Conflict

Chapter 10: The Sleep Thief

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I have my first sleepless night. 

Just after midnight, I’m awoken by a peculiar noise, halfway between a whistle and a rumble. Slowly, I realise that someone is snoring. The sound is so loud that were it not preventing me from going back to sleep, it would almost be comical. 

At first, I assume it must be one of my roommates and from the decibel level, I’m thinking it must be the woman in the bunk above. But then I realise that somehow, this incredible noise is coming from down the hall. I ease out of bed and pad over to the door. I can now hear that it is coming from a room two doors down, and is being amplified by the bare walls and high ceilings of the narrow corridor.

I creep towards the room and peek inside. Incredibly, everyone looks like they are asleep. Trying not to disturb them – although I could have marched a herd of elephants down the hall at this point, and no one would have heard - I gently close the door, slip back to our room and close our door. The payoff is meagre. I can still hear the snoring. It’s still loud enough that I’m surprised the windows aren’t rattling. 

Shortly before dawn, when our sleep thief has either rolled over into their pillow or else expired (and as no one in our now reduced group is due to leave for the next four days, I find myself rooting grumpily for the latter eventuality), I manage to fall asleep, only to be woken 30 minutes later by a fresh round of rumbling. By now, the sun is rising, so I surrender to the inevitable and lie in bed dazed, too tired to yawn. My roommates are all awake, too, rubbing their eyes blearily. 

Breakfast is an unusually silent affair, although as the herbal tea kicks in, a more jocular mood begins to surface. Halfway through, the source of our night-time torture emerges looking sheepish but annoyingly, as fresh as a daisy. At least one of us has slept well. 

Because the guesthouse the LMTA normally uses in the next stop is closed for refurbishment, our walk today is going to be another marathon. Our goal for the evening is the village of Aitanit, which lies on the western side of the Beka’a Valley. All in, it should be a 25-kilometre walk, though thankfully, more downhill than yesterday.

We gear up but before we leave, Joseph informs us that our host, Mahdi, whose delectable produce was so rapturously received the previous night that his charming wife, Amal, was constantly ferrying back and forth to the kitchen to keep up with our appetites, wants to give a short talk.  

From the conversation over dinner, I’ve come to understand that Mehdi is an agricultural evangelist. He and Amal are slowly converting their fellow farmers to organic methods, and are also trying to protect Lebanese crop diversity. Amongst other things, I now know that there are 61 varieties of grains indigenous to Lebanon, which seems impressive for such a small country. In fact, the bread we had for dinner, served fresh from the oven, had been made with a particularly old variety that only he grew anymore.

“It’s not really as difficult as people say,” Mehdi explained, “but this variety isn’t as resistant to some pests and diseases, so you have be more careful with it, which is why it’s fallen out of favour, but really it’s just a bit more time-consuming, nothing more.”

I can understand why farmers would choose to grow a less demanding variety of grain, theirs is not the easiest of jobs, so why not reduce the workload where possible? But its sweet, nutty smokiness got me thinking about the trade-offs modern life encourages us to make, and whether the loss of a unique flavour like this is really a price worth paying for greater convenience.

Naturally, I assume we’re in for another disquisition on the value of preserving heritage foods, but instead, Mahdi wants to share his take on his hometown’s reputation for sectarian harmony.

Like most Lebanese villages, Rashaya is home to a mixed population. In this case, a Druze-Greek Orthodox/Catholic blend, with a smattering of Syriac Christians for fun. During the civil war, it managed to avoid the massacres and population transfers that took place in other parts of Lebanon and it's clear that to our host, this is a source of great pride.

“Rashaya is the citadel of freedom and independence,” he tells us, alluding to the village’s role as the epicentre of the 1925 Great Druze Revolt against the French Mandate, and later as the birthplace of the Republic, “but it is also the village of co-existence. It doesn’t matter if you pray in a church and I do not, we are all one. Rashaya welcomes you. Rashaya welcomes everyone.”

I look over at our guide, Robin. He’s in the background, studying the ground tactfully. Rashaya is his ancestral home and until the mid-1970’s, he and his family lived here. His old house is a couple of streets away but no one has lived there since they, and the village’s other Christian residents, were driven out by Palestinian Fedayeen fighters at the start of the civil war.

