Thursday, August 03, 2006

Biq‘a Diary 1

the road is cluttered with vehicles whose drivers are acutely aware that the israeli air force has been taking pot shots at random vehicles. and they've taken various measures to prevent being vaporised.

some, like your car, have taken the high road to neutrality, taping “TV” in the trunk, hood and roof. one sample was particularly impressive – a gleaming black suv, taped with duct-tape-width bands of hot pink.

your own variation on the theme is more working-class. the international delegation you’re travelling with – a dutch hack, a scottish hack and a south sudanese theology student – are packed into a sort of ageing bmw, belonging to the class “BMDahiyyeh”. the “TV” has been rendered with narrow lines of black electricians tape.

it’s the morning of 1 august, 19 days into israel’s assault on lebanon, the second day of the israelis’ self-styled cessation of air attacks. the hacks have been shut up in beirut for too long and all hands are nervous about travelling into the bloody chaos of south lebanon. the destination, then, is the biq‘a.

some drivers have no interest in masquerading as press. another approach to avoiding a fiery death, particularly popular among truckers, is to simply concede defeat by flying a white flag. there are other flags as well. germany remains popular, a residue of the mondiale perhaps. a lebanese flag or two can be seen.

“someone should fly an american flag,” someone laughs, “that’d make them think twice.”

“yeah, then you might have to worry about hizbullah though.”

the signage that is clearly most popular on the road, however – and the one likely to be most effective in deterring an israeli attack – is “NESTLE”. the word is ubiquitous on the highway, amusingly so since it isn’t necessarily stencilled on the side of the truck in question. sometimes it’s simply a flatbed truck, a cloth sign draped over its iron railings.

“the us may give israel the green light to kill shia,” laughs the theology student. “but there’s no way they’ll fuck with nestle. that shit’s a multinational corporation, man. you fuck with them, they’ll shut you down like that.”


the square adjacent the palmyra hotel was being renovated when the israeli air force struck on 13 july. the charcoal-grey paving stones are scattered where they were left when the labourers stopped work, like islands in an estuary.

the ruins of ancient heliopolis form a vista before the hotel entrance. entering the hotel, you find a lone man who’d prefer not to speak. he suggests you speak to the mukhtar [a district mayor]. “the mukhtar?” says another man. “he left.”

in a few hours time, 200 israeli commandoes will helicopter in, make a sweep through a hizbullah-associated hospital and make off with five men, leaving between 10 and 20 people dead.

israel will say the dead and detained are militants, that the raid demonstrated how they can strike anywhere they want in lebanon. hizbullah will say the israelis were lured to ba‘lbak by leaked information that a politburo member was in town and that the dead and detained are civilians.

“a hizbullah stronghold,” ba‘lbak is a mixture of shia and sunni muslims and christians, thus reflecting the population of the biq‘a generally.

it isn’t exactly bustling the day of the raid. it’s not abandoned either. a pair of young internal security forces men in grey camouflage chat beneath a pink beach umbrella. soon after entering town, an older gentleman asks if you need a room for the night.

“you should get permission from hizbullah if you want to look at the bombsites,” he cautions. indeed, within a few minutes a polite, bearded man in sandals asks how he can help you.

a walkie-talkie appears and you’re led to another fellow who quickly takes down your group’s details – more or less as if you were buying a visa at the border. the second man apologises, but there’s a war on and the party has to take precautions.

an ancient mercedes appears – the sort beirut taxi drivers use to ply their trade – and you’re told to follow in your car. a guide sardines himself into the back seat, alongside two rangy hacks.

when you try to follow mercedes man, though, the isf men charge from beneath their umbrella, brows furrowed.

“monsieur! monsieur! aks al-sayr [you’re driving against traffic]!” one says. after a few minutes mercedes man, who drove past the isf unaccosted, backs up to explain.

“aks al-sayr!” the policeman repeats without a trace of irony – in beirut the police don’t necessarily enforce, or obey, the rules of the road. mercedes man sighs, then, and asks you to follow him into town by a different route.

long passed, it seems, are the days when men claiming hizbullah membership would kidnap foreign journalists. true, since this conflict erupted there’s been at least one reported incident of hizbullah detaining foreign hacks for questioning.

the incident seems to have been provoked by the aggressive questioning of some displaced people in sanayeh garden. ‘being hizbullah supporters,’ a journalist apparently said, ‘you people are the logical target of israeli attacks, no?’ the refugees accused the journalists of being spies and everything deteriorated from there. the detention lasted a few hours.

the party has been a media-savvy organisation for some years now, though it’s far from transparent. one of the reasons it’s so effective militarily is that information is so tightly controlled. such discipline makes an informant’s work very difficult. it also greatly irritates lebanon’s political class – whose foibles are public knowledge and for whom power sometimes lies more in posture than execution.

peacetime tours of hizbullah facilities are, by definition, one-sided affairs. representatives happily show the press their social welfare institutions and allow them to speak with party activists. there is virtually no free-range investigation, though, let alone nosing around military and administrative centers.

