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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Toys for Zawter

Perched in the mountains of southern Lebanon overlooking the Litani River is the small town of Zawter.

The tiny village has been ravaged by the recent war, though some towns have more damage and others have less. How do you measure the level of destruction or the real impact of war and violence? Can it (should it) really be assessed in buildings destroyed or bombs detonated?

Cars shake as they drive into Zawter over the shrapnel-pocked road. The school bears the scars of blast marks and shattered windows, though the walls are intact. At least the structure of the building has survived. This feels like a relief. This is what qualifies as ‘good news’ in southern Lebanon.

Other good news, the mine action and recovery teams have come to sweep for cluster bombs.

Zawter is filled with them. They have been marked off but have only been removed along main roads and public places. People are walking freely in the streets now (though not out to tend crops, many of which are beginning to spoil unharvested).

Entire blocks of Zawter are just gone. One block had 22 houses and a center for kids. All gone.

You can still see the wall painted by the children along the base of where the youth center used to stand.

The municipality has offered some space to the people who ran the youth center – two rooms and an outdoor area -- to create a new safe area for kids.

The first time I visited one of the rooms was filled with piles and boxes of the books, desks and chairs they had managed to pull from the rubble. The second room was entirely empty and the open space was empty aside from a few plastic chairs and a UNHCR tarp on the ground.

Armed with the resources of a small group of individuals in Jordan, I have been to Zawter several times with the pleasant mission of helping the youth center create this new space for the town’s youth.

After coordinating logistics and negotiating the purchase of supplies through Maria (from the Jaber Center in Nabatieh) we are able to buy toys, art supplies, books, two computers, desks, shelves, chairs, a slide, a seesaw, a merry-go-round and a sound system for Zawter.

The energy and appreciation from the adults and children alike is heart-warming. There are so many large organizations investing in Lebanon, but some are finding themselves caught up in the political chaos and bureaucracy that is threatening to paralyze the country. . .or push it into chaos.

Without the resources or support of those larger organizations, we were also free of the official restrictions and hoops other programs are caught in. This is the blessing of small programs. And goes to show what a difference just a few motivated people can make. This I try to tell myself time and again.

Driving through the devastated towns, distracted in the bars of downtown Beirut, listening helplessly as another person tells me of the damage inflicted on her home or another loss in his family, I want to believe each little bit counts.

But the little bits could be so much bigger. And they are not adding up to enough. Not fast enough.

The amount of aid money pouring into Lebanon is in many ways impressive, seen by most as a competition for the 'hearts and minds' of the local population. In some ways this is a good thing, but it is problematic for the less notorious areas of Lebanon devastated by the fighting, and for international (especially U.S.-backed) agencies who are forbidden to work with Hezbollah at any level.

The Lebanese government has also been criticized for being slow to implement relief efforts and distribute aid. The politicians quibble over how to reform the government or who should distribute aid or how to leverage the rebuilding to win support from the people. But as the debate goes on, winter is creeping in and countless broken homes, physically and emotionally, are left to face the rains and the cold alone.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Still Here. Still Proud. Still Waiting for Change...

You can see more on TV than you almost ever do in person, but there is always something unique about actually being there.

Knowing that, and aware that sweeping aerial shots and cutaways often mask some of the realities and emotions of large events, I found myself in a service taxi toward the Hezbollah rally on Friday, Sept. 22. It took some time to find a service willing to take us toward the chaotic and crowded streets, but finally we hailed one and the woman riding with us adopted a motherly attitude toward us as soon as we stepped out into the streets. She was probably in her 60s, no more than 5’ 3” tall with a black headscarf and a sweet smile. We had been dropped off far from the main rally site but as close as any cars were driving at that point as waves of people moved through the streets. I struggled to speak with her in Arabic, easily discussing the usual topics, where I am from, how long I have been in Lebanon, what I do here and what I think of the country (this is the moment where everyone thinks my Arabic is great, then launches into another topic of discussion that I absolutely cannot follow).

But on this day there was no time for long discussions anyway, we were late and making our way hastily toward the rally site. People had begun gathering in the morning, crowds and caravans had left from parts of the south days earlier, driving, walking, carpooling their way to the city in response to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s call for a ‘victory rally’ in the war-ravaged southern suburbs of Beirut known as the Dahiya (or 'suburbs' in Arabic).

