I met Mohamed at the Rest House in Tyre. A group of BBC reporters were sitting around a plastic table, set on the lawn facing the beach. Mohamed sat silently among them, a paper plate of assorted fried foods in front of him. On better days, the Rest House in Tyre is an all-year resort and restaurant, popular with UNIFIL staff and Beiruti weekenders. It now serves as a hub for displaced persons seeking evacuation to the north, and as headquarters for much of the international press.
The BBC crew looked like they were on the set of Baywatch; deep tans and red flack jackets. Mohamed, who I took to be a 12-year old, was wearing blood-stained clothes and a bandage that resembled a yamuka on the back of his head. He is 22, from Sudan, with a slight build and unremarkable pleasant features. Physically reserved as if he's consciously trying to take up as little space as possible, he wears an attentive, playful expression when spoken to and keeps his answers short and cordial, in very proper English.
Mohamed had been in Lebanon illegally for two months, working for a family that owns a restaurant in Bint Jbeil (4km from the Israeli border). When the Israeli bombardment began, the family sent the women and children north to Beirut. Mohamed stayed behind with the men of the house. On July 18th, Day 6 of the war, a missile hit the house. Everyone was killed; Mohamed survived with a head injury. For 13 days he hid alone in the basement with no news, while the Israeli army tried to take the city and fighting raged. He had food and water, and he bandaged his head with some tape and tissues. "Everyone was dead, no one was alive", he says, his smile excessive. In general, he fields my quieries with patient bemusement, as if I am slightly daft but well-intentioned.
The morning after the Israelis announced a 48-hour cessation of air raids, rescue workers came to remove the bodies of the family from the house. Mohamed emerged from the basement and they drove him to Tebnin, a town to the north-west of Bint Jbeil. On the street in Tebnin, my friend Fouad who works for the BBC as a fixer, found him. Mohamed had no passport, no documents and no money. Fouad promised to return for him and take him to Tyre.
In Tyre, we offered to take Mohamed to Beirut. The journalists in the car complained that there wasn't enough room. I was happy to have Mohamed along as a buffer to the Californian journalist and his endless rambling and poking me for a cigarette or napkin. I slept in the car and when I woke up, Mohamed said, "I think you are very tired. I said, “Jeezus, you must be exhausted.” He laughed, “No!”.
We stopped for shwarma in Saida; Mohamed wasn't hungry. He asked for cigarettes instead-- full-flavor Galouises. We bought him a sandwich anyway and insisted he eat it. He dutifully devoured it. "This is the second time you've been force fed today", I remarked. We sat in the car, ate and smoked. “This isn’t war anymore, is it?”, he asked. I'm not sure he knew that the Israelis had promised a temporary cessation of airstrikes.
Back in Beirut, I took Mohamed home to our apartment in Clemenceau. There was no electricity. I asked him if he had spoken to his family. No, they don't even know that I'm alive, he replied giddily. We went out in search for a phonecard. No luck. We stopped in at my favorite Internet cafe; the owner immediately volunteered his phone. Mohamed called and spoke to his brother in Khartoum, at a mile a minute. "I saw death with my own eyes," he said. I promised to take him to the embassy the next day, and asked him to sit and watch TV while I checked my e-mail.
A few minutes later, the owner of the cafe called us upstairs and said that an employee of the Sudanese embassy was here. They chatted a bit about Mohamed's neighborhood in Khartoum, very few formalities, and he promised Mohamed that they would fly him home the next day via Damascus. Mohamed was delighted. "I will see my brothers and sisters tomorrow. I am sooo lucky. But how will I see you again?" I couldn't promise I would visit Sudan, so we exchanged addresses.
Mohamed left this morning for Damascus. Before he left I asked him to climb out onto the roof with me through a little hole in the wall, to try to siphon water from the neighboring apartment to fill our empty tank. We must have been an odd sight for the Israeli surveillance drone flying overhead: a blond girl in a nightgown and a Sudanese guy, buckets in hand, climbing up the huge vats of water to peek in, fiddling with pipes, and gazing over the side of the building, giggling about our futile endeavor. Do you ever want to return to Lebanon, I asked him, trying to get a sense of how Sudan compares to Lebanon. Never! he replied.