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Surviving the Dahieh War: Rami Zurayk’s ‘War Diary: Lebanon 2006’

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War Diary front cover of 7 22Thirty months before there was Cast Lead, there was the Dahieh War, a sustained assault against Lebanon during which the Israeli military flattened an entire neighborhood of tightly packed high-rises in southern Beirut called simply “the Dahieh” (the suburb.) The vast majority of the 300,000 people who lived until then in the Dahieh had fled before the flattening began, finding shelter in other parts of Lebanon or in neighboring Syria. The inhabitants of Qana, in South Lebanon’s mountainous Jabal ‘Amel region, were not so “lucky”. On July 30, 2006, the Israeli military bombed a house in Qana in which scores of civilians had sought refuge: Some 60 of them were killed, including at least 19 children. 

We are now approaching the fifth anniversary of that massacre in Qana. (Tragically, the village had suffered an eerily similar tragedy during a precursor Israeli assault, ten years earlier.) 

In 2006, the Israeli military continued its mega-lethal campaign against Lebanon for 33 days, July 12 through August 14. They killed 1,200 Lebanese citizens, the vast majority of them civilians. They also destroyed several extensive residential neighborhoods, including the Dahieh, along with bridges, power plants, factories, and numerous other civilian facilities throughout the whole country. (43 Israeli civilians and 121 Israeli military were also killed in the war.) But as with the assault against Gaza 30 months later, even that level of destruction failed to achieve the Israeli government’s goals of bending the targeted population to Israel’s political will.  

The Dahieh War was a turning point for activists from throughout the region, demonstrating that even an institution that enjoys chrystal-clear  military supremacy can be resisted and showing that when Islamist and secular social activists combine forces they can withstand even the fiercest onslaught. 

But what was it like to live in Lebanon and South Lebanon under such a fierce Israeli assault? My company, Just World Books, is proud to be publishing a unique account of those days written by the Lebanese social activist Rami Zurayk. Zurayk’s short work War Diary: Lebanon 2006 will be available as an ebook and a paperback within the coming days– certainly long before the fifth anniversary of the ceasefire.  Click on the ‘Buy’ button button there to place advance orders for this moving and very important 60-page work. 

Here, exclusively for Mondoweiss, are two excerpts from War Diary: those covering July 30 and July 31, 2006:  

    July 30, 2006 

    I waited till the end of this day to write in my journal. I usually purposely delay the daily task of fishing back the memories of my day, at least the most marking of them, from the troubled swamp that is my short-term memory, and then polish them, observe them before laying them on the computer screen. Today I am just afraid of what I have to write. 

    Last night the Israeli air force destroyed a shelter where more than sixty women, children, and handicapped people had sought refuge in the village of Qana in South Lebanon. They all died, buried under the rubble. I saw on TV their families, their relatives and their friends, those who remained and who looked deader than the deceased, pull them from under the chunks of broken walls and arrange them next to each other, in an infinite line of dusty but intact bodies. If it wasn’t for the way they were being carried, held by their limbs as if they were sheep, one could have thought they were sleeping. From time to time, a press photographer or a journalist extended a helpful hand. From time to time, a man would drop his burden, so light in his arms but so heavy in his soul, and collapse in tears. The women were wailing, the men were shouting their anger, and all, all, even the foreign journalists were expressing loudly their indignation of a massacre they knew would remain unpunished. The Chosen People do not pay debts. And they never give IOUs. 

    In Tel Aviv, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State, expressed her sadness, but she went on, these are things that happen in wars. 

    The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, blamed Hizbullah. To convince us, he constructed a very simple argument: If there was no Hizbullah, Israel wouldn’t have needed to bomb Lebanon, and all these innocent deaths could have been avoided. The whole world listened to him. Many people believed him, especially in the West. The black sheep like us knew he was lying, but they were scared of saying anything, so they just moved their heads up and down and sideways so that the world could read in it both negation and acquiescence, and they went baaa baaa. 

    The families of the victims promised to keep fighting Israel till their last breath. 

    July 31, 2006 

    I woke up very early this morning, as I do everyday. I made coffee and switched the TV on. The morning news was full of war and death. There were mostly images of children lying next to each other as if they were peacefully sleeping, eyes wide open. We could tell they were dead because their parents, hysterical with pain, were moving them around to show them to the press photographers without the care usually reserved to the living. 