As with so many instances of mass expulsion, the logic behind this episode was the desire to create a population that would not present future complications. The Fedayeen roamed southern Lebanon freely throughout the 1970’s, and before the war broke out, they effectively controlled large swathes of the country. With Lebanon’s Christians officially ranged against them and politically and militarily opposed to any Palestinian use of Lebanon to fight Israel, for the Fedayeen, Rashaya’s Christians were a potential Fifth Column. 

When the attack came, most of the families fled to Beirut and although Rashaya’s Druze didn’t have a hand in their expulsion, they didn’t prevent them, either. 

When the Fedayeen left, Rashaya was occupied by the Syrian army, which requisitioned the house. After the Syrians came the Israelis, and when they pulled back to the south of Hasbaya, the Syrians returned. So it wasn’t until the mid-2000s, when Syria finally left Lebanon, that Robin’s family was able to get their house back, and by then, they had grown used to living elsewhere.

But the civil war wasn’t the first time Rashaya’s Christians had been attacked. In 1860, a time of wide-scale sectarian slaughter that led to the deaths of over 20,000 people in Lebanon and Syria and lent European powers the excuse they had long sought to intervene in what was then the Ottoman Empire, Christians, Druze and other religious minorities were slaughtered, mostly by Sunni Muslims and during the Revolt of 1925, hundreds of Christians in the Rashaya district were again slaughtered by their neighbours.

Of course, no one mentioned any of this. Lebanon’s long history of sectarian violence, which sadly often masks its even longer history of sectarian harmony, complicates discussions of previous atrocities. If the victims of 1860 and 1925 were mostly Christians and Druze, the massacres perpetrated during the Civil War had not just affected nearly every one of Lebanon’s communities, they had been carried out by nearly all of them, too. 

Because of the horrendous slaughter of unarmed Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, Tell al-Zaatar and Qarantina, the impression many foreign visitors tend to get is that the civil war massacres had been one-sided and this notion that Christian militias had been particularly savage was a pillar of the dominant post-war narrative shaped under the Syrian occupation.

But many other massacres had taken place. Palestinians had killed Christians. Syrians had killed Palestinians and Christians. Shi’ites had killed Palestinians. Druze had killed Christians. Christians had killed Druze. Alawites and Sunnis had killed one another in Tripoli, Christians had killed one another in Beirut. And the Israelis had killed everyone indiscriminately, ending the lives of 22,000 civilians in the two weeks it took them to invade Beirut in 1982, alone.

Most Lebanese had been affected in some way. Everyone knew who had issued the orders and in many cases, the people who had carried those orders out, some might now even live only a few streets away from the families of their victims, others ruled the country, all seemingly untouchable, because of the Faustian bargain Lebanon had made to end its long conflict.

In public, people tried not to dwell on the suffering, they would smile and nod when a member of another sect spoke of harmony, of being one great family, even when they knew, perhaps even first hand, that this had not always been the case.

Unlike the end of the Second World War, the dismantling of Apartheid, the Rwandan Genocide or the Balkan War trials, instances when formal structures were put in place to force the issue of accountability (even if that accountability was one-sided), Lebanon had gone from 15 years of war to an instant peace under the aegis of occupation by two of the foreign military forces instrument in its destruction. With a few notable exceptions, amongst them Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea, no one had even apologised fro their role in Lebanon’s war.

This was why some spoke of ‘war amnesia’. The term was thrown around a lot, especially by those who lived the war out abroad, were just children when it ended, or who were born afterwards, and who could not understand why their parents and grandparents would not talk about their experiences. They pointed to post-war Lebanon’s pursuit of hedonism as further proof that everything had just been forgotten. 

Though it sounded sexy, especially as a headline, I’d never found the claim to be accurate, and in almost 20 years of living in the country, I never met anyone old enough to have experienced the civil war who has forgotten a single moment of it. On the contrary, many people continued to relive the horror on a daily basis, and for many years, it was possible to walk into any pharmacy and buy heavy-duty tranquillisers over the counter.

