I took advantage of the promised 48-hour lull in airstrikes yesterday, and drove to the south with two middle-aged journalists-- a Swede and a Californian, both conflict addicts who would ordinarily be in Iraq. It took us six hours to get from Beirut to Qana [roughly 70 km], during which I was exposed to a noxious amount of vapid cyncicism, endless comparisons to Iraq and the "mooooj" (mujahadin), as well as periodic offers of hand sanitizer. Like many war correspondents, fresh off the boat from Iraq or Afghanistan, the Swede and the Californian were well equipped to brave the lush greenery of southern Lebanon in sand-colored multi-pocketed vests and matching combat trousers. "Dude, that was probably an old people's home", the Californian exclaimed as we drove by one of many flattened buildings, to which the Swede responded, "Well you know they are the chosen people." And so on and so forth.
Since Google Earth hasn't updated its satellite maps of Lebanon, nobody quite knows which roads are open. We drove around in circles a lot, trying our luck on the highway, until a collapsed bridge appeared on the horizon, drove through the Chouf mountains, dirt roads, banana groves and abandoned villages. There were heavy traffic jams on every road with people packed into cars-- some in brand new Mercedes, others in battered, windowless wrecks-- and vans trying to flee the south, UN aid convoys, as well as local traffic since anyone not fleeing was frantically running errands. I saw at least 50 or 60 bombed-out cabs, cars, vans, and ambulances on every route we took, even on the trek through the dense banana groves.
Half the country smells like raw sewage, the other half like burnt fuel from the Jiyyeh power plant that is still ablaze and leaking oil into the sea.
The village of Deir Qamoun an Nahar to the east of Tyre (Sour) was almost entirely flattened and abandoned. Rows of houses and shops completely leveled to the ground, crater holes in the middle of the road that leads through the village, and hordes of goats roaming around. We drove through a series of bombed out ghost towns, populated by nothing but mangled dogs, screaming cats, donkeys and cows. We occasionally saw people wearily emerge from their homes, so not everyone can or has evacuated. They were exceptionally kind and helpful, offered us chewing gum and directions. Makeshift hand-written signs posted everywhere say "To Beirut" or "To Tyre".
The international press was still in Qana when we arrived. Here 60 individuals were killed when a missile hit an apartment building over the weekend. Again, the house was completely flattened; the debris stood 20-foot high, and 1 or 2 surviving family members told their story. The two journalists-- Swede and Californian-- opted to interview the weary young man whose cousins (age 6 months to 10 years) were killed. He had told his story to at least a dozen television cameras in our presence. "Did you really dig through the rubble with your hands?", the Swede asked, shoving his video camera into the man's face.
Amidst the concrete remains of the houses were shoes, baby photos, sheets, teddybears, lingerie, handbags, yoghurt cups, operating manuals for refrigerators and DVD players, and mounds of math and French homework. One essay which was neatly transcribed into a school notebook tackled the issue if women and men are capable of performing the same jobs. The child-- maybe her or she was ten, judging from the handwriting-- argued, yes (in French), and gave examples from her own family; how strong her mother is, how they all take care of the animals and land, how things were different in grandma and grandpa's day.
A friend who works for the BBC arrived on the scene the morning after it happened, and detailed how they pulled one child after another, after another, their mouths frozen wide open, caked with mud, from the rubble. Since the bodies had been removed, all that was left was an egregious violation of intimacy; personal belongings exposed, the details of someone's private life rained down in a neat radius around where their home once stood, for all to see and poke around in, for foreign journalists to step on and photograph.
Waiting for the Swede and Californian to finish probing the survivors, I went and petted the cow in the field across from the ruin. Her utter was bursting at the seams; she seemed in great discomfort.
We left Qana, because the Israeli air strikes (during the promised cessation) resumed nearby, and were coming closer and closer. We stopped outside a pharmacy on the way out of town. The pharmacist was hurling boxes of medicine and sanitary items into his car, in a rush to deliver them to nearby villages. Swede and Californian sidled out and requested an interview. The pharmacist, a young well-groomed man sporting stylish flipflops, said he was in a rush; they took their time setting up their recording devices. "What is your name?" "Hussein." "Are you a pharmacist? "Yes, I am a pharmacist, but I am also a painter". "Were you here for the, you know, bombing?" "Yes, for about 6 or 7 days". [They meant the massacre that caught the attention of the world, not the continuous shelling and bombardment of the past 20 days.] "Were the Hezbollah here?", the Swede asked, while the Californian obediently scribbled notes: Hussein- circa 35- pharamicist...
"I dont know if the Hezbollah were here. I'm an artist. Not compatible with that, is it?" the pharmacist politely responded, pulling down the shutters on the storefront, and starting the engine of the car. "Look, I really have to go now."
The trip back from Tyre (Sour) to Beirut only took two hours. My friend H. who is working as a fixer and driver for the Swede, argued with the Californian that he was going to try to take the coastal highway. "But there is no coastal highway, dammit. Drive into the mountains!", the Californian commanded. H. didn't respond, and headed for the coast, while the Californian smacked his lips in disapproval in the backseat. We barreled through villages between Tyre and Saida, and crossed over onto an in tact stretch of the highway between Saida and Beirut. Soon enough, we approached our obstacle: a crater from two 2-ton bombs that had taken out all 8 lanes of the highway, sending it crashing into the sea below. "See, see what I told you?", the Californian haughtily exclaimed. H. didn't respond. We were now in bumper-to-bumper traffic, edging towards this abyss. Everyone was getting out of their cars and walking towards the crater. And there, I saw that the Israeli bombs had indeed destroyed the entire highway, save a 4-foot strip, along the ridge by the sea.
Someone had placed scraps of metal across that crumbling segment, and cars in both directions were crossing, one at a time, under the guidance of a dozen men, shouting and waving them on. All the passengers in the cars got out and crossed on foot, while the drivers alone braved the treacherous stretch. The elderly were propped up or carried to the other side, and a victorious mood prevailed, having defied the IAF-inflicted inconvenience. Soon we were barrelling down the highway again, and made it to Beirut in no time.