August 10, 2006
In Lebanon, Bafflement Turns to Anger and Despair
BY Kate Seelye
Lebanese civil defense workers in the southern city of Tyre carry a coffin into a mass grave prepared for victims of the shelling.
It feels like we're teetering on the brink of collapse here in Beirut. The south is already a complete disaster zone, like something out of a Mad Max movie. Whole villages are destroyed. Donkeys and horses wander aimlessly through the rubble where bodies still rot, trapped under collapsed homes.
Beirut has managed to maintain an air of semi-normalcy until recently. I can still get fresh bagels at Bread Republic, an upscale bakery near my apartment, and a good margarita at a local bar, Dragonfly. My neighborhood bodega opens at 7 a.m. every day, like it always has, although the fresh produce is limited. And Georgette, the local seamstress, still sits in her storefront window hemming pants and skirts.
But all of that feels like it's going to change very soon. Lebanon's health minister warned today that most hospitals in Beirut would start closing down in the next three days. They'll be forced to discharge patients, including the war wounded. There's almost no fuel left in the country to run surgical wards, incubators, and refrigerators for medicine. Nor is there much gasoline to run cars or generators. The gas lines are growing and the prices are rising. Israel has imposed a full blockade on Lebanon and the two fuel tankers, waiting in Cyprus to unload their precious cargo, are too afraid to dock.
Lebanon's health minister warned today that most hospitals in Beirut would start closing down in the next three days. They'll be forced to discharge patients, including the war wounded.
I keep wondering when the 12 hours of electricity I now get from the state will peter out and when exactly the neighborhood generator I'm hooked up to will run dry. In fact as I write, the lights have gone out. My neighborhood generator has not started up. I've been sitting here for two hours in the dark and my refrigerator is already starting to smell.
And yet, I'm still one of the lucky ones. My main challenges are pretty minor in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians who have been displaced by this war. At least I'm not living in an airless underground supermarket parking lot, with 2,000 other people, like the one I visited recently. At least I'm still in my apartment, where my major concern, apart from electricity, is fighting cockroaches the size of small mice. Most of Lebanon's garbage men -- from Sri Lanka and India -- fled the country about a week after the conflict started, leaving the garbage to pile up on the streets, creating a small feast for roaches and vermin.
My other immediate concern is just getting enough sleep. The Israelis continue to bomb Beirut's southern suburbs, a few miles from my house, between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. I now sleep through the 3 a.m. bombings, but the dawn attacks pretty much kill a decent night's rest. At least it hasn't pushed me to Prozac. A doctor I spoke to today told me that more and more Lebanese are taking anti-depressants, especially those who've lost family members in the bombings. It reminds me of a guy I read about in the southern city of Nabatiyeh last week. He left his house for 15 minutes to stock up on water and returned to find his house flattened in an air strike, his wife and seven children entombed in the rubble. I don't think Prozac is going to help him.
I'm not taking anything stronger than Ambien, these days, but I am starting to stress. And even though I'm exhausted, I sometimes find it hard to sleep at night -- hence the Ambien.
It's just that I've seen things I've never seen before, like a lot of dead people. I was in Tyre, a city in the south, when Israel bombed a shelter in nearby Qana, killing 28 civilians, and where 13 remain missing, presumed buried under the rubble. I spent the morning at the hospital, where they brought the bodies, and watched as civil defense workers laid them out one by one on the pavement in front of the hospital.
The victims looked strangely peaceful in death. As though it had caught them by surprise in their sleep. It was about 1 a.m. when two Israeli bombs struck their shelter two Sundays ago. But because of ongoing air strikes, Red Cross ambulances couldn't arrive for another six hours.
According to rescue workers, many of the Qana victims had suffocated to death on sand that filled the unfinished basement of the house in which they sheltered.
Mehdi Ahmad Hashim, who looked to be about nine, was dressed in a pair of yellow pajamas with a Spiderman logo. A bruise marked the side of his face; his eyes were shut tight against falling debris from the impact of the two bombs. Ula Ahmad Shalhoub, a girl of about 4, dressed in an orange tee shirt and cotton pants, almost looked as though she was napping, were it not for the sand compacted around her nose. Even her small gold hoop earrings were encrusted in dirt. An older boy of perhaps 16 had died with his mouth open -- his grimace coated with brown dirt. According to rescue workers, many of the victims had suffocated to death on sand that filled the unfinished basement of the house in which they sheltered. They had thought it would protect them against an Israeli air strike. Instead it became their cemetery.