So everyone listened and nodded. Satisfied that he has done all he can to leave us with the best impression of Rashaya, Mehdi accompanies us back to the souk. 

On the way, Robin takes us on a short detour so that he can pass by his old home, where he stops to take a couple of photos and mentions that he remembers playing in the street here as a child. 

Neither man talks about why Robin and his family no longer live in Rashaya or why their house is shuttered, but I get the impression that neither is under any illusion as to why. 

As we reached the main street, Madhi leaves us. With smile and a wave, he invites us to come back again, anytime. “Beyti, beitak,” he tells us all, gripping Robin’s hand in a firm shake. “My house is your house.”

And like that, we are all, once again, family.

 

Chapter 7: Flashback - A Lucky Coincidence and a Close Call.

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In fact, I had been to Shebaa a couple of times as a reporter but I had only ever seen the Farms from a distance.

I had, however, visited neighbouring Bastara, a rather desolate pocket of land home to a rundown farm belonging to the Zohra family. Though no one disputed Bastara’s Lebanese appurtenance, it existed in a weird geopolitical bubble, cut off from Lebanon by the vagaries of topography, politics and land mines. The farm had been handed back to official Lebanese control after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 but a fence put up during the Occupation still separated the farm from the rest of the country.

Getting there meant taking what passed for a road from Kfar Shuba, the nearest village. More rut than road, the track was a car-killer. It wound across the lower slopes of Jabal al-Sheikh through untended fields strewn with piles of gravel and rocks the size of small children. Israeli army outposts capped the crests of several peaks higher up. The view from the track was breathtaking, you could see down into the Houla Valley and almost over the hills of Upper Galilee to the coast. From higher up in the outposts, it must have been possible to see Haifa and possibly beyond. No wonder the Israelis refused to relinquish this part of Lebanon.

After about twenty dusty minutes of bumping along the track, the ‘border’ appeared. On the other side, a well-maintained Israeli army patrol road followed the fence, both uphill to the outposts and down onto the plateau below. 

Turn left and it would be an easy drive to the Shebaa Farms. Not that you’d get there before being shot. Turn right and a short drive led to the Bastara Bubble. In those first months after the withdrawal, it was still possible to drive along this patrol road to the farm, passing the remains of the outpost, blown up during the withdrawal. Beyond it, the road continued down to where one day, the borders of Lebanon and Syria might meet again, but which for now remained occupied land. 

The most important thing to remember about navigating this road, after getting the necessary UNIFIL and military permissions of course, was to drive slowly and visibly. This let the Israeli soldiers in the outposts, as well as any militias hidden in the hills, know you were not up to anything sneaky, though you still chanced one or both sides shooting or shelling you anyway.

The Zohras were a family of goat-herders. They’d remained on their farm throughout the Occupation because firstly, the land was theirs and secondly, because without it, they had no way to make a living. Mohammad Zohra, his brother Qassem and Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima had clung onto their farm even after Israeli soldiers razed their olive groves and fruit orchards, temporarily confiscated their goats, even after Mohammad’s wife, unable to get to hospital because the soldiers refused to open the gate to let them through until it was too late, had died. 

I never got to see Mohammad Zohra on his land. On my first visit, a few weeks after the withdrawal, he’d gone down into Marjayoun to get supplies and so, we had tea with Qassem and Fatima. On my second, a few months later, he’d finally been driven out of Bastara under a vicious barrage of tank and mortar fire that had killed his entire flock of 250 goats in a matter of moments. When I found him, he was hunched over a stove in a friend’s home in Kfar Shuba, crying. For the first time in his 75 years, he told me between sobs, he had nothing and nowhere to go. 

“What is this war to me? I’m just a goat-keeper,” he said, twisting a glass of tea mournfully in his hands. “It’s always the small, unimportant people like us, never the big players, that suffer.”

Driving slowly to Bastara afterwards, we had taped the word ‘press’ along the side of the car and the roof and were flying large white flags from both windows. It was fair to say that we were nervous.