The charismatic Nasrallah and this rally celebrating ‘The Divine Victory’ received significant media attention and made for a
great visual (the crowd was estimated from half a million to 800,000) but paint an inaccurate picture of the real mood in Lebanon. Our motherly guardian kept an eye on us as long as she could-- walking with us, directing us to make sure we were headed in the right direction and looking over her shoulder as we made our way through the streets -- until finally she disappeared into the growing masses.

Almost everyone in the crowd was in an upbeat and jovial spirit, there were groups of youth dancing and singing, with Hezbollah supporters vastly outnumbering anyone else but a distinct presence of the
green flags for Amal, the other Shi’a political party, as well as the bright orange of Christian leader Aoun'sFree Patriotic Movement, and an array of Palestinian groups, Communists and even some people sporting several of these flags at the same time.

Notably absent were any supporters of the
March 14 forces, a coalition of political parties currently controlling the Lebanese parliament. The alliance consists of several groups including Saad Hariri's Future Movement, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party and Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces. The March 14 group is named after the massive protests held in Beirut on that date, one month after the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

With Aoun's Christian party and the mainly Sunni-based Palestinian factions showing their support, the break does not fall along religious lines but distinctly into anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian alliances. These rifts are just the rumblings of a major political debate about the future of Lebanon that was underway before the fighting erupted and clearly must be addressed in one way or another. Only time will tell if it will be through dialogue and transformation or violence.

But that is a challenge for another day. On this day the focus was on the excitement of being alive amid the rubble and witnessing the emergence of Nasrallah for the first time since July. Many people came to the rally for that reason alone. “I am not a Hezbollah supporter but I support Nasrallah,” one woman told me, and several others said they were just there to see him in the flesh and hear him speak live because he has become such an icon.

We navigated our way through throngs of people in an attempt to move toward the main rally, even the side streets blocks from the stages were filled with people who had chosen to watch from the comfort of a plastic chair with a hubbly bubbly at their side, clustered around TVs placed outside so large groups could gather around.

There were leathery faces of farmers, the pale skinned conservative women with black hijabs to their chins and robes to the ground, children with painted faces, fashionable girls with Hezbollah flags and matching yellow hair ribbons, shirts and assorted accessories, teenage boys in packs and families with young children on their parents’ shoulders.

Finally we had moved as far into the crowd as we deemed possible without risking actually being compacted, jostled by those still trying to move and mingling in the hot sun and sweat of the crowd just at the edge of the main rally location (long-filled hours before our arrival). Pinned alongside a young Muslim girl in a beautiful light blue hijab with Gucci sunglasses and an older man with a leathered face dripping in the heat, I looked up at the surrounding buildings at the groups of people watching from the comfort of their balconies and rooftops. Security guards were also clearly present, peering down from the roofs of residences, gas stations and businesses as well as along the gated perimeters controlling the flow of the crowds.

A stream of five or six women in black hijabs and their children aggressively pushed around me just as a rowdy group of Palestinian supporters tried to make their way forward through the crowd from the right. The ebb and flow continued throughout but as Nasrallah stepped to the microphone no one moved or cared, there was only cheering and chanting. Throughout the speech the mood of the crowd remained upbeat and positive. Although I couldn’t understand most of it, I know “Amewika” and “Condoweezza” (yes Nasrallah speaks with a lisp) when I hear it, but while most ‘booed’ the real emotion remained festive and jubilant -- more on a loud celebration of the end of hostilities, the survival of Lebanon and the loud proclamation that Lebanon has survived this ordeal and will not be silenced or bullied.

People seem happy to be alive, happy it is over and proud of the resilience of the country. Regardless of the politics I hear this as a sentiment. The anger and sadness are there, mixed with a sense of total abandonment by the world. There is a deep disappointment and fury over the rampant destruction of Lebanon, the use of American-made weapons to wreak havoc and suffering on the entire Lebanese population and the sense of never-ending exceptionalism offered to Israel by Western powers -- yet that is exactly where the strength and energy of the crowd comes from, celebrating one tiny nation’s ability to stand up against all of that and survive.

These sentiments are echoed across the city, often in the form of banners or graffiti. In the Beirut suburbs and across the south there are bright red banners across rocketed buildings that read “
Made in U.S.A.” One wall in the city reads “We are not afraid. We are Lebanon.” and there are several other more graphic comments to be found.

