Monday, August 07, 2006

Biq‘a diary, 2

“that’s it. stop here.”

the BMDahiyyeh grinds to a halt. its contents – a theology student from juba and a trio of hacks (dutch, canadian and scots) – look up from their conversation. so do the pair of lebanese army soldiers standing on the side of the road. the theology student reverses the few dozen metres that would put you within walking distance of the ruined carapace that used to be Liban Lait.

you’d never been here before, but you immediately recognise “Candia”, lebanon’s most popular brand of uht milik – the tetrapack stuff that, by some ghoulish cunning that you prefer not to contemplate, has been processed so that it never seems to spoil.

as soon as you climb out of the car, the soldiers ask what you want. you reach for your passports and explain that you’re journalists from beirut, in the biq‘a to look at the bomb sites. you’ll have to get permission from their co, they explain.

“it’s not that we don’t want you to look …” one apologises.

the army is based in a large if nondescript-looking building next door to liban lait. the CO, dressed in fatigues and olive drab tee shirt strides across the parking lot to greet you, smiling broadly. the scot explains why you’re nosing around and the CO bursts into a chorus of “ahalan wa sahalan” [“you are welcome”].

on your way back to liban lait, it occurs to you how odd it is that, with the country at war, a milk factory gets taken out of commission while the army headquarters next door remains untouched.

it’s one of the eccentricities of this country that the lebanese army isn’t really a fighting institution but a political one – one of the few in the country where lebanese mix at a inter-sectarian level.

the army was more or less neutral during the ‘58 troubles, for instance, and sat out most of the 1975-1990 civil war. when it did get involved, in the wake of the israel invasion of 1982, it splintered into sectarian kindling.

the army rarely even really gets involved in repressing civil unrest – if you put aside the odd bit of unfortunate bloodshed, like in the southern suburb of hayy al-silloum a couple of years ago. that job falls to the troops in the internal security forces.

this isn’t the army’s war but hizbullah’s. that’s not to say the army hasn’t been taken some losses in this conflict.

the israelis have killed over a dozen soldiers, often in their barracks. it’s assumed, without hard evidence, that the army positions are hit because they were coordinating with the resistance.

on the other hand, given the patina of psychological warfare that’s tinged so much of this offensive, it may be that israel targeted the army to alienate the army leadership and rank-and-file from hizbullah – which, according to the israeli state’s narrative of this conflict, is responsible for lebanon’s present suffering.

then again, the air attacks have been so indiscriminate outside of beirut that the israeli air force can hardly be expected to care if it takes out a few soldiers as well.

a moustachioed liban lait employee peers out from a guardhouse-like structure to tell the scot that the plant manager will be waiting for you at the factory. he isn’t, but the skeleton crew manning a second security gate eventually let you through anyway.

the most high-profile plant to be bombed in the biq‘a, liban lait’s products can be found in kitchens all over the country. a local concern, it employed 400 people, once you included those involved in distribution.

the place is still burning here and there when you arrive. a couple of you pick your way through a breached wall and stick your nose into the production area. a mass of twisted metal, melted plastic-and-cardboard packaging and ash greets you. the site is thick with flies, feeding off milk spoiled in the intense heat.

a matter-of-fact crater has been sunk deep into the ground where the factory floor used to be. when you lose patience with trying to capture the scale of the hole, you wander through the rubble to examine the back of the factory.

unlike the production floor, the warehouse hasn’t been bombed and you stand there in the midst of an odd incongruity. it’s not unlike standing on your terrace in beirut – so far exempted from israell’s air war on lebanon’s civilians – looking on as the dahiyyeh is systematically destroyed.

reminded of beirut, you recall that the tawwaniyyeh in sabra [the co-op grocery store closest your flat] has been sold out of candia uht milk since the first week of the attacks. it only sells powdered milk now.

you walk outside and the others join you.

“there’s scads of milk here. should we take some with us?”

“that’s war profiteering,” the netherlander says immediately.

“i’m not going to profit from it,” you reply. “i’m going to put it in my coffee.”

“yeah,” says the scot. “go on, then.”

“i wouldn’t,” rejoins the theology student. “there’s cameras all over the place.”

the theological argument wins the day and you leave liban lait, sans lait, to search out Maliban.


Maliban glass factory has been something of a rarity in lebanon. in an economy where the tertiary-sector rules, maliban was an industrial success story - both in the biq‘a and the region.

the region's second-biggest glassworks, it shipped glass products around the region, with customers in egypt, jordan, syria and turkey. servicing a-list companies like coca-cola, the factory worked 24 hours a day, it had so many orders. production, you’re told, came to some 200 tons a day.

“i came back here to work 41 years ago," says Salah Barake, surveying the ruin before him. “they destroyed it in two minutes. millions of dollars wasted." Barake is, or rather was the glassworks’ floor manager.

maliban was one of five biq‘a factories destroyed in the israeli onslaught. the attacks have been at their most ferocious in shia regions, and the biq‘a, with its mixed shia-sunni-christian population hasn't been spared.

it's obvious from a distance that maliban was bombed, but it is only from within that it's possible to see how exacting the attack was. Barake leads you up two flights of stairs to the roof of maliban's offices, where it's possible to gaze down upon the ruined factory floor.

from this vantage, it's impossible to discern what this space was used for. all that's visible is churned-up soil with twisted metal, powdered glass and wrecked machinery. it is possible to discern the cause of the disruption, though: four or five distinct craters have been gouged out of the floor. Barake reckons there may have been as many as six bombs altogether.

"the planes came around 12.45, so most people were at lunch, fortunately. two people were killed, indians, and two injured. if they had come an hour earlier or later it would have been a massacre. you see," he points to the far side of the factory floor, "they even destroyed the workers' residence.

"i don't understand why they bombed this place," he says quietly. "we don't look to anyone. we have christian employees and muslim, sunni and shia. all we did was do good work."

israel claims to be destroying hizbullah infrastructure with its air attacks, but the targeting of lebanese industry betrays a more cynical reasoning: since hizbullah fighters are difficult to find, the israeli military is systematically punishing the shia community, much of which provides hizbullah's constituency. maliban was destroyed because it employed shia.

Barake turns away from the chaos and his eyes fall upon a 15-meter-long steel beam, now resting at his feet. "this piece of metal came from below – "he gestures to the factory floor. "how many tons of explosive did it take to blow this up here?"

maliban was founded by anglo-indian investor Manubhai Madhvani, whose family made its fortune in uganda. the factory employed between 380 and 400 workers – though Barake points out that the knock-on impact of maliban was much greater. "when you include casual labour, drivers, those who provided sand for production ... many more people benefited from this company."

another big-ticket victim of the israeli attack was Dalal industries, a multi-faceted factory whose products include prefabricated homes and which directly employed 400 workers. one of dalal’s biggest customers, amusingly enough, is the american military in iraq and afghanistan.

the impact of this war upon biq‘a's working class has been devastating. one estimate has it that 1,500 biq‘a residents have lost their source of livelihood.

Barake has led you down from the roof to the factory floor.

it's impossible to penetrate far past the wreckage. "you laugh and cry after this," he says. "you laugh because you're alive. you cry because everything is finished."

he reckons the impact of the war goes far beyond industry.

"the people who work in the fields here are in terrible shape," he says. "with the roads bombed, they can't get their produce to market."

the netherlander asks Barake if all this has made him angry at hizbullah.

"i'm angry at myself for being here," he laughs, "and not someplace else."


Jim Quilty