    A voice over was informing us that the UN Security Council, which had convened a special session last night, had expressed its profound sadness for the death of the 60 women and children of Qana, buried in their shelter by an Israeli mega bomb. The Security Council had not found it necessary to con- demn this attack or to impose an immediate ceasefire, but there were talks of a 24-hours truce to bury the dead. 

    The job of the palace eunuchs has always been to counsel the monarch and to take care of his dirty work, without ever antagonizing him. 

    This is when I decided to go to Sinay, my village in the South. I’d had enough of my daily routine and of my self-inflicted isolation. I had to see with own eyes my country and the state in which the enemies put it. I wanted to surprise Suhayla and my other cousins and tell them my love. I had at least ten other perfectly valid reasons when I only needed one: I needed air, emotions, danger. In my house in Beirut I was starting to get moldy. 

    I took the road on my brother Tarek’s bike, a 250cc Kawasaki Ninja, stylish in spite of its small engine. I had barely joined the airport road when a speeding truck flashed its lights and overtook me. It was filled with large badly sealed sacks from which emanated the vilest stench, a smell of carrion macerated in rotten fruits. The vehicle was leaving behind it a trail of solid matter of various sizes that collided with my face, my chest, my helmet, and filled my lungs. When a flattened metal can skimmed my helmet, I understood that this was the solid waste hearse of Beirut delivering its load to the burial grounds of Na`meh. 

    I exited the highway and waited for a few minutes. I knew this trip would be dangerous, but if I had to die, I would rather it be at the hands of the Israelis. 

    There were very few people on the Khaldeh road, and traffic thinned further towards Na`meh, which stank of badly buried waste. I was riding fast, easily passing all the cars. It was more interesting to ride than I had thought, and I quickly rediscovered my reflexes. A good thing too, because right after the bend at the entrance to Na`meh, the road was blocked with a mountain of metal scrap and cement blocks. This is all that was left of the bridge that once crossed over the highway. A temporary diversion towards a side road had been opened. I took it and found myself in the center of the village. It was swarming with Lebanese army troops. The shop fronts that had been blown out by the explosions were open, and the activity was surprising. I stayed on the small road till Damour where all the cars took the mountain road. I asked the Lebanese army checkpoint if there was another way. The soldiers told me to rejoin the highway, as I would be able to pass with the bike. 

    I rode alone for a while on the deserted road. Soon, I saw in the distance a mound of debris similar to the one I had encountered in Na`meh. There were many cars parked around it, and a man seemed to be doing some work in the distance. I went towards him. 

    The crater must have been 30 meters in diameter. It was partly filled with its own rubble, but I could also see a number of destroyed cars. As to the ones I thought were parked, they were all burned and torn. The man was busy filing one of the sides of the gaping hole with stones and sand, in order to make a passage wide enough for cars to wade through on this river of wreckage. I was able to pass easily and stopped to ask him if the road to Saida was clear. 

    At this moment, a minivan bursting with women and children arrived from the south. To pass the improvised bridge, they had to step out of the bus and walk to the other side. They were coming from Nabatiyeh where they had spent the last 3 days in a dark and stinky shelter where they had to defecate and urinate on the floor, right in front of each others, like beasts in a stable. They had tried their luck at dawn, and had safely reached Saida where they had waited several hours before finding a driver who had accepted to take them to Beirut in exchange for their last savings. The women stood stoically with their long veils twirling in the breeze. They were looking incredulously at the horizon and the sea, without seeming to understand where they were. They breathed deeply, to fill their lungs with the smell of seaweed, thyme and the perfumes of the land as if to eliminate the dirty air of the shelter. The children were catatonic, their heads filled with sleep and with images of noisy death. The families had no idea where to go after reaching Beirut. 

