Life Under the Bombs

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With a truce in Lebanon shakily in place but challenged by small incidents almost every day, it’s just another tenuous week in the Middle East. The 33-day war may be provisionally over, but it probably has not ended — and the scale of the destruction in Lebanon should not be forgotten. With that in mind, Tomdispatch offers 11 excerpts from an on-line diary of those 33 days of war as experienced by Rasha Salti — one skilled writer’s eloquent instant-portrait of what it feels like to be on the ground in the Middle East right now.

A 37-year-old freelance Lebanese writer and independent curator, Salti has shuttled back and forth between Beirut and New York City over the past several years. Her April 2005 diary of the 30th anniversary of Lebanon’s bitter civil war, written against the backdrop of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harari, was published by Middle East Report Online. Later that year, she served as the director of the Cinemaeast Film Festival before returning to the U.S. She moved back to Beirut on July 11, the day before the Hezbollah capture of two Israeli soldiers triggered an all-out war that devastated much of her country. She wrote these daily digests to her friends in the U.S.

“The media look for the breaking news obviously. They look for the stories, but when they find a story, they don’t find an ordinary story, one that appeals. I write about the mundane, the everyday,” Salti told Reuters in the midst of the war. “People see a human being, not a reporter doing the job, or an ideologue defending an idea. I get positive responses, people that become sympathetic to our plight as Lebanese.” The following then are excerpts from her online diary of the siege, edited by Sandy Tolan, the author of the recently published The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. ~ Tom

Siege Notes

By Rasha Salti (from Beirut)

1.

I am writing now from a café, in West Beirut’s Hamra district. It is filled with people who are trying to escape the pull of 24-hour news reporting. Like me. The electricity has been cut off for a while now, and the city has been surviving on generators. The old system that was so familiar at the time of the war, where generators were allowed a lull to rest, is back. The café is dark, hot, and humid. Espresso machines and blenders are silenced. Conversations, rumors, frustrations waft through the room.

I am better off here than at home, following the news, live, on-the-spot documentation of our plight in sound bites.

The sound of Israeli warplanes overwhelms the air on occasion. They drop leaflets to conduct a “psychological” war. Yesterday, their sensitivity training urged them to advise inhabitants of the southern suburbs to flee because the night promised to be “hot.” Today, the leaflets warn that they plan to bomb all other bridges and tunnels in Beirut. People are flocking to supermarkets to stock up on food.

This morning, I wrote in my emails to people inquiring about my well-being that I was safe, and that the targets seem to be strictly Hezbollah sites and their constituencies. Now, I regret typing that. They will escalate.

Until a few hours ago, they had only bombed the runways of the airport, as if to “limit” the damage. A few hours ago, four shells were dropped on the buildings of our brand-new, shining airport.

The night was harrowing. The southern suburbs and the airport were bombed from air and sea. The apartment where I am living has a magnificent view of the bay of Beirut. I could see the Israeli warships firing at their leisure.

2.

It is now night-time in Beirut. The day was heavy, busy with shelling from the air and sea, but so far the night has been quiet in Beirut. We are advised to brace ourselves for a bad night, although at this stage most analysis is reading tea leaves.

In the present conflict, a secular, egalitarian democrat such as me has no real place for representation or maneuver. Neither have I and my ilk succeeded in carving a space for ourselves, nor have the prevailing forces (the two poles) agreed to making allocations for us. That is our defeat and our failure. In Lebanon, we are caught in the stampede and the cross-fire. I am not a supporter of Hezbollah, but this has become a war with Israel. In the war with Israel, there is no force in the world that will have me stand side by side with the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] or the Israeli state.

The “showcase” last night began with Israeli shells targeting [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah’s home in the southern suburbs. As soon as the shells exploded, the media reported them and waited to confirm that he and his family had survived. About half an hour later, the newscaster announced that Hassan Nasrallah planned to address the nation and the Arab world by phone.

I never thought he was charismatic. A huge majority of people do. He’s very young to hold the position of leadership that he does. He’s a straight talker, not particularly eloquent, but speaks in an idiom that appeals to his immediate constituency in Lebanon but is also compelling to a constituency in the Arab world that harbors disillusionment, despondency, and powerlessness with the failed promises of Arab nationalism to defeat Israel and restore dignity. He is not corrupt, he lives simply, and displays a bent for Spartan asceticism.