Despite the size of the 'victory rally' and the attention it received, it is only one in a wide range of events and perspectives that are shaping this turbulent chapter in Lebanon and the region. Most of the Lebanese I know stayed at work during the rally and continued on with their normal activities. Within days of this event,
other rallies were held and speeches delivered by the predominant anti-Syrian political leaders including Saad Hariri (Sunni politician and son of slain former PM Rafik Hariri) and Samir Geagea (leader of the Lebanese Forces – a Christian-based militia turned political party after the civil war).

As the struggle for power through politics, posturing and reconstruction gains momentum, it is also important to note that while the U.S. may have dubbed Hezbollah a ‘terrorist organization’ similar allegations could be leveled at many of the key political players in Lebanon. Most of them led militias and carried out attacks, authorized assassinations and betrayed alliances and committed crimes of all scales against one another throughout the fighting in Lebanon during 1975-1990. Despite the management and participations in these transgressions, Geagea was the only one of the militia leaders (some would say warlords) to ever be imprisoned for his actions. He spent 11 years in solitary confinement until the Lebanese Parliament an amnesty law releasing him in 2005. A broader
amnesty law was passed in 1991 (the first law passed by the reconstituted parliament) and pardoned all Lebanese individuals and groups for virtually any crimes committed before March 1991.

No reconciliation, investigation or national dialogue was ever held. Maybe this is due to the significant Syrian military and political control of the country until 2005. This could also be partially due to the fighting in southern Lebanon, which lasted another ten years after the end of the civil war. By the time Israeli troops withdrew in 2000, large reconstruction efforts had already been underway for years in Beirut and the northern parts of Lebanon.

Regardless of the reason, this gaping lack of discussion and examination results in virtually no accountability, forgiveness or divulging of information that may help Lebanon and the families of those killed, tortured and abused (as well as those who participated in all those activities) to accept the past as that and move on to what has the potential to be a new era for Lebanon. For now, the history books remain unrevised, crimes remain unpunished and families remain without answers.

While other countries have tried truth and reconciliation commissions and international or national tribunals, Lebanon appears to be solidly embracing the idea that such a phase can be skipped entirely.

Is it possible to just sanction a national amnesia and go forward? What impact does this have on the victims, the perpetrators, the leaders and the nation? How does it affect the families, communities and children living in the environment those violent times created (physically and politically)? And if there has been no open dialogue or exploration of how and why it happened, what is to keep the same from happening again? How much has really changed?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Aftershocks of War

Every drive south is a new experience along a different route, the construction is transforming the traffic patterns daily and there seems to be no ‘best route’ along some portions where cars are forced to abandon the main (and only) highway. I’m in no real position to talk about the ‘south’ as I have only been down as far as the Litani River, but it is far enough to be a dramatic shift of scenery from the heart of Beirut. Of course that was always true but now the chasm seems to have widened between these two segments of Lebanese society.

Beirut is getting back into the swing of things. The swelling number of people out and about is easily apparent in the bars and restaurants even in the time I have been back. The two major universities (
AUB and LAU) opened last week and with the air and sea blockades finally lifted there are plenty of flights to bring those who fled or were stranded back in to Lebanon.

In addition, all those who stayed were mostly isolated with their families in the mountains for the duration of the war. For young Lebanese, like everyone else, this was not the vibrant summer season they had anticipated and many are eager to return to their lives – whether that is studying at the university or dancing until the sun comes up at the late night hotspots like
BO18, where I was a week ago. Unfortunately I only made it until 4 a.m. but the line to get in as I was heading to bed was a clear testimonial to the commitment of the Lebanese youth to reinstate the vibrant nightlife that made Beirut a favorite for vacationers and businessmen across the region.

As the Lebanese socialites trickle back in from their summer vacations in the mountains and across Europe to fill the emptied streets of Beirut, the south is also swelling with returnees seeking to embrace a return to normalcy. But those in the south do not return to empty streets, they face roads blasted with craters, mountains of cement and rubble where the businesses and homes they frequented used to stand and croplands scattered with cluster bombs that continue to claim lives. As Beirutis return to long nights out on the town (arguably an important contribution to re-starting the economy and tourism industry), others spend long days trying to distribute food and aid to those even less fortunate.