As we drew into the Zohra's farm, the stench of death was pervasive. A couple of Mohammad’s guard dogs, who had run off during the shelling, barked half-heartedly at us but stayed crouched in the grass by the road, unwilling to enter the charnel house their farm had become.

I was travelling with a Jordanian colleague, Lara, who worked with me at the Daily Star in Beirut. She’d volunteered to help me search the house, document the attack and try to find a stack of documents Mohammad Zohra had asked us to bring back, if we could find them.

There was a large hole in the roof of the house created by a shell, which had landed without exploding, so the living room was a mess of rubble and dust. We didn’t want to stay any longer than necessary, so Lara volunteered to keep looking for the documents, while I headed to the goat pens, source of the stench, to make notes and take photos. 

Charging around a corner, camera in hand, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a very scruffy and very startled-looking young man in camouflage gear. The encounter caught us both off guard and so it took me a few seconds to register that he had a machine-gun, angled up at my chest.

I’d only been in Lebanon for a couple of years at that point and my Arabic wasn’t great, but I was freaked out and he was speaking far too quickly for me to understand, anyway. Or rather, shouting. Slowly putting my hands up, letting my camera fall around my neck and trying not to do anything stupid, I replied with the only words I could still remember. 

Inglizi. Sahafi. Biktoub muqallet an al hadath. ” I said, continuing in English and pointing at myself, the farm and up towards the outposts and back to the shelled remains of the house. “I’m a British, a journalist. I’m writing an article, about what happened.”

My new companion looked every bit as freaked out as I felt. I have no idea how that conversation might have ended had Lara not been with me. Not terribly well, I imagine, for he was growing increasingly flustered but just then, Lara stepped out of the house. Without missing a beat, she also raised her hands and began to slowly walk over, speaking loudly in Arabic, saying her name was Lara and asking if everything was alright. Even in my fright, I understood that she was speaking in Arabic so that the man could hear that at least one of us wasn’t a foreigner.

Without lowering his gun, he beckoned Lara forwards, asking her why we were at the farm and where she was from. She told him that she was a journalist, that she’d come to report on the shelling and that we’d spoken to Mohammad Zohra that morning in Kfar Shuba. She also added that although she was Jordanian, she was of Palestinian origin and her family originally came from Nablus. We both agreed afterwards that this lucky coincidence defused a very dangerous situation. It certainly saved us a lot of complications.

As she drew near, two more men emerged from behind the house and followed behind her. We now had three machine guns trained on us. Reaching my side, Lara and the scruffy man began a short but very intense conversation.

I didn’t follow much of it but I heard the word ‘Nablus’ a couple of times, so it sounded like they were talking about Palestine. Whatever Lara said seemed to reassure the man, at least enough that he decided it was better to let us go rather than detain us for questioning. Or worse. Waving his machine-gun towards the car, he barked at us to leave. We didn’t need telling twice. Thanking them all profusely and waving like idiot tourists, we got in the car and drove back up the patrol road as slowly as we could. It must have taken Lara every ounce of her resolve to not hit the accelerator but we both understood that any sudden move now could easily get us shot, either by the three men, other militias or the Israelis.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally drove through the fence and ‘back’ into Lebanon. Hearts pounding out of our chests, we began to laugh hysterically as relief flooded our systems. Once our nerves had settled, I asked Lara what she and the man had been talking about. She confirmed my suspicion that we had stumbled into a trio of Palestinian fedayeen, guerrillas, most probably members of the PFLP, a radical and rather violent faction supported by Syria. It was likely they were scouts and had taken up position in Bastara after the Zohras had been driven out. 

The rapid fire conversation had mostly been about determining whether Lara really was from Nablus, as she claimed. It was sheer luck that the man’s mother was from Nablus, so he’d quizzed Lara about places, people and street names, and had even tried to trick her by asking about a bakery in the town, but pretending to get its name and location wrong. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated gambit, but it was only after Lara had politely corrected him that he’d finally relaxed enough to decide it was less hassle to let us go. As our hysteria subsided and we drove back to Kfar Shuba across a rocky, unforgiving landscape made beautiful by a rush of endorphins and the golden caress of the setting sun, I imagine we were both thanking serendipity for saving our skins.