He began by declaring an open war to Israel’s assault. He reiterated that Hezbollah did not fear an open war. That they have long been prepared for this confrontation. Interestingly, he claimed that they possessed missiles that could reach Haifa, and “far beyond Haifa, beyond, beyond Haifa," thereby admitting that it was Hezbollah that fired the missile fired to Haifa (until then they denied having fired them). It is not clear what he meant by “far beyond Haifa." Did he mean Tel Aviv?

3.

Today was a bad day. The shelling started from the morning countrywide and has not let up until now. Tonight the shelling is again focused on the southern suburbs, Haret Hreyk and Bir el-Abed. The first neighborhood is where the headquarters of Hezbollah are located. They have been targeted several times and there is extensive damage. The leadership has not been harmed. A great number of the inhabitants have been evacuated, but the afternoon shelling targeted residential areas. I am up, anxious, writing. As if it served a purpose of sorts.

Foreign diplomatic missions are making plans to evacuate their nationals. They had planned to evacuate people by sea, but after today’s shelling of the ports, they may have to rethink their strategy. Should I evacuate? Does one turn their back on a “historic” station in the Arab-Israeli conflict? I was shamed this morning for having these thoughts… And now, at 1:30 am, as the Israeli airplanes fill up my sky, I am writing them again.

4.

Things seem to be heating up. Missiles hit Haifa and the shelling on the south and southern suburbs [of Beirut] is unrelenting.

[Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert promised scorched earth in South Lebanon after missiles hit Haifa. Warnings have been sent to inhabitants of the south to evacuate their villages, because the Israeli response to Hezbollah will be “scorched Earth." As major roads are destroyed and the south has been remapped into enclaves, it is not clear how these people are supposed to evacuate. And where to.

So Hezbollah dragged us without asking our opinion into this hell. We are in this hell, caught in this crossfire together. We need to survive and save as many lives as possible. The Israelis are now betting on the implosion of Lebanon. It will not happen. There is UNANIMITY that Israel’s response is entirely, entirely, UNJUSTIFIED. We will show the Arab leadership that it is possible to have internal dissent and national unity, pluralism, divergence of opinion and face this new sinister chapter of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

5.

We live now from “breaking news” to “breaking news.” I have been in the caf for one hour now. This is what I have heard so far:

1) A text message traveled to my friend’s cell phone: A breaking news item from the Israeli military command. If Hezbollah does not stop shelling Galilee and northern towns, Israel will hit the entire electricity network of Lebanon.

2) Hezbollah shells Haifa, Safad, and colonies in south Golan.

3) A text message traveled to my other friend’s cell phone, from an expat who left for Damascus and is catching a flight back to London. “All flights out of Damascus are cancelled. Do you know anything?”

4) Israeli shell fell near the house of the bartender. His family is stranded in the middle of rubble in Hadath. He leaps out of the caf and frantically calls to secure passage for them to the mountains.

5) Hezbollah downed an F-16 Israeli plane into Kfarshima (near Hadath). Slight jubilation in a café that thrives on denial.

“Breaking news” becomes the clock that marks the passage of time. You find yourself engaging in the strangest of activities: You catch a piece of breaking news, you leap to another room to announce it to family although they heard it too, and then you text-message it to others. At some point in the line-up, you become yourself the messenger of “breaking news.” Along the way you collect other pieces of “breaking news” which you deliver back. Between the two sets of breaking news, you gather up facts and try to add them up to fit a scenario. Then you recall previously mapped scenarios. Then you realize none works. Then you exhale. And zap. Until the next piece of breaking news comes. It just gets uglier. You fear night-time. For some reason, you believe the shelling will get worse at night. When vision is impaired, when darkness envelops everything. But it’s not true. Shelling is as intense during the day as it is during the night.

There has been “intense” diplomatic activity between yesterday and today. UN envoys, ambassadors, EU [European Union] envoys, all kinds of men and women coming and going carrying messages to the Lebanese government from the “international community” and the “Israeli counterpart." Officially they have led to nothing.

I started writing these diary notes to friends outside Lebanon to remain sane and give them my news. I was candid and transparent with all my emotions. The ones I had and the ones I did not have. By the third diary note, I was getting replies, applause and rebuke from people I did not know who had read them.

