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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

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?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Airport Conversations

One of the women on my flight to Beirut struck up a conversation with me while we waited in Amman airport for the delayed flight to depart. She had fled to the Gulf to stay with her sister once rockets started falling in her village.

After she left her house had been hit by a rocket and destroyed. She knows because she recognized it when she saw what was left of it on the news.

She offered me chocolate until I took some and told me she would stay with her sister when she arrived. She was all smiles, her weariness showing as she lifted her legs up onto a chair with a sigh, but mostly vibrant and fueled by what I presume to be the relief and happiness of returning to Lebanon.

Another man sitting with us said what everyone keeps saying -- the Lebanese are used to this and are accustomed to rebuilding, they have done it before and they will do it again. This is just the Lebanese spirit. The Lebanese way.

Can you imagine, losing everything you have? Your home destroyed in an instant?

Picture it for a moment. Try. Stop reading this and think. Of your home. In rubble. Pictures scattering in the wind. Broken dishes. Torn clothes and shoes tossed in all directions. All you have is what you took when you left this morning...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

First Impressions. Back in Beirut.

Flying back into Lebanon was surreal. After an unexplained four-hour delay due to ‘technical problems’ in Jordan (argued by some that clearance from the Israeli army would be the best ‘technical’ explanation) we finally departed Amman and flew into Beirut around 1:45 am.

Coming in to the airport, on a plane filled with the usual crowd of people, young men, women in hijabs gorgeous young women in jeans and tight shirts, businessmen and assorted foreigners everyone tried to act normal. As we landed the first round of applause erupted, some were hesitant, as though the approval was preemptive as we had not stopped or made it to the gate yet. A second round of applause erupted as we slowed and reached the terminal.

As we taxied in the darkness to the gate, we followed a little car with lights on the top, looking out the window there were bulldozers hovering over what I could only presume to be holes made by incoming rocket attacks, and of course the emptiness of an airport without a single other plane in sight, either moving or resting at terminals. Not one plane.

Inside it felt like business as usual with customs agents and baggage claim, glowing with advertisements for beach resorts and luxury apartments. As I collected my bags and headed into Beirut, I first noticed the large overpass we circled on our way in to the city and I couldn’t help but think “I thought all the bridges and overpasses were destroyed?” Coming into Beirut felt strangely normal, it was the middle of the night and I saw nothing out of the ordinary, except two things. There were two billboards along the road with images of rocket launchers and Hezbollah flags that said “The Divine Victory” in English, and once I got to my apartment I stepped out onto the balcony, and heard almost nothing. I have never heard the city so quiet in all my time here. Ever.

Walking around the city on my first day, the cafes and restaurants are open, the stores have full shelves and the petrol prices have already dropped dramatically from what I have been told. The intense sun beats down with unrelenting heat and humidity that makes my clothes cling to me after only a block. I cannot imagine what these conditions are like for the aid workers digging through piles of rubble that have been lying for weeks as they search for bodies. Or for hundreds of thousands of other homeless Lebanese as they return to their towns to sift through those same piles for any semblance of their former lives. Or for the mine awareness workers who are painfully inching along trying to identify, mark and remove or detonate unexploded ordinance (UXO) strewn across Lebanon...but for now that is not what I see....all I see are the streets of Beirut. As others come out of the shock and the chaos of war, I step in, and I feel out of place. In over my head? Definitely unsure what I think I have to offer these people who have been through so much...all I can offer is my help, my hands my spirit and my dedication.

It is estimated that around 14% of the munitions dropped by the Israelis did not explode on impact, this means there are more than 10,000 UXO scattered across the country, and some of those were cluster bombs (for those of you lucky enough to NOT know what cluster bombs are, yes, your imagination is probably correct, it is a container that releases dozens or hundreds of little bombs about the size of a “D” battery, scattering them across fields, lawns, gardens, etc).

