Thursday, 8 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: The Camps

We head dowtown to visit the protest camps outside the Parliament building, and it seems the rules of permissions and access depend on who you ask. Some people won't let you film their faces, others are happy to talk to camera. Some tell us there's no way we can film around the camps, but with the Hezbollah press pass and a few kind words, they slowly relax and allow us to ask questions.

As we walk through the camps, there's no sign of the political tension we've been reading so much about. People are relaxing, listening to music, smoking sheesha. It's more like a mix between a refugee camp and festival than a protest. Everything is provided for the camps: there are water tanks filled with drinking water, and portable toilets. The various parties supporting the protest distribute food, and hold a small gathering every night with balloon sellers, music, speeches and news broadcast on a giant screen at the end of the parking lot.

As we walk through the camps, the only visitors there, people stare at Federico and I curiously, cautiously. We weave our way through the camps looking for someone to talk to, someone willing to talk to us on camera about what, exactly, everyone is doing here. Though cautious, everyone is happy to say hello, to welcome us, and to talk to someone new about their grievances.

Before long, we meet Hassanein. In his late 20's, and dressed like an average working class Lebanese, he explains that he's a student but that this semester, for the first time, he can't afford to pay his fees. He came to the camps not to support any particular party, but simply to denounce the government. And this is what surprises Federico and I the most, that far from being Hezbollah supports or anti-government agitators, most people here are simply expressing their disapproval of a system that has let them down. Hassanein speaks specifically about the area the protesters have chosen to occupy - the very focus of the government's regeneration plans that suddenly put the city centre beyond the budget of most Lebanese.

"I can't afford to shop here," he explains, "but this is my capital city. It should be the capital city for every Lebanese, not only those who can afford it." Soon, a crowd gathers around Hassanein and us, and a few more men are willing to speak. They all agree that the new city centre, the new Solidere project of Hariri's represents exactly what's wrong with their new government: it is corrupt, greedy, and out of touch with the average Lebanese. What we hear most often is that the government no longer represents them, that no one in there - not Hezbollah, Siniora or anyone in between - represents their interests. "The government only represents the rich of the country" we are repeatedly told. It's hard to argue with when you hear stories of some of the corrupt milionares who now run the country.

One of the older men standing beside Hassanein is willing to talk, and to be filmed. "You can film my face," he tells us enthusiastically, "I'm not a terrorist." He says he'll stay there, in that camp, as long as it takes, until "The Party" tells him they no longer need him.
"Do you work?"
"Yes, of course, every day I still go to work and every night I come here."
"But where do you get food?"
"They give us food. The food we have here is better that the food at home!"
"And what about your family, what do they do?"
"They're at home..."

It's like an entire village of willing refugees, their families waiting at home, hoping, no doubt, that this thing resolves itself as soon as possible.

Later, we return to the camps to talk with a few of the men running food and drink stalls beside the camp site. They are also eager to talk. After buying two glasses of orange juice, Federico and I sit down to speak to the owner of the stall. He reveals an interesting contradition: that outside the camps, downtown in the "Etoile", people complain that there is no business because of the demonstrations. In here, in the camps, there is more business, with a 24-hour captive audience. We even meet one Lebanese/Australian dual national who moved his stsall specifically into the camp because business was so bad outside.

The owner of the juice stall reiterates what we heard earlier: he is not political, supports no party, and wants nothing to do with politics. He simply believes that the government no longer represents him, and must be dissolved.
"But who would replace Siniora?"
"Anyone else. Anyone respectable..."

These are the real voices of the Lebanese streets, not the violence of the clashes earlier this month, not the rhetoric of the politicians, and not the militant resistance movements all claiming to represent the people. Watching the news in Europe, you would think everyone camping out here was a Hezbollah supporter, hungry for political power and waiting to overthrown the government. Hezbollah wouldn't be happy to hear this, but most people in the camps are non-political and are not interested in an "armed resistence" approach to demoncracy. They are simply ordinary people fed up with not having a voice, and this is something anyone should be able to relate to.

At one point, sitting with the juice stall owner, I relate the story of a million and a half people marching in London's streets against Britain's involvement in the Iraq war. Still, I tell him, despite a million and a half people, Britain went to war, her military dutifully joined in the creation of a hell-hole worse than Iraq has ever seen. If they couldn't change things, do you have any hope?
"Of course, there's hope! We'll stay here as long as it takes. What can he do? What can Siniora do? He can't go on ignoring us for another month, six months, a year..."

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