A journalist from Israel’s Channel 2 contacted me by email and asked for an interview. I was uncomfortable with the idea at first, for fear that my words be distorted and my genuine, candid sentiments quoted to serve arguments I do not endorse. That journalist seems like a nice person, but I have no reason to trust her and she understands my misgivings. She sent me the set of questions below for me to answer so she can air them on TV or use them for some report. I decided to share them with you all.

1. How your day looks like from the morning. What you did today? Did you have coffee? How do you get the news — television? Radio? Internet?

The routine of our days is totally changed. We now live under a regimen of survival under siege. Those of us still not wounded and not stranded do whatever needs to be done to survive until the next day. Coffee, yes, I have coffee in the morning, and at noon, and in the afternoon. Perhaps I have too much coffee. The passage of time is all about monitoring news, checking everyone’s OK, and figuring out what has to be done to help those in distress. News is on all the time.

I am at home now, listening to the radio on one side, writing mails on the other side. Air-conditioning is on. I live in the center of the city. Later I will go to the office. I think life in my city continues but in a lower volume. Life as it was, or as previously understood, in my city has stopped. No gym classes, and I am accumulating cellulite, hence chances of finding second husband are lessened (can I make the IDF pay for that?). Air-conditioning is dependent on electricity or generator working. Power cuts are the rule now and the generator works only on a schedule. So yes, without air-conditioning and with power cuts, my “Semitic” curls produce unruly coif and I have to admit, I am enduring the siege with bad hair.

2. Can you describe the neighborhood you live in?

So it will be bombed? No thank you. I live in a very privileged neighborhood, far from the southern suburbs. After the evacuation of foreign nationals (and bi-nationals) is complete, everyone is expecting doom and if Israelis decide to give us a dose of tough love as they did in the southern suburbs my life will probably be in serious danger as my family’s and everyone who has decided to stay here.

3. Can you say something about yourself — like what you do for a living.

I organize cultural events and I am a free-lance writer. I used to live in New York City and moved to Beirut Tuesday July 11th. I have no life at the present moment. I try to do a few things over the Internet, but that’s increasingly difficult.

4. In Israel our leaders think that by targeting Hezbollah and other places in Lebanon will make the rest of the local population against them. Is this true?

It is pure folly, but even if it were true it is a terrible strategy, an imploded Lebanon is a nightmare to all, not only the Lebanese but to everyone. Does Israel want an Iraq at its doorstep? There seems to be consensus now in Israel over the military campaign. It is because Israelis are not yet pressing their leadership and military with the smart questions. Do you actually believe it would be possible to eliminate the Shi’i sect from Lebanon, and that it would go down easy in the region? If the Americans are advising you, duck for cover or move. Need I list their record of wisdom and foresight recently? Vietnam, Central America, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq. If you need to listen to imperialists, find less idiotic ones, at least who have a sense of history. God help us all if Rumsfeld is also in charge of your well-being. This war will bring doom to all. Stop, cut everybody’s losses. Wars can be stopped before the body count is “intolerable” or an entire country has been reduced to rubble.

5. What is the atmosphere in the streets of Beirut, if you can tell.

Beirut is quiet, dormant, huddled. We are caged, but there is tenacious solidarity. You have to understand that we see ourselves under an unwarranted attack from Israel. The capture of two soldiers DOES NOT justify Israel’s response.

6. What is the atmosphere among your friends?

The consensus is solidarity. Our country is under attack. Otherwise, we are an exceedingly plural society everyone has a theory and a point of view, and we co-exist. Humoring one another.

I hope you will wake up to the nightmare you have dragged us into. I hope you will want to have fire ceased as soon as possible. I hope you will deem our humanity as valuable as your own.

Best, Rasha.

6.

11:30 pm. I have about half an hour before the generator shuts down. Most of Beirut is in the dark. I dare not imagine what the country is like.

Today was a particularly strange day for me because I was granted an opportunity to leave tomorrow morning, by car to Syria, then to Jordan, and from there by plane to wherever I am supposed to be right now. For days I have been itching to leave because I want to pursue my professional commitments, meet deadlines, and continue with my life. For days I have been battling ambivalence towards this war, estranged from the passions it has roused around me and from engagement in a cause. And yet when the phone call came informing me that I had to be ready at 7:00 am the next morning, I asked for a pause to think. I was torn. The landscape of the human and physical, the depth of destruction, the toll of nearly 250 deaths, more than 800 injured and 400,000 displaced, had bound me to a sense of duty. It was not even patriotism, it was actually the will to defy Israel. They cannot do this and drive me away. They will not drive me away.