Back at the Jaber Center in Nabatieh last weekend, I spent half the day filling bags for distribution – soap, powdered and fortified milk, antibiotics, instant cereal, washcloths, diapers and feminine products. In a huge room with boxes lining the walls I filled bag after bag as others outside faced the massive lines of women coming to collect supplies. Some impatient people banged on the door or yelled through the windows. Another one of the women at the center collapsed during the day. Everyone has been working long hours day after day with no end in sight and their exhaustive efforts are starting to take a toll, though no one will admit it or slow down. The stress and frustration is also rising among the people coming for supplies, with extensive lists and procedures I cannot claim to have a clue about, there are inevitably families or individuals who want more than what they are given, or to be attended to faster or feel as though they deserved special, different or more immediate attention.

I only spent one day in this space. What a dedication and work ethic. I cannot imagine how they are doing it day in and day out. Even as their own families struggle through this strange time of recovery and rebuilding.

Back in Beirut, September 11th came and went and marked, among so many other things, my first day of Arabic. While I am at last able to conjugate verbs, I wonder if this endeavor is really a surmountable task or if I will be forever forced to enjoy my ability to hold idle conversations while being entirely lost as soon as the discussion starts to get interesting. I understand just enough to know what people are talking about, and just little enough to not know what they have to say about the subject. Very frustrating.

I have found myself in some interesting conversations lately with amazing mixes of people; Armenians, Moroccans, Sudanese, Brazilians, Turks, British, French (and of course Lebanese). The level of discourse surrounding Lebanon’s current and future status has risen, which could be a positive sign of engagement among the people, although most seem to think little has changed in the overall equation. People seem stuck struggling between two emotions: the desire to believe in the (
repeatedly tested) strength, resilience and dedication of the Lebanese . . . and possibility that the transformation they had hoped so much for will never emerge from the cycle of violence that has continued to rock Lebanon, from car bombs through 2005 to the recent onslaught of rockets and cluster bombs.

One small shift since the end of the war has been in the discussion of Hezbollah itself. The name along used to only be whispered in hushed tones or marked with an almost unconscious cautious glance around the room. Now it is open season on the topic of Hezbollah, their role in Lebanon, the impact of the war, their actions and what will happen next.

It is still unclear whether more people in Lebanon will be coming or going now that the official state of war has ended. What counts as the end of war? Is it supposed to be finished now that the bombs have stopped falling from the sky? Does it feel that way to the families stuck in their homes or cautiously making their way down main streets as mine teams mark off unexploded ordinances? Or to the farmers who can now look out at their crops but not harvest them for fear of exploding?

It is a bit like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The power outages. The cluster bombs. Scuffles over food supplies and aid. The shifting demographics of the nation as thousands of international forces pour into Lebanon to protect. . .who? Lebanon? Israel? Why are they only on this side of the line?

Israel has announced it hopes to withdraw the last of its troops by the weekend. A big weekend to be sure – Friday sunset will mark
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the next morning (depending on the moon) will most likely mark the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and religious introspection. And the official onset of autumn.

Nasrallah himself has not missed the significance of this day either. He has called for a rally in Lebanon on Friday in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where the Hezbollah headquarters were housed and an area severely damaged during the war. Nasrallah encouraged all Lebanese to attend the rally and although the debate is raging about whether or not he will appear (since Israel has threatened Nasrallah himself is a “legitimate target” no matter where he is), I would bet that he will be there. Along with a couple hundred thousand Lebanese, foreign journalists and assorted other observers. And love him or hate him, blame him or praise him, he will be untouchable.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Long Days in Nabatieh

The energy and focus of everyone at the center may be directed at helping those most in need in Nabatieh and across the region, but every one of them has been through this war too, and slowly the stories start to come out.

Maria, her husband and their daughter had stayed in Nabatieh longer than most because of sick relatives, but finally fled to Beirut. By the time they left, Nabatieh was a ghost town as families and individuals risked the drive north toward Beirut, Syria and the mountains in search of safer ground. Maria said they opened up three houses in Beirut, filling them to the gills with about 60 families. Each morning she would go with her husband at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. to stand in line for bread and other food supplies, then return to cook and take care of everyone.