    I took the old coastal road, as I was told. There were columns of smoke in the distance. I knew it was the Jiyyeh power plant, where the fuel tanks had been burning for over15 days. I reached Sa`adiyat, where my uncle Ziad had taught me how to gather sea urchins way before the wars started. There wasn’t a single car in sight, and I was in Jiyyeh very quickly. This is where the ‘hottest’ beaches of Lebanon are located. They have evocative names : Janna, Pangea, Jonas, Bamboo Bay. Luxurious places where the customers are care- fully filtered at the entrance. I remembered that I had promised myself never to set foot there again. Five or six years ago, my family and that of my friend Tuha had decided to spend the day at the beach. We went to the place called Jonas. The fat man at the gate wanted to take our names in order to book a beach umbrella and I answered him in Arabic. I gave my name as well as Tuha’s, which in reality is Abdul-Fattah Amhaz: you can’t get more Shi`a than that. The man looked at me as if he was regretting to have told us that there were vacancies. He then said: “you know this is a classy beach, you can’t grill meat or prepare a narguileh.” To this day, I feel pain in the stomach and in the nape of my neck when I think about the incident. I know I should have broken his teeth and gone home instead of following my wife’s advice and avoid spoiling the day. But that was a long time ago when I was young and stupid and without rancor. 

    The stench of burning fuel was infernal, and the carcinogenic cloud had spread over more than a kilometer. I crossed it literally blindly. When I exited this Gahanna, the sea in Rmeileh was turquoise, and the waves were languor- ously dying on the black sticky sand. 

    The great bridge at the entrance to Saida had disappeared. All that remained were two powerless stumps trying in vain to grasp each other. I took the small road towards the temple of Eshmun, the Phoenician War God. The smell of orange blossoms impregnated the humid and motionless air. Suddenly there was nothing other than this palpable smell that seemed to emanate from the pores of the earth, from the wood of the trees and from the leafy shadows. It intoxicated me and I dissolved myself in it, thinking about death. 

    At the Saida [Sidon] exit, there were Lebanese army soldiers, slouching at the tables in front of a mana’ish bakery. I made the mistake of asking them if the highway was open. They immediately became suspicious and asked me for my identity papers. I obeyed while remarking sarcastically about the absurdity of their request and about the imbecility of an Israeli spy who would stop to ask directions from the army. They told me to take the old road and to watch out for the Israeli helicopters that were hunting Resistance bikers riding on the southern roads. 

    The traffic on the road to Sour [Tyre] was moving pretty well and could have almost been ‘normal’, if it weren’t for the absence of trucks, which were also being specifically hunted by the enemy air force. The passing cars were car- rying whole families with mattresses and blankets on the roof. They all had white flags hanging from the windows or tied to the radio antennas. 

    I reached Ghazieh, which had been bombed several times. In front of the restaurants-butcheries aligned on the main road, men were lighting up large barbecues. The smell of the grilled meat stopped me for a minute and took me back a few months, to a lunch stop we made, a friend and I, on our way back from Sinay. I didn’t stay long. There is nothing worse than the stench of cold barbecue, the sickening stench of which sticks to the hair and to the clothes, and which can only be eliminated with a complete scrubbing. 

    A few kilometers later, I left the coastal road and rode towards the ochre hills of the Jabal `Amel in its summer attire. 

    The narrow and sinuous road that links my village to the coast passes by Bissariyeh, Ghassaniyeh, Kawtarieh, then through the isolated valley of Khartoum. There wasn’t any traffic; I had fun carving the bends. The bike was well balanced, and its handling excellent. I would have liked it to have more power, but it was good enough, and it almost made me forget the danger of driving on this road, where the ‘Apache’ helicopters could appear at any time. Lost in my thoughts, I realized the absurdity of being shot by a war machine to which the Americans had given the name of one of the tribes they had exterminated. When it comes to money, the Americans are capable of doing anything, even of recycling the glory of their victims. Will the next generation of U.S. planes be called ‘Hizbullah’? 

    A few minutes later, I passed the large flamboyant bougainvillea hedge and took the small road to Sinay. Suddenly I was in my cousin’s old house. We kissed without letting anyone see us, because it is not done in the vil- lage, then we cried together for her daughter who had died two months before. We drank the very dark and very sweet tea we make in my region. Sitting on the couch, I let peace penetrate me while my cousins talked about the war. 

Please consider buying this wonderful, very human document. The ebook is $4.00 and the papwrback is $7.00. Tell your friends about it, too! Rami Zurayk is also the author of our new bookFood, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring, which explains a lot about how the aid and trade policies imposed on Lebanon and other Arab countries over the past 25 years wrecked rural livelihoods and did so much to help prepare fertile ground for the democrats of the Arab Spring. 

If you want to find out more about Zurayk and his work, watch this great 6-minute video of him discussing his work and his activism.

Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.

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