Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Road to Recovery

Deir Kifa, Lebanon
19 August, 2006

A few days make all the difference. The Lebanese army had laid a temporary bridge across the Litani river, which cut our wait time to less than five minutes. The total time from Beirut to Tyre was under three hours, less than a third what it had been only three days earlier.

My companions were fellow ISM volunteer Alberto Cruz from ISM-Spain and Mohamad Safieddine, a 20-year-old agriculture student at the American University of Beirut, in whose car we were traveling. Mohamad is from the coastal city of al-Naqqoura, just north of the Israeli border, but it was his first time back since the start of the Israeli invasion of his homeland. In something of a role reversal, therefore, Alberto and I became his guides. We took him along the roads we had traveled in previous days, where he saw the devastation that I have described in previous reports.

There were, however, already several differences. First, the Lebanese army had started to deploy in some places, and a few UN troops were also in place. The ones that I asked said they were from Ghana, which means that they were part of the UNIFIL forces who have been here for years, now probably trying to be an advance presence under the new mandate for the French-led forces due to arrive soon as part ot the multinational peacekeepers recently authorized by UN resolution 1701.

The task of cleaning and rebuilding had also clearly begun in earnest. Earthmoving equipment could be seen clearing the roads from crushed buildings mixed with family portraits, stamp collections and high school diplomas, now mere landfill. Repair crews were already restringing cables and laying pipeline and conduits. Hezbollah had also had also put up trademark yellow banners to welcome returnees, journalists and visitors in English, Arabic and French. "Made in USA" captioned the worst areas of destruction, as did "This is your democracy, USA" and "This is the new Middle East". "The Great Lebanon has deseated [sic] the murders[sic]." "Rice, they will not see your new Mideast." In Tyre, mass graves were being dug for the dead and almost every town and village along the way was having funerals.

Our group, a total of about twenty Lebanese and international volunteers, were all making their way to Deir Kifa to do grassroots relief and solidarity work in areas as yet largely unserved by ogther agencies. Our destination was the spacious home of Mohammed Elamine, an old friend of mine from Saudi Arabia whose hospitality I had shared under completely different circumstances only six weeks earlier, mere days before the invasion. He and his wife Lourdes were among the American citizens evacuated near the start of the bombing and shelling, and he was now staying with his youngest son Rami in Baltimore while another son, Bilal, a well-known journalist and co-founder of Left Turn Magazine, opened the house for us.

Mohamad, Alberto and I had left Beirut early in order to go to Maroun al-Ras, on the border with Israel before meeting up with the group at Deir Kifa. Alberto had been refused entry by Israeli soldiers a few days earlier, and the mayor of the town, whom he had interviewed, had expressed grave concern for the welfare of those still inside, mostly old people with whom the Israelis had allowed no communication. We wanted to see what we could do to help, and to report to our group on the current status.

The good news was that the soldiers had left the day before. We spoke to Mustafa Faris, an 80-year-old resident who had survived alone in his house on cracked wheat, onions and well water for 34 days. Had he spoken to the soldiers? Had they supplied the townspeople with food and water, as they had told Alberto a few days ago? He had spoken with them, but they had supplied nothing. I asked in what language they had communicated. In Arabic, he replied. The soldiers were all Arabs, including Druze, bedouins, Algerians, Yemenis and Moroccans. (Some of them may have come from Israel's third-class non-Jewish Palestinian minorities, while others were probably from among the second-class Jews from Arab countries.)

Mustafa's nephew, Nimr Faris, invited Alberto and me to come to his house while Mohamad went back to the car to get the few relief supplies that we had brought with us. A few weeks ago, Nimr and thirty other family members, including twenty children, had fled to Sidon after ten terrifying days in the unfinished lower level of their house while bombs and shells rained down and the Israeli occupiers kept them penned in their homes. Only Nimr's elderly father, Diab, the brother of Mustafa, and his mother refused to leave. Tears poured and embraces lingered as the three of them were reunited, removing the anxious doubts for each other's wellbeing. In this family, at least, everyone survived unscathed, a blessing compared the tragedies of some of their neighbors.

The total number of dead in the village was uncertain. Two were being buried that day, and at least three were suspected to be under the rubble of the homes. The smell of death was strongest near the entrance of the village, where the Israelis had bombed the cemetery. How long do corpses continue to reek after they are buried? Or was the smell from the surrounding destruction, offering fresh fodder for maggots and bacteria? As I tucked my nose in my shirt, I wondered how Israeli soldiers could allow themselves to remain among the stench of their handiwork as a reminder of their actions. How does that play on the mind?

As we left Maroun al-Ras, we took a route through many more villages, most of them with large swathes of destruction. The scale stretches the imagination, and especially the short time scale during which the havoc had been wreaked. It is hard to imagine that these were the lovely villages and towns through which I had passed not so long ago.

One of the remarkable things about the resistance in south Lebanon was the degree to which Hezbollah preserved its communication system. Wireless systems would have been intercepted, so it appears to depend upon cables, probably with lots of redundant routes so as to survive ruptures and to cut off tapped connections. Indeed, some of the resdents report seeing such work in years past, suspecting that some of their more influencial neighbors had gotten special privileges. This might explain why Israel attacked the telephone and electrical systems so heavily. Wherever we went, the road was strewn with cables, and the electrical pilons had been toppled. Bomb and artillery craters had ruptured the roads, as well as the conduits beneath and beside them.

All for naught. Hezbollah appeared to have preserved its communication and coordination systems intact regardless of how much the Israelis threw at them. There were stories of entire mountaintops being raised on jacks so as to fire rockets from inside, then reclose before the Israelis hit back. The truth may be more prosaic, but there is no doubt that guerilla tactics included elaborate underground fortifications that permitted them to survive and continue fighting under the most persistent barrages. It brought to mind the massive concrete bunkers that I had seen littering the countryside in Yugoslavia many years ago. Marshall Tito's fortifications were more visible, in order to act as a deterrent for any forces foolish enough to consider invading his country. The Israelis had clearly encountered a situation unlike any they had seen before.

When we finally arrived at Deir Kifa, we found that we were the first to arrive, although we had been on the road more than seven hours. Only the caretaker, Abu Yousef and Bilal Elamine were there, alhough others from Tyre were not long in joining us. We took the opportunity to relax, wash off the dust and smells of the day and refresh ourselves. It wasn't until 9:00 in the evening that three other cars from Beirut arrived. A late evening meeting determined that a team would do more factfinding at some villages while the rest would begin relief at the neighboring village of Silaa in the morning. We went to bed looking forward to working side by side with people rebuilding their communities.

Paul Larudee


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