Saturday, July 22, 2006

report from beirut 2

As I write, the dust from Beirut rubs into the prints of my fingers from the keys of my laptop. I'm in Haan now, near Duesseldorf, Germany.

Whatever I've seen happening in Beirut, the situation in South Lebanon is so much worse, and seems to have garnered little to no attention in international media.

I recorded an interview a German-Lebanese man who I met outside the bus in Syria, just over the Northern Lebanese border. We were waiting for our passports, left at the border post on the Lebanese side after our bus convoy fled an Israeli attack on the road a few hundred metres behind us. [I will call him Rami, as he asked me not to use his name as he is afraid of retaliation on his family members who remain in Lebanon. He spoke in German and my girlfriend translated] He'd come to Lebanon two weeks ago to visit his family in the village of El Qlaile, close to the city of Tyre in South Lebanon. He said the first week was great, getting to see everyone again, his mom had just had a heart operation and was recovering, and then the bombing started. Rami says reports are not getting out about what's happen in South Lebanon because its so dangerous that no reporters are going there, which I've also heard from other reporters. The Beirut correspondent for the CBC News told me going to south Lebanon is tantamount to suicide.
I asked Rami if there are any battles between Hizbullah fighters and the Israelis in the towns, and Rami said no because the Hizbullah fighters are bunkered down in positions in the mountains, so the Israelis have taken to bombing the towns and villages. In the villages in the hills east of the costal town of Naquora, Rami says the Israelis have bombed all the roads and bridges, meaning nobody can leave and supplies cannot get in. People are beginning to starve and they're too afraid to leave the basements of their homes. Now the Israelis are bombing the houses. He says there is nowhere to hide and you unable to run.
Between 40 and 70 families from the town took refugee from the bombing at a school, and then on Monday the Israelis bombed the school, killing almost everyone. Rami says seven families where sheltering in a large house next to the hospital and the Israelis bombed them. It took emergency crews two days to remove all the bodies because the Israeli jets continued to bomb it over and over again, killing some of the emergency workers.
He was helping with the emergency crews trying to rescue people from the rubble and get people to hospital [the Israelis also bombed a section of the hospital on Sunday]. The hospitals in his area and around the south are running out of drugs, bandages and all supplies, and don't have enough doctors or nurses because many of them fled. This means many of the wounded that could be saved are dying because they can't be treated, and these people aren't on the official casualty count yet. He says the morgue has so many bodies that they had to simply start stacking them on top of eachother, and that a lot of the time they were simply collecting pieces of people and putting them in bags to store at the morgue.
Rami described how four members of a German-Lebanese family were killed in the South when an Israeli bomb hit their house. The grandparents were on the first floor and were blown apart by the blast wave, while the mother and young child were climbing the stairs from the basement, and so were cut in half by the same blast. The father was on the back deck and was thrown through the air by the explosion, lost an arm but survived, but has gone insane with despair and rage. Rami has a friend in the Red Cross whose house was hit and the blast wave torn most of the skin off the front of his wife, exposing her internal organs. She's still alive but is certain to die within the next few days. His young girl was also heavily wounded and now blind. Rami says his friend just fell apart and started banging his head on a wall and screaming.
I asked him if there were a lot of people knew who were killed, and he said it was really hard to tell, because most of the bodies, if still whole, are burned black and unidentifiable. Rami says people are trying to flee at night with the lights off in the cars, driving very fast and this is causing a lot of accidents and making the whole situation that much more dangerous. After a week he decided to try and leave and get his family out. He got them to a car and started to try and drive up what's left of the costal highway. He said a Lebanese army jeep near them on the highway was hit by a missile, showering his car with debris. He says there was nothing left of it, and that a minivan with fleeing refugees behind the jeep also hit by the explosion, and he doesn't think anyone survived.
It took him eight hours to reach Beirut because they had to use many backroads [the drive from south Lebanon to Beirut normally takes a little over an hour]. His family is now staying at a refugee centre set up at a school in Beirut, and Rami, with German citizenship, is going back to his home in Hamburg.

