Saturday, 24 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: The Farthest South

Our guidebook ends in Tyre, nothing south of here is mentioned, despite the fact that it calls the South “the most hospitable part of the country,” (which, I believe, is true). Tyre itself is a quiet seaside town, previously a fishing town where Muslims and Christians have traditionally lived together with few problems. Around Tyre, an area known as the Tyre Pocket, was the most heavily bombed during the war, and these days the town survived very well on the NGO economy. Virtually every group working in Southern Lebanon is based in Tyre: it’s the largest city in the south, and the farthest south as you can go without sacrificing bars, restaurants and predictable electricity (predictable because the locals know it cuts out for four hours every night)

As we drove along winding (at the moment, flooding) valleys through a series of small towns, we saw on every building the signs of surveys for unexploded bombs – a red letter followed by three numbers spray-painted on the outside of the house. The entire area is still littered with an estimated 1 million unexploded cluster bombs, a situation that has turned some areas into de-facto mine fields. There are a handful of groups, some NGOs and some commercial all under the direction of the UN’s Mine Action Coordination Centre, working to clear the country’s south. At the moment, there are nearly 60 teams working simultaneously, seven days a week, but at this rate it will take them at least another five years before the job is done.

We had arrived in the south with little hope of getting a lot of footage. Last week, we had been told by Hezbollah’s press office in Beirut that we wouldn’t be allowed to film anything in the south. As the story goes, another journalist had earlier received permission to film one thing, and ended up doing another. It caused “a lot of trouble” we were told: a thinly veiled reference to espionage, but we were given no more details. All filming permissions were frozen until further notice. We were told by other journalists that it would be impossible, that everyone would be suspicious. A BBC producer described how had once been assigned an escort who would let him film nothing but buildings – no people, no pets, not even a shawarma stall.

With little choice – we weren’t about to simply give up - Federico and I were forced to take our chances and go it alone. It was likely, as had happened in the Beka’a Valley, that as soon as we stepped out of our car, we’d be met by the party’s usual scooter-riding youth network of informers and sent off before a single shot could be framed…

We were extremely cautious, and nervous, approaching Ait Echa’ab. The weather was oppressive, a dark and thick fog covered everything and made the village look even more depressing than it was already. The people we met, however, were a complete surprise. They were not only willing to speak to us (though without giving their names) but were even eager to show us around. As soon as we arrived, we had a teenage guide who pointed out the locations of Hezbollah fighters and Israeli positions, recounting battles for the camera as though he himself was there. It was difficult to keep up with his stories - the houses and streets of the battles he was describing no longer existed. There was nothing but rubble.

Another pair of boys, no more than 10 years old, became fascinated with Federico’s camera and took off with it, filming an old couple farming in their tiny plot and arranging their own scenes. One of the boys pointed to a Hezbollah flag in the basement of a nearby, partly destroyed building. “That’s where one of the fighters was martyred,” he told me, and – like the teenager earlier – recounted the battle with details that could only be, by this point, the stuff of legends. The boys were bright, still innocent and childish but – somehow - quite proudly showing us around the utter destruction of their village. It was impossible to imagine what affect all this violence was having on them – living every day amongst so much destruction, walking to school through the rubble, playing in destroyed houses where once fighters were “martyred”.

At the farthest edge of the village, while following one of the teenagers around, I came across the type of surreal site that has come to define the resilient, constantly “post-war” Lebanon. A film crew was shooting a short music video in the ruins of a house, complete with an actor wearing a fake beard and a kafiyyah: an urbanite (rather badly) made up to look like a village elder. A group of camera assistants and producers paced back and forth, eyeing our camera suspiciously and taking notes on their clipboards. They had even lit a fire in one of the ruined houses for added realism. No one displayed the slightest hint of irony in filming a music video beside locals still rebuilding their houses, by hand. In Ait Echa’ab, the war still wasn’t over, but it had already become recent history, an instant folk tale.

We met a man working on his own, perhaps on his mid-thirties, cutting lengths of rebar. It first, his face looked harsh – bold features and angry eyes. He scowled at me, always answering questions as though I had insulting him. “It must be hard to rebuild all this…” I asked, looking around at the extent of the destruction.
“It’s harder living under occupation,” he replied.
“But you’re in a difficult situation now…”
“See all this destruction behind me,” he asked rhetorically. “It’s nothing. As long as there’s no occupation, and you have a lot of dignity, you can walk tall. Either you live with dignity, or you’re humiliated for your entire life.”
It’s something we were to hear over and over again in the south. It was hard to know if he was being honest, or just sounding defiant for the camera, but he displayed what I soon realised was typical Lebanese resilience bordering on denial. Over and over, I would ask “things must be difficult for you now,” standing beside the ruins of their home, but again and again the same answer came: “No, the resistance was successful. We still have our self-respect.”

On our way out of Ait Echa’ab, as we passed a series of towns - Ramiye, Ait Echaab, Rmesh - a pattern soon became clear. The most heavily bombed villages were all Muslim, the Christian villages neighbouring them were hardly damaged at all. A young kid in Ait Echa’ab had told us he had fled to neighbouring Rmesh during the war for safety. Unfortunately, Hezbollah fighters occasionally had the same idea, and so Israel’s air force had bombed several of the roads through these sleepy villages. Other than the roads, however, the Christian villages were virtually untouched.

Further along, in Bint Jbeil – one of Hezbollah’s operational centres in the south and another village almost entirely destroyed - more surreal moments of “war tourism”. A group of young, trendy Beirutis in their 30’s, here to “smell the air.”
“You chose a strange time to visit,” I offered to a baby-faced looking man in a red jumper who had appointed himself the group’s spokesman.
“No, it’s a sad time, but not a strange time.” There was a sense of nostalgia as he looked behind him, towards the Israeli border, across fields of rubble. His friend, shaven head and tattoos, was urinating against the ruins of a house.
“This is a place of heroes,” he said “This is where the real struggle was.” It was his way of escaping the relative safety of Beirut’s bubble to see what really happened in another of this country’s darkest moments.

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