Monday, 26 February 2007

Ordnance

Difficult to imagine a war here, it’s so peaceful. Stand in Qasir’s olive groves and you can’t hear the traffic only 30 metres away, you can only hear the birds circling over head.

In the baldia of Dier Qanun al-Nahr we get a real feel for how things work around the small villages of the south. We called the number given to us by Dalya Farran, the UNs extremely relaxed and deliberate coordinator of unexploded ordnance clearance. I thought we were calling a londowner whose farm had recently been cleared, and we could arrange an interview with him. Once he answered, and generously invited us to meet him right then, I was surprised to find it was, in fact, the president of the municipality.

There was no red tape involved, no appointments through his secretary, he simply walked with us into his office, produced two cups of coffee instantly, and offered to help us in any way he could.

While we sat in his office, local farmers and other ordinary members of the community simply walked in, shook hands and settled any minor disputes with a brief conversation. It was impossible to imagine local politics like this in the UK, just walking in to talk to your local mayor with no appointment and greeting him like an old friend.

The president is Mohammad Kassir, a rather common name in the village, we soon found out. He clearly commanded respect in the area, but he was nevertheless extremely happy to welcome Federico and I and to drive with us to the house of a local farmer (also a Kassir) to help arrange an interview.

It was a refreshing change from the bureaucracy and stonewalling we had expected after our visit to the Hizbullah press office in Beirut.

On our way out of Dier Qanun al-Nahr, we were directed to the house of Mohammad Ahmed who couldn’t access his olive groves for months following the war. When we arrived at his house, his family greeted us from the balcony of their two-story peach-coloured house. Their dog, Jacques, barked excitedly from the garage. With a look of interest and concern at the arrival of our car, clearly marked TV for our uneasy drive along the Israeli border, the family cautiously welcomed us and summoned Mohammad to speak.

My first impression was of a hard man, not one to tolerate curious foreign journalists, but as soon as I explained what we were doing and nervously asked (in a raised voice, because he was still looking down at us from his balcony, “is there any chance we could talk to you?” his face broke easily into a smile. “Of course,” he replied and came down the steps with the entire family (wife, three boys and a dog).

His face was surprising for his bright blue eyes, peppered grey stubble and deep set wrinkles. He must only have been 40 or so, but he looked ten years older. He explained how he and his family lasted 11 days of Israeli bombardment, but eventually left the house and the village when the children could no longer handle the attacks. They were terrified, the mother explained, and would cry at the very sound of jets flying overhead.

Mohammad had waited months for his land to be cleared, and he was too late to harvest his olives and the entire season was lost. He was lucky enough to have several other farms in the area that could be worked until his olives recovered in time for next season.

He had a sadness about him, despite his incredible strength and generosity. The encounter was made somewhat surreal by the fact that every few minutes his two youngest boys would come shrieking passed us, Jacques bounding along and dragging his chain behind him, as they chased the dog around the filed and laughed hysterically. Mohammad laughed too, seeing his children oblivious to the deadly legacy in the fields surrounding them. But soon enough he returned to a mood of heavy resignation as though, even amidst his joyous carefree children, generous wife and beautiful elegant olive groves, he had already seen too much. As if he knew things might never be normal in this part of Lebanon.

The farmer in the red woolen hat (we never did get his name) had owned those chicken coops now hammered flat. It was a sign of the extent of Israel’s destruction in these southern villages that even chicken coops (or “factories” as Federico called them) were bombed, as though the chickens themselves were somehow part of the Islamic militia.

His invitation wasn’t simply a polite offer. It was full of hope, his eyes pleading as though he were genuinely compelled (perhaps even he didn’t understand why) to have us in his home. That kind of generosity, I later tried to explain to Federico, actually hurt me, made me feel ashamed that I never extend that kind of warmth to a complete stranger.

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