Her home in Ansar, just outside of Nabatieh, sustained minimal damage, glass blown out by the blast from rockets on a nearby hillside. Only the fully closed windows shattered from the pressure of the explosion, namely the sliding doors in her daughter’s room (which makes me think if I was her, I would probably never close another window all the way the rest of my life. . . )

In the afternoon I found myself chatting in the hallway with Maysa. Quiet and sweet with a very strong work eithic, she is the administrative support and basically keeps the Shabab Center (and all of us) organized. French-educated and giggling with embarrassment as her brother teases her, she huddles against the wall to show me how she spent the first 15 days of the war -- fearfully planted in a corner of their room. She stayed in that corner, refusing to move, until she was finally coaxed out and into a car headed toward Beirut. Her brother Hassan, one of the theater teachers, stayed in Nabatieh for the duration of the war.

Ali Baalbaki stayed as well, volunteering with the Lebanese Red Cross. He is a psychologist by training and works with the environmental club at the Shabab Center. Speaking almost no English, though he understands it well, he has become a close friend as well as one of my best and most patient Arabic teachers, making me repeat words again and again (and again!) until I get them right.

Around 5:00 p.m. I go with Ali and his friend Ali (yes, it's like 'John') drive one of the girls from the center home. Ali points out buildings that were hit as we drive through town. I only got details about two of them.

We passed right along one home that had four young children sleeping in a bed together and their mother inside when it was hit by an Israeli rocket. Two of the children died instantly, the others are still hospitalized and the house is a mountainous pile of cement and fabrics ripped to shreds. I couldn't tell you how many stories it used to be if I had to, it has been reduced to complete rubble.

A second building, a school for the disabled hangs in tatters halfway up the hill, a huge building ripped open by a rocket. Luckily no one was inside but more than half the structure is missing and collapsed. Alone on a hillside it seems a strange target (though not as 'strange' as some like the Liban Lait factory).

According to Ali, during the war the air strikes would mostly come after dark, when it was far too dangerous to move around. There was nothing they could do but listen and wait for the light and the silence to settle across the empty town. Then they would race around in Red Cross ambulances, hoping the vehicles would keep them safe, and trying to identify where they had heard explosions during the night. Once they located the sites hit they could then try to get to those stuck under rubble before the next round of rockets began to fall.

Back at the center in Maria’s office, though she has been upstairs in meetings for hours, we all talk as people come and go. Everyone asks about whether I watched what happened from the U.S. and how it was portrayed in America. It is a difficult question to answer and I feel myself trying to explain . . . what do you say? How do I explain where the U.S. perspective comes from, about lobbying and political influence and the level of ignorance and war fatigue?

What kind of answers are these? What excuses? How do you look at people and say I’m sorry my country did nothing as you were attacked and struggling to save the lives of innocents hurt by missiles America sold to Israel? As children are injured by cluster bombs scattered through the homes and fields of farmers and gardeners? That someone decided your town and family and community are all acceptable casualties of a militarily-obsessed political strategy that is failing time and again but refuses to change?

I look at them and I hear Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora pleading for help in the first week of the war, with already more than 300 killed, 1,000 injured and half a MILLION displaced LEBANESE (not Hezbollah):
“Is the value of human life in Lebanon less than that of the citizens of other countries?” he asked. “Is this what the international community calls self defense? Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions? Is this the message to send to the country of diversity, freedom and tolerance?”

These people, who I have worked with so closely, have dedicated their lives to working to change their communities and foster dialogue. These Lebanese who spend their time working to foster creativity, provide alternatives to violence and instill a sense of global connection in the midst of this ‘Hezbollah stronghold’. I am not saying the characterization is wrong, but it is never that simple (especially in Lebanon). There are good people everywhere. And people with different beliefs and perspectives. And back when we were small and thought there were only ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and the good guys always won . . . and we were always the good guys . . .

So what do you say?

What do I say? To Amer, our theater instructor, whose brother just died on Sunday.
A doctor who stayed behind to help those wounded in the war.

He died from injuries he sustained trying to help pull a family from the rubble of another home rocketed in the midst of all this chaos.

The whole town is mourning for him, he was a kind soul people tell me, the sort of man who would treat anyone even if they could not pay. “Goodbye…to the protector of the poor” one banner hanging across the street by his family’s house reads. A large tent extends from the house, creating an area for mourners to gather and pay their respects to the family. I climb the stairs to the porch with a heavy heart, holding Maria’s hand, it is 10:00 p.m. and we have just left the center. We stopped on our way out to visit Ghadeer, a kind, vivacious girl about my age who works at the center. During the afternoon she stumbled into the office and collapsed into a chair. Taking a sip of water she began to shake, sweat and mumble incoherently. I held her head and her hand as someone checked her pulse and patted a cool tissue along her brow and down the edge of her headscarf. Looking pale and shaking with increasingly violent spasms, she was carried out and taken to the hospital. Now at her home she is curled in bed, drained and being forced to rest. Her mother offers us fresh juice and cigarettes as we apologize and say we must head to pay our respects to Amer and his family.