I decided to stay. I don’t know when I will have another opportunity to leave.

7.

One of my closest friends, my beloved sister really, Maria left two days ago. Up until a few hours before she was supposed to follow instructions from the British embassy for evacuation, she could not get herself to leave. She has two boys aged nine and five. Maria and her husband lived in London for a long while and earned citizenship there. Everyone who matters in her life called and urged her to evacuate with the Britons. She had moved from Beirut to the mountains on the second day of the siege. Our phone conversations had the rare virtue of being “constitutional,” they charged our respective systems and reminded us of the people we once were, the lives we once lived. We asked the same question over and over, “Should I leave?," “Should you leave?.".. She did not want to but felt she ought to for the boys.

She caved in two days ago. I called as she waited on the docks with her two sons. Her husband did not want to leave. “It’s awful, it’s awful…,” she kept saying. “It’s awful, it’s awful…,” I echoed her. “Have I done the right thing?” she pleaded. “Absolutely,” I replied without a hint of hesitation. I could not help telling her that I would miss her. It felt selfish, childishly needy in the way children can be self-centered and dependent. In truth I was terrified of living through this siege without her. I felt like a good part of my heart, at least a good part of what I love about being in Beirut, was standing at the docks waiting with her two sons.

8.

I accompanied journalists to Haret Hreyk two days ago. I suspect I am still shell-shocked from the sight of the destruction. I have never, ever seen destruction in that fashion. Western journalists kept talking about a “post-apocalyptic” landscape. The American journalists were reminded of Ground Zero. There are no gaping holes in the ground, just an entire neighborhood flattened into rubble. Mounds and mounds of smoldering rubble. Blocks of concrete, metal rods, mixed with furnishings, and the stuff that made up the lives of residents: photographs, clothes, dishes, CD-ROMs, computer monitors, knives and forks, books, notebooks, tapes, alarm clocks. The contents of hundreds of families stacked amidst smoking rubble. A couple of buildings had been hit earlier that morning and were still smoking, buildings were still collapsing slowly.

I was frightened to death. I stopped in front of one of the buildings that housed clinics and offices that provide social services, there seemed to be a sea of CD-ROMs and DVDs all over. I picked up one, expecting to find something that had to do with the Hezbollah propaganda machine (and it is pretty awesome). The first one read “Sahh el-Nom 1," the second “Sahh el-Nom 17." “Sahh el-Nom” was a very popular sit-com produced by Syrian TV in the 1960s.

Haret Hreyk is also where Hezbollah had a number of their offices. Al-Manar TV station is located in the block that has come to be known as the “security compound” (or “security square”), the office of their research and policy studies center, and other institutions attached the party. It is said that in that heavily inhabited square of blocks, more than 35 buildings were destroyed entirely.

One of the buildings was still burning. It had been shelled earlier that day at dawn. Clouds of smoke were exhaling from amidst the ravages. The rubble was very warm, as I stepped on concrete and metal, my feet felt the heat.

9.

My siege notes are beginning to disperse. I write disjointed paragraphs but I cannot discipline myself to write everyday. I miss the world. I miss life. I miss myself. People around me also go through these ups and downs, but I find them generally to be more resilient, more steadfast, more courageous than I. I am consumed by other people’s despair. It’s not very smart — I mean for a strategy of survival.

I am haunted by the nameless and faceless caught under rubble. In the undergrounds of destroyed buildings or simply in the midst of its ravages. Awaiting to be given a proper burial.

10.

I have tried to the best of my abilities to keep up to date with professional commitments from my former life. It’s almost impossible, but if I stop I know I will fall apart entirely. It is surreal to write emails following up with work. The world outside is decidedly distant. The mental image of my apartment in New York is practically impossible to summon. Avenue A, the deli at the corner and the Yemenis who own it, all lapsed. This is what happens when you are under siege. My friend Christine said to me yesterday that she forces herself to go to the office to keep from going insane, but she cannot remember anything about her work before the siege started. The sound of Israeli air raids comes every so often just low enough to spread chills of horror and fright. But the droves of displaced who arrive here every day have transformed the space of the city. Their wretchedness is the poignant marker of the war.

