HANDS OFF LEBANON

Aug 21, 2006

DISPATCH FROM LEBANON – August 2006

This is from a GR supporter in lebanon

I arrived in Beirut on 28th June to attend my friend’s engagement, and to explore the country which she had raved about so convincingly for the eight months since I had first met her. Then, just before I was due to leave, the war erupted and the airport was bombed, military boats were stationed off the Lebanese coast and the roads, as key targets, became an unwise means of leaving the country. Every way out was blocked.
In the two weeks I had been in Lebanon before the war began, I had come to know a lively, welcoming country and people. Days before the war began, Downtown, the centre of Beirut was packed for world cup games to the extent that you could barely find place to stand in the cafes.
Within hours of the war beginning, the city changed: the roads emptied, shops and businesses closed down, and everyone disappeared. Beirut was like a ghost town. The area in which I am staying is a suburb just south of Beirut, and 10 minutes from the airport – from the street outside our house we watched as plumes of smoke filled the sky from the targeted Dahyee area of Beirut and the airport burned. This area changed also. The main street outside our apartment is a key route in and out of the mountains. The largely Christian and Druze populations in the mountains are perceived as being of little interest to the Israelis, so these areas are deemed safe. As a result, our street filled with cars packed with whole families and loaded with mattresses and other essentials as they fled both from Dahyee and from the South – the tightly veiled Shiite women from the south were a relatively rare sight here until recently.
My friend’s father’s family lived in Saur (Tyre), an area of Lebanon coming under particularly fierce attack. While they were reluctant to leave their homes and the land that they know and love, when a bomb was dropped on the building across the street from them, even my friend’s 84 year old Grandma was persuaded that it was not safe to stay. So, they were forced to join the around 900,000 displaced people in Lebanon, and make the dangerous journey north. There were a number of confirmed reports that cars carrying fleeing families had been targeted as they traveled north, even when flying white flags from their windows, so the family was keenly aware of the risks of their trip. The danger and discomfort of staying increased swiftly, as the smell from the bodies trapped in the destroyed buildings for three days in the hot sun became increasingly unbearable.
Arriving in Beirut, the family were lucky to find, and be able to afford a three room apartment to house all 20 of them (others have since arrived, so that now 30 people share the one apartment). Many people have had to leave absolutely everything and flee. Around the outskirts of Beirut, schools, which should be empty for the summer holidays have been put to use housing hundreds of displaced people, while some less fortunate have been forced to live in parks in the centre of Beirut.
Most striking to me during my time on this side of the conflict have been three things. Firstly, the ability of the Lebanese people to maintain their generosity and openness despite the adversity – this is partly through practice, unfortunately, given that this is their sixth war in recent years. Secondly, the Lebanese media coverage of the war has been very different from anything that is being shown in the west. The images are of exactly what is happening – the bodies being brought out of collapsed buildings, the twisted remains of children and the distress of the people who are caught up in the violence. I have come increasingly to believe that if such uncensored media were common in Britain, it would be very difficult for the Government to continue with its criminal neglect and procrastination in supporting a viable peace process. I have also been shocked by the extent to which, when the conflict began, Lebanon was billed a firm second to Israel in the foreign media coverage – the situation is extremely complex, and a good knowledge of it is required to provide appropriate and balanced coverage.
Thirdly: the response of the international community. I have witnessed opinion in Lebanon shift significantly. When Hezbollah originally attacked, there was much opposition among the Lebanese, who did not feel that Hezbollah acted for them, and had dragged Lebanon unnecessarily into a war that they wanted no part of. As the war has continued, and we have seen the imbalance in casualties and damage that Lebanon and Israel have suffered – the sophistication of the weapons used against Lebanon, the fact that civilian infrastructure, hospitals and schools have been targeted, and the sheer quantity of people affected, Lebanese opinion has shifted in favour of Hezbollah – as a force defending Lebanon against Israeli aggression. The dispute has become one not of religious or political differences within Lebanon, but a basic fight for the survival of a country that has been devastated in so many ways.
My friend and I have been visiting a local school which is currently home to around 600 people who have had to leave their homes. A BBC TV crew requested to visit with us one day, to get some insight into the experiences of those affected by the conflict. As we arrived all the children on the compound ran up, eager to be featured on the film – the TV crew began asking my friend and me some questions about the work being done at the school – in the background, the kids, some aged as young as 5, began to chant “Nasrallah, Hezbollah, Dahyee killah” – they were calling for the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah, and the whole of Dahyee – the area of Beirut that Israel has targeted as a key Hezbollah stronghold. This war, far from reducing the tensions between Israel and Lebanon, has achieved the opposite – raising another generation, on both sides of the blue line, with hatred in their hearts, and the motivation to act on it.
More to follow …

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