In Beirut the fabric of society is beginning to unravel, the basics of life, even in those areas not under constant bombardment, are becoming short in supply. Running water ran out for my next door neighbour the day I left (Wednesday), and my water tank on the roof has stopped refilling, leaving some 10 litres of water left in the bottom. That's not much when between your neighbor and yourself you're putting up seven refugees from the southern suburbs of Beirut. [my neighbour is Ali Sayyed, another Canadian from Ottawa]. Fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to come by in the stores because the major roads leading from the farms the city are destroyed, and the Israelis have put out a warning stating that they will bomb every truck in the country headed south, whether it's full of watermelons, garbage, water or fuel, just in the off chance it might be carry missiles for Hizbullah. Most shops sellout of bread before noon. Today the Israelis also bombed the largest glass-bottling factory in the country, so the supply fresh milk and juice will run out in a couple days. Given that Israeli warships are blockading supplies from entering the country, they've blown up the airport and the runways and the land routes into the country, no new supplies are getting in to people who want to eat. Every other gas station in town is also closed as fuel is running out – the blockade would make it bad enough, but to hasten the strangulation the Israelis also bombed the major fuel storage tankers in west Beirut, at the airport, the big electricity plant and in south Lebanon.

Syria has taken in some 500,000 refugees – total population of Lebanon before the bombing: 3.5 to 4 million.

I made the final decision to leave on Tuesday, and it's the hardest one I've ever had to make. I feel a duty to report to every TV, Radio station and newspaper that will listen about this unjustified war and hundreds of innocent people are being murdered as their country is pounded into dust. Official body count this morning is 330 dead Lebanese civilians, thousands injured, and five dead Hizbullah fighters. The Israeli "Defence" Forces are committing war crimes on a massive scale and it is doubtful that any member of the IDF or the Israeli government will ever be brought to account for their atrocities.

I'd done more phone interviews than I can count with anyone who can get through, and was sending out as much information as I could to anyone I could contact, but the barrage of missiles and bombs destroying the neighbourhoods just over a kilometer from my house, and the pictures of dead and mangled infants and families bleeding through the TV screen was making me numb and ineffective at doing work. I could not properly describe the magnitude of the evil crushing the Lebanese.

I am also only a freelancer, unable to tap the resources the major media networks provide for their reporters. If later the situation degraded to the point where my life was immediately in danger and all the foreign national evacuations had finished, I feared I would be stranded and basically fucked.

The list of failures and ineptitudes of the Canadian government and its embassy in Beirut to care for the well being of Canadians in Lebanon is too expansive and profound for me to address in this
letter, and judging from phone calls to Lebanon this morning, they are still utterly unable to put together any sort of effective evacuation. As one of the richest countries in the world, this is beyond shameful.

However my girlfriend, Nicole, a German citizen, was leaving Wednesday morning on a German bus convoy heading north through to Syria. She had spoken with the German embassy a few days earlier about putting me on their evacuation list, and it sounded promising, but we were still unsure whether simply being 'boyfriend' would ensure that I would be place under the care of the German government.

So, Tuesday morning we decided to get married. For that we needed two things, someone to marry us and rings to exchange. A Lebanese friend of ours called a priest he knew but was told it would take a lot of paper work which could not be organized in a short period of time. We then headed out in our neighbourhood of Beirut, Fern El Chebak, then to Hamra in west Beirut, and then Ashrafieh in east Beirut, looking for a jewelry store to sell us rings and a priest to marry us. During war however, people need bread and water, so the food stores stay open, but people don't tend to be buying much in the way of luxury items, and all the stores were closed. Despite a visit to many a church, we were only able to speak with one priest who asked us if we were Roman Catholic. We said yes, and then he said that unfortunately he was a Maronite Catholic priest and could not help us, then he directed us up the street to a Roman Catholic church, which, like many others in Beirut, happened to be closed and locked up.