The crowd that gathered outside the hospital was angry. There were shouts of "God is Great" and "Down with America and Israel." The chief of the civil defense tried to bring order to the chaos, as onlookers and photographers shoved and vied for the best view. He yelled at the crowd to respect the dead, striking out at a photographer, who clumsily tripped over one of the bodies. Then his men wrapped the victims in plastic, duct-taping the ends, and identified the first batch of 20, mainly women and children. They waited for the next batch.
Abdel Muhsin Husseini, Tyre's beleaguered mayor appeared. That day's tragedy was just one of many he had faced in the last three weeks of intensive Israeli bombardment of his city and the 66 villages in his district. The day before he had overseen a mass burial of 37 Lebanese from the south.
As he wandered among the wrapped bodies of the Qana victims, he shook his head wearily and said to no one in particular, "So all of these kids were carrying Katyushas?"
Victims of the bombing in Qana are lined up outside the hospital, wrapped in plastic and fastened with duct tape.
As they witness the carnage, my Lebanese friends are increasingly baffled by the Israeli approach. Many can't stand Hezbollah. They realize that Israel is trying to bring the militant group to its knees. But they constantly ask me, "Why are they telling civilians to leave their villages and then strafing them as they flee? Why are they not giving safe passage to urgently needed aid convoys to the south? Why are they forcing hospitals to shut? Why did they bomb our airport, our roads, our milk factories and our army? Why are they punishing all of Lebanon? Do they hate us that much?"
I keep remembering the last time Israel mounted a large-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982. My aunt and uncle, who were teaching at the American University of Beirut at the time, stuck out that siege of Beirut. Israel bombed the capital for seven weeks. At the time, Israel was trying to bring Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization to its knees. It succeeded, but a year later, with Israeli troops still in Lebanon, something far more radical and dangerous than the PLO was born -- Hezbollah.
I wonder today what new monster will emerge from this violence. What new expression of pain and desire for revenge. Four weeks into the bombing campaign, I'm just starting to feel the mood turn ugly. For the first three weeks, I was amazed by just how humane and gracious the Lebanese remained, especially the displaced, despite their incredible challenges. They patiently told their stories. They offered, with usual Lebanese hospitality, the few cigarettes they had, or a cup of tea. But for good reason, people here are starting to get fed up with journalists, especially Western journalists. Tempers are flaring; people don't really want to talk to Americans, especially since Washington continues to provide Israel with the bombs that are killing their children.
"Why did they bomb our airport, our roads, our milk factories and our army? Why are they punishing all of Lebanon? Do they hate us that much?"
"I will never forget," a civil defense worker screamed at me just yesterday, after spending the night pulling bodies from an apartment building destroyed by a single Israeli bomb in a Beirut suburb. "I will never forget how that pig George Bush killed our children. In the same way," he spat, "we will kill his children."
Of course there's also anger here toward Hezbollah and its patrons Iran and Syria for sparking this mess. I hooked up with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently in his 18th century palace in the Chouf Mountains south of Beirut.
He's convinced that an Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis now has the upper hand in Lebanon and is destroying the dream that he fought for last year during the Cedar Revolution -- the dream of a democratic, prosperous Lebanon.
The Iranians he told me are fighting the U.N. over the question of Tehran's nuclear program in Lebanon, while Syria, he said, is happily wreaking revenge for being expelled from Lebanon.
"The fanatics," he told me glumly, "are ruling."
But even Jumblatt does not see where this Israeli campaign is leading. Hezbollah, which has now held out 30 days against Israel and continues to rain rockets on the north, looks victorious in the eyes of the Arab world; it appears to be emerging stronger not weaker from this conflict. At the same time, the pro-Western government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, the government that Washington helped nurture last year, is increasingly weakened with each passing week of the war.
It's a disaster, Jumblatt told me, and it all stems, as he put it, from America and Israel's "stupid" policies in the Middle East.
Kate Seelye is a Middle East correspondent for Public Radio International's "The World" and a regular contributor to this Web site. Read more of Seelye's dispatches from the region and watch her May 2005 FRONTLINE/World report from Lebanon and Syria following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. You can also listen to Seelye's latest radio reports from Beirut on The World's Web site and learn more about the history of Hezbollah.