Wednesday, August 23, 2006

prison. museum. ruin.

you expect to witness destruction in Khiam. it is there in abundance. nowhere is it more poignant, though, than at the prison.

before 2000 – when the israeli army fled its 18-year-old south lebanon “security zone” – the “Khiam” of popular consciousness was less the town than its notorious detention centre.

run by the south lebanon army, then the israelis’ human sandbags in the zone, Khiam held lebanese suspected of co-operating with the resistance. sometimes that meant resisting the sla policy that gave southerners a choice of paying them extortionate fees or giving up their sons to militia service.

conditions in the prison were squalid, reports of kidnaps and torture commonplace.

in may 2000, then, Khiam was perhaps the most-hated symbol of occupation. one of the emotional highlights of the israeli-sla collapse was the “citizens’ liberation” of the prison on 23 may.

while representatives from the international committee of the red cross were searching for the sla leadership to negotiate the 144 detainees’ release, 500-odd villagers – evidently organised by hizbullah – stormed the facility and freed them. the sla had already abandoned the place.

it’s 19 august, 2006, about a week into the present ceasefire, on the road from Nabatiyyeh to Khiam. traffic is surprisingly sparse, perhaps because of the israeli commando raid near Ba‘lbak the night before.

the sheer volume of destruction visited upon south lebanon in this war is mind-numbing. it’s accentuated by the fact that so much ruin is concentrated in such dense pockets: those villages israel singled out for punishment, and the flashpoints of resistance, are embedded within some of lebanon’s most beautiful and unspoilt country.

several motifs mark the passage. charred petrol stations, burnt fields – presumably the scuffmarks of launched katyushas – improvised roads carved through farmland – so merkavas could avoid roadside bombs – the mangled concrete of apartment blocks and ruined houses, schools and social welfare agencies.

numbness is punctuated by the unexpected appearance of unexploded israeli ordinance – their flanks often projecting from roads they were meant to cut – and dead farm animals, their owners unable to dispose of the corpses.

there is no sign of the israeli equipment hizbullah destroyed. one side or the other has removed it from the field.

Khiam itself is a mess. clumps of collapsed concrete and twisted rebar greet you around every corner. some rubble is adorned with the reminder “made in the usa” – not the brand-style banners draped over former buildings in dahiyyeh, but graffiti quickly dashed off with spray paint.

preliminary clean-up has begun. a bulldozer edges its way through a downed block of flats. shabab with push brooms and surgical masks clean the streets.

in front of one wrecked house, bags of portland cement are stacked hopefully – though they may antedate this war. a grim-faced ogero employee materialises in a sparkling white truck to inspect the public phones.

your party walks up the last kilometre or so to the prison.

over the six years following israel’s withdrawal, hizbullah transformed the facility into a museum, devoted to the cruelty of occupation and the resiliency of the detained.

plaques were erected to describe the routine function of each ward. here were the men’s cells, there the women’s. here was the exercise square. there inmates were “interrogated”. former detainees volunteered to describe their horrid experiences to visitors.

the site was gradually commodified. the prison courtyard was remade as an open-air museum of abandoned sla materiel – troop carriers, jeep, ancient howitzer. a canteen with pool tables sold soft drinks. a shop sold hizbullah memorabilia – tee shirts and flags, key chains and cassette tapes.

historians and museum curators might deride hizbullah’s hitching the Khiam facility, and human suffering it embodied, to the wagon of political rhetoric and public relations. it might be argued, though, that the israel’s leadership have contributed a volume or two to the book of bending history to a politics.

approaching the museum this day, it appears it has been miraculously spared annihilation.

though all the windows are smashed and the roof’s red tiles are scattered like playing cards, it’s still possible, you nod, to recognise the pool tables as “pool tables”. though the door to the drinks cooler swings ajar, there are still some drinks inside.

you glance, then, through the prison entrance and see the sky.

the men’s and women’s barracks immediately behind the canteen are merely shredded by shrapnel. the matériel still squat like iguanas in the sun.

the rest of the complex is powdered concrete. one colleague, who among you has returned to the museum most recently, reckons as much as 80 percent of the complex has been flattened. fragments of walls, concrete held erect by stubborn rebar, point mute to the sky.

you return to the car vaguely aware that you should be formulating some thoughts about how identity is an expression and improvisation upon memory, that the erasure of history, of memory is –

but you're empty of thought. just then, the man whose home is being bulldozed smiles a greeting.

“khalas! it doesn’t matter.” he laughs, gesturing nervously to the smashed concrete. “in another 20 years i’ll be dead anyway.”

Jim Quilty


Anonymous Anonymous said...

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

11:30 PM  
Blogger Sarmad said...

I visited the Khiyam prison facility in Sept. 2000, barely a few months after the liberation of the South. I was then a tourist returning to Lebanon after many years of absence.

When I visited it was not yet established as a tourist attraction. I and a few friends entered for free and were shown around by someone who appeared to be from the municipality. We saw the list of the prisoners who had died posted up, the torture rooms, the "sun room" where prisoners were allowed to see the sun for 10 minutes every 2 days, the "suffering column" which consisted of an electricity pole where 5 prisoners died hanging up there, the women's prison, the solitary confinement, etc...

This prison is a symbol of occupation and efforts should be made to rebuild it exactly as it was for the world to continue to see how the Zionists and their agents behaved in Lebanon!

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