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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

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.

2 Comments:

  • Glad you made it in safe. Flying in sounds pretty surreal...how many flights in/out of the city are there a day/week anyway? Try to avoid things that explode

    By Anonymous andris, at 5:25 AM  

  • Great post! Stay safe! :-)

    By Anonymous John L, at 5:46 PM  

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