I feel the tears well up in my eyes as we reach the porch and I see Amer step toward the door. He has no idea I am even in Lebanon. Mohammad is there too, I hug them both and say I am sorry, struggling to express myself and immensely aware of my deficient Arabic skills. But glad that I could be there. We sit for a bit. More cigarettes and Arabic coffee and then we head on our way, home to Maria’s house for dinner.

Around 11:00 p.m. we finally climb the dark stairs to Maria’s floor, always one farther up than I think. The power is out but once we get inside her husband goes to turn on the generator and we all slip into our pajamas before sitting down to eat. Curled on the couch, talking and watching the news, I feel myself starting to fade and realize Maria’s daughter has already slipped off to bed. And I do the same.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Arriving at the Shabab Center

We had left Beirut at 11:00 a.m. after waiting for petrol (the stations open at 10). After the intense drive down from Beirut to Nabetieh, I could hardly contain myself as we pulled up to the youth center where I have spent the last six months helping create the Shabab Center.

It is 1:30 p.m. and the building was abuzz with activity.
Mercy Corps has taken over one whole section as the coordination office for their relief operations in southern Lebanon. The main entrance was crowded with families and women coming to collect food and supplies as children and staff wandered in all directions.

The center itself has quite a presence. It is a huge building of white stone, two parking lots and a basketball court out front. Built on a hill, the entire upper level houses a massive open-floor theater with stage, plus a sitting room and one large office used by
MP Yassine Jaber when he is in town as well as by the director and others for meetings. The main floor of the building has three entrances and contains a library with six computers, the director’s office, Maria’s office, half a dozen classrooms, a new computer lab and a large open room (formerly for sports and folklore classes, now filled with tables piled high with biscuits, tuna, condensed milk and the like). Boxes are everywhere.

I probably know 2/3 of the people I see and only a few people knew I was coming so I cause a bit of a stir, lots of hugging and “I’m so glad you are safe” and me explaining how I would scan the pictures in the news looking, and hoping not to see, any of them.

The good spirits and energy of the center are impressive, the relief efforts have been in full swing since the moment the ceasefire (a-hem, ‘cessation of hostilities’) kicked in and they are in the thick of it, coordinating and distributing aid as well as preparing to resume regular activities at the center this coming week.

Maria is racing from meeting to meeting as her phone rings constantly and she greets me with wide open arms “Baby! It is so good to have you back! Can you believe the center?” she says. It is crazy, so much activity, everyone is working long days and late nights, some of the distribution crews got back at 1:00 a.m. she tells me, but mostly people are happy to be back in Nabatieh.

There is so much work to be done -- here it is not a question of right or wrong or who is to blame or who won the war -- it is time to salvage what can be saved, help those in need and do what needs to be done so everyone can return to their lives. There are discussions, snippets, comments here and there, but the focus is on rebuilding, helping and easing the suffering.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Road to Nabatieh

Just when you thought the driving in Lebanon couldn’t be more chaotic and nonsensical...add in a war and you have the most unique driving patterns. Ever. Heading south from Beirut the roads are initially fully intact, albeit flanked with crisp new Hezbollah billboards brandishing images of fighters in action and rocket launchers while proclaiming “The Divine Victory” in three languages.

After driving about 15 minutes south, we passed the first rupture created by an Israeli rocket on the left, relatively small hole the size of a car with all the rubble long cleared away.

The bridges and overpasses stand with huge sections ripped from their arches one after the next after the next. Some places the roads have already been repaved, and almost the entire drive the rubble has been removed from the roads. The pavement surrounding each targeted part of the road is also pocked with potholes created from the blasts. There are also several with significant damage that have yet to collapse.

In some places the extent of the destruction made the road impassable and cars would be diverted into the oncoming stream of traffic (normally a two or three-lane road in each direction) but there are no official markers designating this to the drivers in either direction. Once we had to leave the main road entirely and make our way through town to detour around a missing section of the road, then we were back on our way.

