Five hours after the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. In a village just north of the Litani River I walk over houses, houses that have become ruins of what once was. Here are prayerbeads still in their box, there a single shoe, a little farther-a babywalker. Lift up this foam mattress and there is the blood of the child who slept there when the missile hit.
Walking through the rubble I come across something more lying there, something somehow familiar. They are two photographs — moments frozen in time, something that once was, suspended in my shaking hand. A woman with black eyes like arrows piercing space, lips set and her hand motionless holding a piece of fruit. The next photograph is a group of people, men, women, girls and boys, posed with hands on each others’ backs in the foyer of a home.
A man walks through the rubble, he picks up pieces here and there and drops them again. Suddenly he walks towards a bulldozer with a Hezbollah flag waving from the top and directs the driver towards one end of the wreckage before walking back in my direction. His mother, sister, nephew and cousin were asleep where this home once stood when the Israeli missile struck fierce a few nights ago. The ceasefire has permitted him to come back to the site to silently sift through the remains of his family.
I stumble over the ruins to him and gently hand him the photographs. He shuffles slowly through the pictures of his family, one over another, three times, and puts them in his pocket. He looks at me, looks through me, eyes empty.
There is a ceasfire, but how to put the pieces back together?
Twenty minutes before seven am, when the ceasefire was scheduled to take effect, Israeli bombing could be heard in all directions, near and far, and the missiles seemed to race against the last seconds of war. Fifteen minutes before ceasefire, one of these missiles hit a home outside of Nabitiye and killed a forty year old disabled man who lived alone. His neighbors did not rejoice in the ceasefire-they were busy collecting the man’s body parts. His head was found severed with a single finger in the mouth. Today many Lebanese people, displaced by the four week war, left the schools, centers, and parks housing refugees in the north to return to their homes. Many of them did not know if their houses were still standing, and what had become of family members and friends left behind in the villages. Some, whose homes had been destroyed, remained in the centers, or arranged to stay with relatives.
Because Israel bombed virtually all of the roads and bridges in the south of Lebanon and over the Litani River, those returning spent hours on the road as a makeshift bridge was hastily constructed.
There was some joy, though not entirely celebratory, visible on the roads and entrances to towns. Hezbollah flags were held in passenger’s hands and the portrait of Nasrallah a common sight in rear windows. As the Israeli soldiers retreated from southern Lebanon with occasional glances over their soldiers, and missile-launching planes vanished from the sky, people felt at ease on their land again. After the destruction of two Israeli warships, fourteen tanks, and the deaths of over 70 soldiers, all culminating in a somber Israeli retreat, Hezbollah claimed the ground war victory. For many Lebanese this was predictable. If during its 23-year occupation here Israel was unable to defeat Hezbollah and the Lebanese resistance (finally being pushed out by Hezbollah in 2000), then how could Israel expect to disarm and crush Hezbollah in one month? Yet amongst the relief of the Israeli retreat, there is an utter sadness of returning to places in the south where there were once parks, stores, homes, schools and entire villages, where now only a few houses remain and the rest is flattened, where histories have become totaled beneath cement. Some villages stink with the decomposition of bodies, and as the cleanup continues, the Lebanese civilian death count will surely multiply. And from within the anguish of the rubble and lives lost there is danger: undetonated grenades, cluster ammunitions, and fragmentations illegally used by the Israelis. In the first day of the ceasefire a few people returning to their homes and a red cross worker have triggered these weapons.
As a United Nations MAC worker (part of a mine cleaning team) put it: “We just finished cleaning these things up in the south from the last time the Israelis used them. They (Israelis) even gave us maps of where they were. Now they scattered them everywhere all over again. It’s like going right back to zero.”
The families must start all over again as well. A group of sisters and their small children, who have been living in a refugee center in Saida, plan to stay with relatives in Beirut. They survived the bombing in their village on the Israeli border for twenty days. When the house they were in got hit the women called out the names of their children and where able to find the ones that survived.
One woman with her children was unaware that her sister was only meters away for an entire week obstructed by the rubble that had fallen between them. Another, who was seven months pregnant with twins, gave premature birth into the toilet while the village burned and bombs fell continuously. Among the sounds of bombs were her cries and those of the first baby she birthed,a girl who came out feet first and died instantly. A boy was birthed afterwards and died 24 hours later. She had been trying to concieve for four years before the war. The sisters were able to walk with their children to another village, and then another, under impossible circumstances of air bombardment and artillery fire of soldiers crossing over from Israel, and were eventually evacuated by the Red Cross to Saida.
In refugee centers in Saida survivors of the first Qana massacre in 1996 await return to Qana once again, where this month an Israeli missile killed 41 people, mostly children. A family with eight children from a village outside of Nabatiye will stay with relatives — their house was destroyed by a missile and they hid out for a week, as two of the children fell very sick from having no water or food, until escaping the bombardment to arrive to relative safety in Saida.
There is a ceasefire, but how to put the pieces back together?
Families shattered, scattered from graveyards to the long highway home. Eyes tatooed with scenes of horror. Bodies waiting beneath wreckage to be named and buried. Homes gone. Yes, there is a ceasefire. A ceasefire that cannot stop the pain.
Dahiye, the southern suburbs of Beirut, is a city of rubble. People appear miniscule walking amongst the skyscraping ruins. Even in the chaos of wreckage- clothes and toys strewn about, rebar twisting towards the sky, mountains of concrete and remains-there is a certain absoluteness to destruction, somehow everything that is still remaining becomes the same — gone.
The walls of homes that once protected families and cradled their lives are now in pieces, shreds, fine dust. Sift through the rubble. Kick the rubble. Stand still, silent, alone with the absoluteness of destruction and accompanied by the millions of shattered pieces of everything that was here before. Leave the rubble. Try to forget. Walk away from the terrible sight. But your mind is in pieces, lives in pieces, people who never again will stand in the doorway with greetings. You can walk away. There is a ceasefire. But missiles fall, they fall, not from the skies, but behind Lebanese eyes, they fall forever in memory, they are still crashing into what once was.