Rasha Salti

Rasha Salti is based in Beirut.

July 28, 2006

Lebanon Siege: Day 8

I have to confess that writing is becoming increasingly difficult. Writing, putting words together to make sentences to convey meaning, like the small gestures and rituals that make-up the commonplace acts of everyday life, has begun to lose its meaning and its cathartic power. I am consumed with grief, there is another me trapped inside me that cries all the time. And crying over the death of someone is a very particular cry. It has a different sound, a different music and feels different. I dare not cry out in the open, tears have flowed, time and time again, but I have repressed the release of pain and grief. My body feels like a container of tears and grief. I am sure it shows in the way I walk. Writing is not pointless per se, but it is not longer an activity that gives me relief. The world outside this siege seems increasingly far, as if it had evacuated with the bi-national passport holders and foreigners.

The past few days have been MURDEROUS in the south and the Beqaa Valley. The death toll has been increasing in a horrific exponential envigorated with the White House giving a green light for the military assault to persist. Beirut has been spared so far, but not the southern suburbs. Today is Day 12 of the war, the Israeli military has conducted 3,000 air raids on Lebanon in 12 days. Out of the total deaths so far, which range close to 400 (numbers are not definitive), almost 170 are children. The numbers of the displaced are increasing by the hour. Have you seen the pictures of the deaths? The mourners in Tyre? Have you seen the coffins lined up? And the grieving mothers.
It is impossible not to grieve with them, it is impossible to shut one's ears to their wailing. It haunts me, it echoes the walls of the city, it bounces off the concrete of destroyed bridges and buildings. In trying to explain what drove Mohammad Atta to fly an airplane into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, someone (I forget whom- sorry facts-checkers) once said to me that Atta must have felt that "his scream was bigger than his chest". That description stayed with me, I don't know if I agree with it, or if that's how Atta felt in reality, but it comes back to me now because I feel that my grief is bigger than my chest and I have no idea how to dissipate it.

The Southern Suburbs
I accompanied journalists to Haret Hreyk two days ago. I suspect I am still shell-shocked from the sight of the destruction. I have never, ever seen destruction in that fashion. Western journalists kept talking about a "post-apocalyptic" landscape. The American journalists were reminded of Ground Zero. There are no gaping holes in the ground, just an entire neighborhood flattened into rubble. Mounds, and mounds of smoldering rubble. Blocks of concrete, metal rods, mixed with furnishings, and the stuff that made up the lives of residents: photographs, clothes, dishes, CD-roms, computer monitors, knives and forks, books, notebooks, tapes, alarm clocks. The contents of hundreds of families stacked amidst smoking rubble. A couple of buildings had been hit earlier that morning and were still smoking, buildings were still collapsing slowly.
I was frightened to death and I could hear my own wailing deep, deep within me.
I stopped in front of one of the buildings that housed clinics and offices that provide social services, there seemed to be a sea of CD-Roms and DVDs all over. I picked up one, expecting to find something that had to do with the Hezbollah propaganda machine (and it is pretty awesome). The first one read "Sahh el-Nom 1", the second "Sahh el-Nom 17". "Sahh el-Nom" was a very popular sit-com (way, way before the concept was even identified) produced by Syrian TV in the 1960s. It was centered on the character of "Ghawwar el-Tosheh", who has become a salient figure in popular Arab culture. I smiled mournfully, at the irony. Around the corner passport photos and film negatives covered the rubble.
Haret Hreyk was a residential area. The residents, I was told by our driver who lived a few blocks away, were evacuated by Hezbollah to other places before the shelling began. Those who refused to leave then, left after the first round of shelling. Haret Hreyk is eerily ghostly, there are practically no people left in that neighborhood. In the two hundred meters radius removed however, life is on-going. Residents testified that Hezbollah was securing food, electricity and medicines to all those who stayed.
Haret Hreyk is also where Hezbollah had a number of their offices. Al-Manar TV station is located in the block that has come to be known as the "security compound" (or "security square"), the office of their research and policy studies center, and other institutions attached the party. It is said that in that heavily inhabited square of blocks, more than 35 buildings were destroyed entirely.
Hezbollah had organized a visit for journalists that day, as they had the day before. They provided security cover for the area for the international media cameras to document the destruction. There was a spokesperson greeting journalists. A small rotund man, dressed in a track suit, fancy sunglasses, a two-day old stubble carrying two state of the art cell phones. He spoke in concise soundbites and was affable. There was nothing menacing about his demeanor, in fact were it not for the destruction around him he looked more like he would be an assistant to Scolari (similar dress code and portend) than part of the media team of a "terrorist organization".
The security apparatus of Hezbollah was also impressive, underscoring the identity of Hezbollah. They were all affable, welcoming, dressed casually and unarmed. They all held walkie-talkies, and when looming danger of another Israeli air strike seemed tangible, they all ushered the group of some 30 (and more) journalists to clear the area. They issued their warnings calmly and confidently.
One of the buildings was still burning. It had been shelled earlier that day at dawn. Clouds of smoke were exhaling from amidst the ravages. The rubble was very warm, as I stepped on concrete and metal, my feet felt the heat.

