominion. It is a victory that cannot be seen. Its meaning and significance are buried deep in military calculations we cannot unravel. Perhaps this is why, immediately after announcing the ceasefire, Hizbollah has rushed to cover the south with signs great and small, huge yellow advertising hoardings and hastily daubed rainbows, all of which seek to assure both the locals and those passing through that a victory really has occurred.
From the outskirts of Beirut to the southern border hundreds of kilometers away we are bombarded with insistent and repeated declarations of victory. As this victory can't be seen, we have to write it down. No sooner has this declaration been made an inescapable linguistic and typological reality than it transforms, alchemically, into historical fact. To mute the seeming contradiction with the painfully evident human and material destruction we see all around us, these claims are given a Sufistic, poetic spin: "From beneath the rubble we cry: Death to Israel", is one, another reads: "Our blood will prove the stronger". Such statements, coming as they do from a world of magic and rhetoric, are impervious to political, economic or military interpretation, a fact that is lost on the foreign journalist we see photographing a poster on which is written, in English, "Our blood has won".
Wherever we looked, wherever we turned our faces, we were unable to escape the effects of this extraordinary publicity campaign. Slogans such as "Lebanon the beautiful has defeated Israel" appear on signs of all sizes and shapes. It must have taken thousands to make, distribute and put them up in the few short days following the ceasefire. A vast army of artists, artisans and laborers directed by an efficient financial administration and logistical apparatus and backed up by any number of intellectuals, writers, bureaucrats and supporters had to have been recruited and mobilized in almost no time at all. Furthermore, this was all carried out on orders from above, in accordance with an expertly coordinated plan. Confronted with the effects of Israel's campaign of destruction, Hizbollah countered by covering everything in yellow: towns, cities, villages, roads, electricity pylons, bridges, rooftops and public squares. The media-created reality of their victory was thus able to match the impact of created by scenes of widely spread destruction. It was a triumph, also, for PR, another reminder of the confused and confusing relationship between religious and reactionary groups and the tools and techniques of modernity. Although the discourse of these groups is often fundamentally opposed to the values of modernity, they nevertheless find it an extremely profitable source of inspiration.
The moment the war ended, Hizbollah set about reasserting its presence across the whole of southern Lebanon: from the outskirts of Beirut to Al-Naqura. The endless streams of refugees, fleeing north away from the battlefields of the south with white flags fluttering from their vehicles, have been replaced by southbound convoys decked with the yellow banners of Hizbollah. Their return is as rapid and enthusiastic as their departure was hasty and depressing, perhaps in an effort to erase the memory of those earlier scenes.
Broken roads and battered bridges forced us to take the old coastal road from Beirut to Sidon, a route we'd abandoned when the new multi-lane highway was built. It took one massive event, a war, to return us to a time before modern motorways, suspension bridges and cutting edge public transport. We went back not only in time but also in space to a world that predated Lebanon's vaunted reconstruction. The places we passed, Al-Naima, Al-Damour, Al-Saadiyat and Al-Jiyya, were old and empty. Observing these scenes of neglect and abandonment, the remnants of successive wars, we felt transported back to the late 1970s. We passed by Shamoun Castle (abandoned since the 1975-1976 war), the ruins of Al-Saadiyat, the ravaged countryside at Al-Bur, the devastation of Wadi Al-Zeina and the abandoned homes of Al-Jiyya. Crushed and blackened, the houses were identical to the buildings we saw after the great migration of the mid-1980s. We skip the intervening years, taking up the cycle of tears and woe where it left off. For fifteen years we thought we had broken free, as though our time was destined to be one of eternal beginning, an endlessly repeated pantomime of disasters, accidents and truces. Staring at Al-Jiyya's fuel dumps, which have been turned into twisted and charred lumps of steel like the corpses of vast metal beasts, we fail to apprehend them as evidence of a recent historical event--as objects in their own right--but rather, in the instant that we see them, they become memories. We have seen the demented distortion of these gutted buildings before, in 1978, '82, '85 and many times since then. It's impossible to fight the feeling that a lifetime of 51 years has been cast aside in an instant, the decades now nothing more than pure fantasy.
We knew that if we turned to the oil poisoned sea, its rocks and sand coated with a thick black paste, we would find it equally neglected: empty, depressing and filthy. Yet only a month ago it was a popular and packed summer resort, flourishing under a perfect blue sky. The seashore has undergone the same transformation from carefree joy to disaster whose ferocity is no less than that we see inland. One look at the bridges and highways that have been razed with a malevolently methodical persistence and there's no need to read the UN report that claims the recent war set the country's economic and physical infrastructure back some 51 years. Even Al-Nijma Square in Sidon has not been spared: a chaos of dust and cars, of warlike signs and slogans and jerry-built walls spilling onto the pavement. Passers-by have the look of refugees, their exhausted faces and bewildered movements eloquent with confusion and loss.
The overriding impression is that we are in the Sidon of the '80s, and that time has resumed its progress as though nothing had changed. The signs of revival, the little accessories to comfortable living that appeared since the year 2000 are exposed as vulnerable and fragile. It only took one month for the war to sweep away the present and visit a new wave of destruction on the land. This destruction, as shown by the state of the Al-Zahrani Bridge, is unprecedented in Lebanon's history. The bridge is a masterpiece of modern engineering, a vast and awesome structure, but it is also a plaintive symbol of this most recent of conflicts. Stuck in endless traffic jams passengers stare in shock, despair and terror at what the war has done to this architectural marvel. The same scenes are repeated the length and breadth of southern Lebanon. Small trucks disgorge laborers who swarm over these twisted metal skeletons and crumpled supports in search of scrap metal. Government-run and civic operations try to clear debris and reopen the roads leading to the new Al-Qasimiya Bridge, a temporary structure erected by the army to replace the bridge destroyed by Israeli bombardment. It is not the first time this bridge has been replaced, not the first time the army has set to work at Al-Qasimiya. And here they are again, selling soft drinks and fridge-cold water by the side of the road. Their customers, so it seems to us, don't look like people out for a weekend's drive or a short summer break. Their faces, the appearance of their dusty, battered vehicles, the suitcases, domestic objects and yellow flags packed in trunks and heaped on car roofs show evidence of their exile and return, their two confused arduous journeys away from, then back to, their homeland.
The only evidence that it is the year 2006 is the sprawling slum areas, the Hizbollah flags flying and signs reading "The clear victory has come". Villagers hurry to repair what remains of their houses, to open their shops and sweep the roadside benches where they sit and chat. Sur looked like an improvised workshop. Military trucks carrying aid filled the streets and although there were people everywhere, they didn't seem like inhabitants. It was as if the population had been swapped for day-trippers and new arrivals. The usually bustling corniche and sea-front streets were empty; only the roads to the villages were busy. In areas that had suffered bombardment or fires residents were trying to save what little remained of their former lives, or carrying aid parcels from the big pile that towered by a sea empty of fishing vessels.