“yes, it’s no problem touring the bombsites,” walkie-talkie man says. “operation centers, though, are off limits.”

you know this isn’t the whole picture, but the hizbullah version of the destruction offers a basic narrative that can be interrogated more reliably than the bizarre fictions offered by israel.

on the evening of the most-recent qana massacre, for example, israel’s un ambassador pontificated that, “in israel, houses have bomb shelters to protect people from khizbullah rockets. in lebanon, people die because khizbullah hides rockets in their houses.”

your guide directs you through ba‘lbak’s winding streets to what looks like a ruined apartment block. there’s very little to see, in fact, but shattered breezeblock and concrete, the odd nido [powdered milk] tin, machinery wrecked to anonymity.

“this was a school,” he points to one gap. “this was the tawwaniyyeh [co-op],” he points to a second rubble pile. he says planes destroyed them on successive days in the first week of attacks. “there were no casualties. we evacuated in time.”

walking atop the rubble, the scale of the damage defeats your camera, so you fall to peering into the blasted sitting room of an adjacent flat. from the wall of another exposed room, a portrait of the imam ali stares out over the axel of an upended lorry.

some wary-looking women and children have emerged on the ruined street to inspect the damage across the road.

“we should hurry,” the guide says after a few minutes. “israeli planes are overhead.”

you count at least five ruined gas stations in town. further on is a water-filled hole in the road – a former garage apparently. across the street is another collapsed apartment block.

a blown-out wall reveals a wardrobe overstuffed with clothes – the way wardrobes can get when you can’t bear to throw things away. facing it is shelf, stuffed with plush toys.

from behind his camera someone – acutely aware of the low voyeurism of this – makes a grim joke about how a set designer couldn’t construct such an effective shot.

you drive on, pausing at an intersection long enough for your guide to point out where an islamic benevolent society used to be.

you are directed to another, rather larger, gap in the urban fabric and a more gregarious man materializes. this was a residential area before it was struck by a series of bombs and missiles, he says.

at the back of one building, the walls and floor of an upper-floor flat have collapsed, leaving a child’s coat hanging on a coat peg. more voyeurism.

a sign atop one partially gutted building reads “centre mustafa balouq”. balouq, gregarious man says, is “a businessman who set up a benevolent society. there was a business centre. a place to take out small loans. a charity.”

“over there,” he points across the street. “that’s a husseiniyyeh [shia cultural centre-mosque complex]. the people around it are terrified it’s the next target.”

your guides tell you some 135 people have been killed in the biq‘a since this conflict began. unlike the devastated south, there’s no shortage of food and water yet but there hasn’t been any electricity in the villages in two days. at every site the refrain is the same. “there are only civilians here.”

“we aren’t fighters,” says gregarious man. “all the fighters are in the south. we’re just here to make sure there’s no looting.”

afterwards all hands are struck by how relaxed and polite the hizbullah men are – encounters in dahiyyeh can be more abrupt.

in beirut several hours later, you hear israeli commandos are raiding ba‘lbak. you wonder whether any of your hosts are now dead or detained.

Jim Quilty, Beirut


Blogger Indigo said...

in a few hours time, 200 israeli commandoes will helicopter in, make a sweep through a hizbullah-associated hospital and make off with five men, leaving between 10 and 20 people dead. ... afterwards all hands are struck by how relaxed and polite the hizbullah men are ... you hear israeli commandos are raiding ba‘lbak. you wonder whether any of your hosts are now dead or detained.

I heard that an entire family was killed in the hospital.

So which of your party was spying for the Israelis - yourself, Jim?

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you people would get a lot further by stating truthful comments. Hizbollah started this war by attacking Israel’s civilians. Hizbollah fires rockets at Israeli citizens while hiding behind Lebanese citizens, using them as shields. Hizbollah is responsible for all the deaths on both sides. Israel has every right to defend itself like any other country. Israel has over 1 million people forced from their homes (refuges as you call them). You should be saving the world from Hizbollah.

(by the way, Hizbollah is firing rockets from hospitals)

No matter how you feel about it, the truth is:
* If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence.
* If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel.

6:13 PM  
Anonymous saveaworld said...

Here is a tale of a Lebanese woman (video) goto http:

9:14 PM  
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9:50 PM  

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