Israeli Warfare Mystery
Doctors in hospitals in the south have testified on television that they a number of bodies that have reached them have an unusual, unfamiliar skin color. Some of surviving injured exhibit a pattern of burns that doctors have also never seen before. The question is beginning to get attention for the world community of physicians and human rights organization. Israel is suspected of loading its missiles with toxic chemicals. The fear, in addition to their toxicity being immediately lethal on its victims, is that the waters and earth may now be poisoned. The inhabitants of the south may have to suffer from Israel's wrath for a very, very long time, in chilling cold blood.
The as-Safir newspaper, the second largest running daily in Lebanon, has taken up the task to investigate the question.
Beyond the crime of toxic poisoning, the type of shells and bombs used is also astounding. I met a woman who was displaced from the borderig village of Yater. She is a native American, blue blood and apple pie, but with a hijab. She, her husband, her three babies and her husband's family, a total of 14 people were trapped in one room in their house in Yater. On the 6th or 7th day of shelling, she cracked and her kids could not longer handle the violence. Risking their lives, they jumped into their car, and decided to take their chance. They drove straight without stopping, taking circuitous ways when the main roads were impossible to tread. They expected to die on the road. After 14 hours of driving they made their way to the US embassy in the northeastern suburbs of Beirut. They were not aware of evacuations. They were lost on the way, and someone stole her husband's wallet with the 400$ in cash they carried (the totality of their fortune), his green card and her US passport. I came across her at the US embassy compound. She was trembling. She could barely tell her story coherently. She repeated over and over that she had seen houses fly, that the shells made the houses fly in the air and then collapse on the ground. She repeated that she ought not to have gone to the window, but she could not help it, she was curious, and she saw the houses fly.
As a holder of US passport (and real native) she had been allowed into the embassy. Her husband, only a green card holder, was not. The US embassy changed their policy, I was later told by people and journalists, but at various stages in the evacuation, green-card holders were not included in the evacuations plan. Pardon me, in the plans for "assisted departures".
I don't know what happened to the American mother from Portland Oregon and Yater south Lebanon. I know her babies are lactose intolerant and their only food was the stock of soy milk she had with her. She was very young, a face earnest, her skin transluscent white. In her pale blue eyes there was despair and fright that she will not recover from for a very long time.

The Displaced
The displaced have been dispersed in the country. They have been placed in schools, universities, government owned buildings. Aid is arriving, but still in chaotic manner. Volunteers are beginning to get tired. However nothing compares to the distress of the displaced. They are in a state of complete emotional upheaval. Their presence has already changed the habits and rituals of the neighborhoods where they have been placed.
As the sun begins to set and the harshness of its rays begins to dim, you find families strolling on Hamra street (a main commercial thoroughfare in West Beirut). Shops are closed, sandwich shops are closed, cafes are intermittantly open, but the sidewalk provides an opportunity to escape the confinement from the shelter where they been relocated. You can see it in their walk, their body language. Their pace searches for peace of mind, not for a destination, their lungs expand drawing in oxygen to inspire quietude and calm, not for cardiovascular pressure. They have a deep, mournful, sorrowful gaze. They left behind their entire lives, maybe even their beloved.
In Ras Beirut, small backstreets have come to life. To escape the heat of indoor confinement, displaced families relocated to old homes or government-owned buildings, have grown in the habit of placing plastic chairs and their narguiles on small front porches or entrance hallways of buildings. I had to walk home after a long day of working with journalists, two nights ago, and as I zigzagged through these back streets, I was comforted by their gentle presence. They chatted, softly, quietly, huddled in groups, watching the night unfold, fearful of the sound of Israeli warplanes.
The ceaseless newscast from a radio kept everyone informed. It too sounded softly. It was a gentle summer night, and the families dispersed and uprooted surrendered to the gentleness of the night.
On the next block, three young woman stood in line, queuing for access to a public payphone. That too has become a familiar sight in Beirut. People lining at public payphones. They stood, clearly tired but resilient. To my "good evening", I was greeted back with smiles and another "good evening". I was relieved to see that they felt safe, that they roamed the city at night without qualms. How long can they afford to pay for these phone calls is another question. There is a definite need for a long term plan. This emergency solution will soon reach a crisis, and state structures need to be prepared to face the anger and frustration of nearly 500,000 people.
On the next block, a Mercedes car packed with people was parked at a corner, in front of the entrance of a building. The car's doors were flung open and the radio broadcast news. It was a visit. Two displaced families on a nightly visit. Everyone was gentle, and a soft breeze blew with clemency.

2 Comments:

  • At 6:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Ms Salti -

    I would like to contact you regarding permission to cite some of your material in my book, 'The Spirit and the Letter: Trauma, Warblogs and the Public Sphere'. Please mail me: diane@extrange.com.

    Thanks so much.

    Diane Awerbuck

     
  • At 5:05 AM, Blogger The Mirage said…

    Hey, love what u do. Keep up the good work. Please follow me, I just started with my own blog. http://www.themirageblog.com/

     

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home