As we approached Saida, the multi-lane overpass to the right hung in the most mangled of all the bridges along the road, a spider-web of twisted metal with concrete chunks of all sizes dangling in the air. We would drive for a while on clear, functioning roads and then suddenly hit traffic as people slowed to inch around a large crater blown into the center of the road, crawling along the edge of the remaining pavement.

I discovered I had done a decent job of following the areas I knew that were hit as I anticipated the bridges I had accurately identified through the news. The exit for Oceana, a beach we went to frequently, used to be advertised on an overpass. When I saw the rubble from the bridge I recognized the signs. The same was true, though it was a bit more shocking to see, at the exit I had always taken for Nabatieh.

Driving into the village itself -- which is a complete misnomer by the way, estimates vary significantly but the lowest puts the population of Nabatieh around 35,000, not exactly ‘village’ -- was lively chaos. Although we did arrive at noontime prayer, I have rarely, if ever, seen the streets as active and filled with shoppers and wares as they were on Monday.

I was relieved by the level of destruction in Nabatieh itself, which was less extensive than I had anticipated. The damage is certainly significant, there are entire buildings destroyed and collapsed, but they are relatively isolated structures and the vast majority of the town is functioning.

People were everywhere, traffic was heavy, Beirut may be empty and quiet because everyone is abroad or in the mountains, but the south has returned!

(More on the center and everyone in Nabatieh soon…)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Corniche Revisited

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I walked down to the Corniche for the first time since I got back late Friday afternoon. Like so many things it was in many ways as I remember it, but with subtle shifts that mark changes far more significant than their initial appearance.

It was the usual crowd of people, children on bikes, chasing each other around in circles, cruising around on rollerblades or futilely attempting to consume an ice cream cone faster than it drips. All while parents watch on, seated in folding chairs or leaning on the rail, talking, smoking hubbly bubbly or eating figs (now in season and the best thing about Lebanon in August, or so I have been told). The families are matched in numbers by small groups of girls walking together and even larger numbers of boys lounging against the railings watching the day go by.

There are a few fishermen scattered along the rocks and even fewer, but definitely present, number of men swimming in the water. Brave souls. Or crazy. The beautiful rocks on which they are all perched are only the white stone I remember above the waterline, the rest has been darkened to a grimy black by the oil slick that has now affected at least 105 miles of the coast and is spreading out into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Beirut coast is not as bad as some parts of the coastline, and much of the slick has dispersed but the damage is done and getting worse by the day.

Somewhere around 15,000 tons of oil were dumped into the sea when Israel made the horrific decision to bomb a power station in a three-day attack.

This is almost the same magnitude of the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska, which was 40,000 tons, but this situation is worse in many ways because the initial strike was July 13-15 and the oil has been spreading, sinking and contaminating continuously since then.

The immediate and long-term impact on marine life and the full extent of the slick will take time to assess, and billions to clean, not to mention the impact on the greatly anticipated and now evaporated summer tourist season.

The cleanup alone is expected to take more than a year, cost more than $64 million and so far Israel has refused to authorize helicopters to perform an aerial assessment of the spread of the slick (though I hear this may happen in the next few days).

As I walked around a bend in the Corniche and approached the Riviera I looked up to see the lighthouse, which had been struck by the Israelis in another attack. About half of the top section containing the beacon is gone but the rest of the structure is entirely intact and the café down below was filled with people.

I stared captivated as always by the rhythmic movement of the water along the rocks, discarded bottles strewn across the surface, clear waves and pools of water shimmering the rainbow colors of oil. Next to me two guys puffed away on a hubbly bubbly and watched the girls passing by as two kids racing on tricycles careened around the pedestrians.

Is it really so different? Is it really so much the same?

You can’t wallow in it, you can’t act like it didn’t happen…how do you live with it, through it, after it, beyond it.

I cannot tell. I cannot tell. I do not know how to feel or what to believe or what will come next. I guess no one does. It feels as though I have been gone for years. So much has changed, people have come and others have moved away, businesses opened and closed, buildings have been destroyed and the population has shifted.

AUB (American University of Beirut) is re-opening tomorrow and I spoke with someone from there on Friday who said they have no idea if either the students or the professors will show up. It is a complete unknown. With the airport taking steps toward re-opening, despite the sea and air blockades still in place, the question is will more people be coming back to Lebanon? Or leaving?