Back at the apartment, everyone then pitched in to make it happen. The refugees staying with us, who are the Ali's Uncle's family and their neighbours from downstairs, went out and somehow, somewhere found a wedding bouquet. Ali's aunt gave Nicole a gold ring that she's held onto for the last 20 years, and one of the young guys of the downstairs neighbour refugees made a ring for me by cutting and bending a solid copper choker Nicole's mom had given her years ago. Everyone gathered on our balcony, Ali's cousin snapping away the happy pics as Ali himself lead the ceremony, Nicole and I on either of his sides. We exchanged rings and I dos, Ali pronounced us Husband and Wife, I kissed my bride, and, being without champagne, we wrapped our wrists around the eachothers' and shot Tequila. In the tragedy that is this war all its destruction, this moment had the beauty of putting smiles on the faces of all us and reminding us that there is still things to be happy for in this world and we are still human.

The next day Nicole and I lined up with thousands of others at Biel, the massive conference centre area just north of Downtown Beirut. When we got to the head of the line she announced to the German officials that her and her Canadian husband wanted to be evacuated, and they us let in. We waited for about 12 hours, listening to the Israel jets overhead and the occassion bomb in the distance, as busload after busload of German nationals were carted away in convoys. We were eventually put on one that left near twilight. The skinny, decrepit highway in north Lebanon brought us to the border around 10 p.m., and just after the Lebanese officer had taken our passports into the border post for the exit stamp, something exploded behind us. The busdrivers pressed the gas pedal to the floor, flew past the Lebanese and Syrian border posts, and didn't stop until they were several kilometers inside Syria, were we had to wait until someone went back to get our passports. We later heard reports on the radio that the Israelis had bombed the road, a Canadian bus convoy coming up behind us had been blocked and had to turn around, and the Syrians were closing the border. From there we drove to Turkey, and to an airport near the coast at Adana, where a German Airforce Luftwaffe Airbus A310 flew us to Cologne.

Did I deserve to leave any more than anyone else trapped in Lebanon? No. But no German was displaced by me, and having been made painfully aware of the incompetence of my government and its inability to help me in a crisis situation, there was no other choice. Now I can only pray that by some miracle others left behind will find a way out, or at least stay safe.

Israel has issued another call telling people in South Lebanon to flee, but they're not letting them leave because they keep bombing vehicles on the roads. There's been small Israeli invasions over the border with troops and tanks, but they're now calling up thousands of reservists and putting up to four divisions of troops on the border.

Also, with the mass exodus of foreigners from Lebanon, the deprevity of the killing can only intensify, the idea being 'the wittnesses are gone.'

I remember on the second or third day I heard of a statement concerning the Israeli offensive by my honorable Prime Minister Stephan Harper, to the effect of "Israeli has the right to defend itself." And as I was thinking this we were watching footage on TV from the village of Dweir in the area of Nabatieh, where an Israeli missile had brought down a house where a family of ten where sheltering. They were all killed and emergency people where now digging their corpses out of the smashed concrete. One of diggers stopped as he passed by the camera and held up a body he was carrying by its underarms. She wasn't heavy, would have stood hip height if she could, maybe 8 years old, maybe 10 or 12, it was kind of hard to tell. She was covered in grey dust from her shoeless toes to the curls on her drooping head, and as the camera panned past her lifeless face you could see the blood caked beneath her nose, and I thought, what exactly is Israeli defending itself from? I guess if she had survived, when she grew up she might hate the people who'd killed her family, destroyed her home and the homes of her neighbours and flattened her country. This in turn could place her in the category of 'potential security threat.' So to avoid such 'potential threats' that living children may pose later on, Israel is killing them now in Lebanon. It all makes complete sense.

Spencer Osberg

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