So the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who just returned to their homes, could stumble onto any one of these anywhere. Any time. As could anyone else. Some Israeli soldiers were killed by a landmine this week too. Some say it was planted by Hezbollah but other reports say it was probably one of their own munitions. Probably no way to know for sure. And would it really matter? Just in case anyone needed further convincing that war and bombs are terrible, but the human cost and aftermath is even worse.

Politicians and pundits keep talking about who “won” this war. Such conflicts are always discussed in these terms. Why? As though there must always be two parties. A winner and a loser. There is no winner. Only losers. And the greatest loser is Lebanon and the Lebanese people, followed by the U.S., then by Israel and lastly Hezbollah. But everyone lost.

The pain and suffering inflicted on the Lebanese people and this beautiful nation is unconceivable. This destruction of land, spirit, people, resources, economies and families is of an unacceptable scale (I hope and wish that everyone can see this through the political arguments and stances, this is not about policy, it is about people and remembering what makes us all human).

This is why the U.S. lost. America. A country that said it wanted to ‘promote democracy’ in the region and support emerging democratic movements. America who touted the nonviolent “Cedar Revolution” held in Lebanon just last year to finally drive out the Syrian troops from the country. America, instead of supporting a fledgling government struggling for legitimacy and sovereignty over its own land. As Lebanon searched for its identity and began to face challenges it found the world and the U.S. have short attention spans and little tolerance for creative democracy.

Lebanon has such potential to evolve into a unique model for the region and the world. But as the Lebanese have struggled to find their identity and emerge as a sovereign nation, they were abandoned when they were in the most need of support. New democracies do not create stability, they create chaos that must be worked through. Now the U.S. government wants to support the Lebanese government? Now they want to give the Lebanese Army support and training? Now they want to help the country rebuild? Where was this support when it was first needed? WHY did no one see the impact this sort of support could have had on helping stabilize the country long before we arrived at the place we are at today? Why did Israel really think they could come in and ‘root out Hezbollah’? I could have told you six months ago that was impossible, that it is a part of the social structure and cannot be separated from the people. That they are everywhere and nowhere at the same time and will disappear into the countryside and the population without a trace.

What was anyone expecting to accomplish? What has been achieved? Losses and more losses. And yes, Hezbollah has lost too, for all their PR campaigns and all the cash in the world cannot replace the lives and livelihoods they destroyed. Many of their own. Many more of innocent and disapproving Lebanese who had no love for the group before and even less now. Even among their supporters, Hezbollah may be able to hand over large sums of money (in U.S. dollars, which is amusing) but that does not replace the photographs, the student artwork on the refrigerator, the blanket that grandma made and every cozy home that was painstakingly built with bare hands. All of which were destroyed in an instant. They cannot stack those bills high enough to hide the mass graves that people will wake to for years to come, or the beaches blackened by oil that is oozing into the earth and the sea, or the summer of optimism and tourism that had Lebanon more vibrant and alive with hope than ever before. Not all the money in the world can erase that. In addition, they may have deep pockets, but not bottomless. There are some people now being told they may have to wait up to four months for their payments. I think this is interesting and presents a very real window of opportunity for the Lebanese government and the international community to get into gear and provide support and aid on the scale they should have been giving long ago. There is hope here. There is potential. The Lebanese streamed back into the south on the day of the ceasefire with astounding ardor and dedication. This enthusiasm and perseverance is the same energy with which they tackle all challenges, including the last reconstruction and this one and every little bump in between. Whether it is good or bad or right or wrong is a discussion for another day, but the bottom line is the Lebanese have suffered, they continue to suffer, and they continue to live and love life and believe.

In a country smaller than Connecticut, in a land more diverse than most, with mountains and beaches, wineries and mosques, churches, car bombs, over-the-counter birth control, fashion shows and armed militias...Lebanon cannot and will not be defined by just one group. Or by anyone else.

And that, is all that one unemployed American girl in Lebanon can say. For today.