Friday, August 25, 2006

Journey To South Lebanon: Part One

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On Sunday morning, we grabbed coffees and traditional Lebanese breakfast sandwiches called Knefes, and headed to South Lebanon. The highway to the south was lined with huge billboards with images of guerillas with anti-tank missiles and the words “Divine Victory” written on them, other signs with wounded children with the slogan “Made in the USA” written in large letters, and multiple others highlighting last month’s struggle between Hezbollah guerilla fighters and the Israeli Defense Forces.

Much of the road had sustained damage from the bombings. Almost every bridge was ripped to shreds with wires hanging out of them from the huge bombs that had been dropped on them by Israeli fighter jets. There were various detours along the way as some areas on the highway were impassable. We drove cautiously and occasionally came to stops where cars would slowly creep through bomb craters in the center of the roads. The road was far from safe to travel on.

Photojournalist Andrew Stern, a Lebanese photographer and translator named Rema, and myself made jokes and listened to music to lighten the mood. It was going to be a long day. Our plan was to cross the Litani River and travel through various villages throughout the south, document the destruction caused by the war, and interview families about living during the war.

In Jiye, just south of Beirut, we saw the oil refinery that had been bombarded by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), which has left a major environmental disaster in Lebanon. We pulled over to take pictures and shoot interviews with employees of the refinery. Part of the wreckage was still smoking, even though the bombing had happened weeks ago. Oil covered the small palm trees and grass surrounding the destroyed oil tanks. It will take lots of money and time to fix the situation caused by the destruction.

In Sidon, huge billboards with pictures of Nasrallah were hanging from buildings. Cars everywhere were decorated with yellow Hezbollah flags and pictures of Nasrallah. Much of the area south of Beirut was hit hard by the conflict. The brutal invasion of Israel has heightened the popularity of Hezbollah to over 80% nationwide. Most of the Western media has linked the war to Hezbollah capturing two Israeli soldiers. Most people that we spoke with in Lebanon have linked the conflict with what is seen as a history of imperialism from the United States and Israel.

We crossed the Litani River and proceeded into Tyre. There is a large gateway into Tyre that has yellow Hezbollah flags and a huge mural of Hassan Nasrallah, the city’s hero. We ran into a caravan of cars with Hezbollah flags slowing traffic to a stop. We stopped to see what was happening. It was a funeral procession headed to the small village of Chamaa. It was to bury three Hezbollah fighters and a two-year-old girl. We asked if we could follow the procession and document the ceremony. We were given permission from one of the fighter's brothers, but cautioned that Israeli soldiers were in the area surrounding the burial grounds.

We lost the procession and got stopped at a military checkpoint run by the Lebanese Army. The checkpoint had a sign stating that foreigners would have to receive a permit at the office in Tyre. With some haggling, we got though and attempted to catch the caravan. We got lost and wondered past several obliterated houses. A television crew was busy interviewing a family who had lost their home. There are still some independent journalists around, but most of the major networks are starting to pull out as the world moves on to other stories.

Eventually, we found our way back to the funeral procession. Cars with yellow flags lined the war-beaten dirt road. We walked up to the burial ground and saw scores of weeping mourners. They were overcome with grief. Women screamed in pain. Men lined the corners of the brick-lined ditches for the dead. Lynn Saif El Din, the two year child, died while seeking refuge from their destroyed villages in a fire station in the southern city of Tyre. Ali Deep Srour, Haida Darwich, Moussa and Hussein Jaber, the three dead Hezbollah fighters, were heroes to the villagers. One of the fighters, a twenty-three year old, was to have been married on the day of his funeral. It was hard not to be penetrated and moved by the sadness.

After prayers, men carried the three coffins with Hezbollah flags and the small coffin with a green flag toward their final resting places. The Imam said another prayer after a relative of the dead little girl, overcome with grief, was dragged off of her small coffin. The coffins were carried toward the burial chambers. The bodies were removed from the coffins and placed into the tombs. People were hysterically weeping. It was incredibly hard to bear. The bodies were weeks old and the stench of death filled the air. Rotting human flesh has a distinct smell that is unforgettable. While capturing the ceremony on video, I felt like I was part of the ceremony and not a reporter documenting the event. I looked at Rema and saw the sadness in her face. Andrew worked hard to capture the emotion of the event and you could see that he was equally touched.

Some mourners were aggravated by the constant clicking of cameras and the video cameras lurking in the crowd. We were there with a couple of other journalists including a famous war photographer from the New York Times. I wondered whether they had been hardened by war or if this was something that they were also digesting in the same way.

Before leaving, I interviewed the brother of one of the fallen Hezbollah fighters. I hugged him and felt my credibility as an objective journalist slipping away.

To Be Continued…

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