I spent the afternoon yesterday in Karm el-Zeytoon, a neighborhood in Ashrafieh [a Christian area of east Beirut] (that translates literally to “olive grove”) where some schools have been opened to house some of the displaced from the south and from Beirut’s southern suburb. I played cards with a six-year-old with one elbow in a cast and eyes sparkling with humor. An elderly overweight woman came over and asked R. to find her and her sister a room. She could not tolerate the heat or the mosquitoes in her old age and health conditions. She begged her. She wanted to die in dignity, not like that, on a mattress in a school. She could barely hold back her tears.

I left them reluctantly.

11.

Throughout the war, shelling, siege, grief, and sorrow, the bougainvilleas have been in full, glorious bloom. Their colors are dizzying in their intensity: purplish red, boastful fuchsia, glaring white, and sometimes canary yellow. Most of the time, their bloom, which is the objective outcome of “natural” factors, namely, access to water, sun, heat, and even perhaps wind, has irritated me. Everything has changed in this time of war, except the full glorious bloom of the bougainvilleas. Other flowering trees have wilted, or shied, as their franchised gardeners or patrons no longer operate on the same schedule or have evacuated on the ships of the bi-nationals.

On the road to Saida, I was struck, irked, and even upset at the bougainvilleas full bloom. Between their abundant leaves and flowers, vignettes of the ravages appeared. Bridges torn in their midst framed by the purple and fuchsia bloom of the bougainvilleas.

We drove along the old road. It had not survived unscathed. There were small holes in its middle, and pieces of rocks, cement, and debris. From within the winding inner roads, the new highway was visible and the big craters from the shelling.

The coastal road would have been bustling at this time in the summer. Expats, bi-nationals, students on summer vacation, and tourists. This is the stretch of the south’s most visited beaches. They range from the very fancy to the modest. At this time in the summer, the roads would have been busy with the town’s handsome beach boys, tanned, strutting in swim trunks and a claim to some local fame. Everything was eerily deserted. Even army soldiers, posted in spots with seemingly no rhyme or reason, walked cautiously, expecting to duck for cover at any moment. Life all around had folded and packed.

We drove by closed homes, doors locked, windows shut, shutters sealed. The last gaze of their dwellers still lingering on the front porches, the gaze of a hesitant farewell that quickly ran a checklist to make sure all was safely tucked away and hoped for the best, maybe even whispered a prayer or invoked God or Christ’s clemency and then hurried into the car and sped away for a temporary safer haven.

The bay of Saida appeared and the coastal highway leading to its seaside corniche was entirely deserted. The bridge that unloads traffic from the highway onto the corniche had been pounded. Carcasses of cars lined its sides, some buried under blocks of concrete. We drove around and turned and entered Saida from roads tucked behind. The orange groves were dizzyingly fragrant. Car traffic inside the city was heavy. Pedestrian traffic was heavy.

Saida had received more than 100,000 displaced until two days ago.

I was told people were renting entrances of buildings to sleep at night, or the garages of cars. So far more than 85 schools were housing all these displaced, in addition to an old prison and the building of the court of justice.

The building stood on a hill overlooking old Saida and the fort. There was a soft gentle breeze and all was quieter up on that hill.

We were guided by one of the administrators. The floor was inundated with natural light. Even the corridor was well-lit. The rooms were spacious and fit with four beds. The floor was not at full capacity.

In the next room lay two women. One was of an advanced age. Her son sat next to her and was caring for her. Across from her was an elderly woman who had physical disabilities and could not walk. She was from Abbassiyeh. She had been left behind. The mayor of that village had dropped her off and left. She did not speak. No one knew anything about her. She carried no identity papers. She lay in bed and stared into the garden. Her gaze was not unfocused. In fact it was intent. I have rarely seen such sharp, pure, and focused sorrow. We moved around her room and she did not budge. The hospital administrator greeted her, to no reply.

Ahmad and I drove back the same way. My heart had never felt as heavy. There was a lot to hang on to. I looked forward to the fragrance of orange blossoms and was now forgiving to the full glorious bloom of the bougainvilleas.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Rasha Salti, a Lebanese curator and writer who has published in the London Review of Books and elsewhere, splits her time between New York City and Beirut. She returned to the Lebanese capital on July 11 and remains there today. These 11 edited excerpts are taken from her blog and cover the full 33-day span of the recent war in Lebanon.

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