It was the sudden eruption at the back of the room upstairs at Sandino’s which brought us eventually to the burial ground at Qana.
At the edge of the village, pictures of each of the 28 victims were displayed on a wall around the canopied space where the graves are laid out in precise, neat pattern by the place where the building which they were crushed under once stood.
Qana Mayor Mohammed Atiya made a formal speech of welcome while relatives of the dead stood sentinel by the graves. Shane Cullen, who had designed the memorial plaque we’d brought over, explained that it had been hewn from Irish blue limestone because we wanted “to leave a little bit of Ireland here in Qana, as a sign of our sorrow.” I talked of how we’d heard of the massacre and why we’d occupied the Raytheon plant in Derry in response. Goretti Horgan sang a Gaelic lament. Jimmy Kelly played the tin whistle.
Afterwards, we were invited into the homes of some of the victims where we sat around awkwardly and sipped the glasses of sweet tea that were offered to us everywhere in Lebanon.
Our hearts grieve with yours, I told Maryam Shaloub, who had moved into the home of her sister to look after what was left of the family. Five had been among the 28 who’d perished in the basement when a Raytheon bunker-buster brought the house where they’d sought shelter tumbling down. Some were squashed to death, some choked on dirt and debris. Most were children.
She bustled around, affecting crossness with two teenage survivors for being tardy with the tea, then beaming with pride at how well they are doing in school. We grieve for our loneliness that those we loved are not here, she said with a determined smile of seeming serenity. But we do not grieve that they are dead. We are joyful to know they are in paradise. They are martyrs now.
But there was no semblance of joy from Hala, who had lost her husband, her two children, her mother and father; sitting on the sofa alongside me, she was stiff, immobile, unspeaking, impenetrable, her face a mask of frozen pain.
Although we’d had little appreciation at the time of the depth of the anguish which had hollowed happiness out from the families of Qana, this was the reason we’d trashed the Raytheon plant.The meeting at Sandino’s pub had been called by the Derry Anti-War Coalition (DAWC) on August 2 last year to hear from Joshua Casteel, a former US Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib, and Iraqi lawyer Hani Lazim. But the focus of discussion turned quickly to Lebanon and Qana. For two days, television bulletins and newspapers had featured pictures of children being carried in dripping bundles from the crumpled ruin. “We have to do something,” came the angry roar from the rear. “Raytheon’s down the road. Derry’s a total disgrace.”
The meeting voted to protest at the Raytheon premises, and scheduled a gathering five days later to decide on the detail of what would be done.
US company Raytheon is one of the world’s biggest arms manufacturers, with 73,000 employees in 45 countries and 2006 sales of $20.3 billion. It specialises in electronic guidance and control systems for weapons, including the Patriot, the Sidewinder, the Sea Sparrow, the Tomahawk, the Maverick, and the bunker-buster Paveway used at Qana, which carries 945 pounds of explosive tritonal, about 80 percent TNT, 20 percent aluminum. In April this year, Israel ordered 2,000 more units to replenish stores depleted in last year’s bombing of Lebanon.
The arrival of Raytheon in Derry, announced in August 1999 by John Hume and David Trimble on the steps of the Guildhall in their first joint appearance after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, was widely hailed as a down-payment on the “peace dividend” arising from the Belfast Agreement. Sinn Fein and the DUP quickly joined the peace laureates’ parties in praising the company for creating new jobs. None of the parties has flinched from this position since. Everyone at Sandino’s knew it very likely that Raytheon soft-ware had guided the Qana bomb (proof, in the form of the code-numbers on fuselage fragments, was soon to come to hand), and knew also that it would be futile to appeal to the political mainstream to speak against the company’s role.
And so we did what we believed we had to, entering the plant and barricading ourselves inside. Nine of us were arrested after eight hours inside the plant, during which we hurled computers from the windows, used fire extinguishers to put the mainframe out of action and destroyed any paperwork and computer discs we could find: we next appear in court on September 3rd. The DAWC thought it appropriate to send a delegation to Qana on the anniversary of the massacre to lay a memorial stone.
The inscription on the stone, in Arabic and English, comprised two lines from the narrative of Bloody Sunday in the Museum of Free Derry and two lines from Patti Smith’s poem, “Qana”.
The dead lie in familiar shapes.
No-one who yearns for justice is a stranger,
No-one who dies for justice is forgotten.
The miracle is love.
The 28 who’d perished came from two extended families, the Hashems and the Shaloubs. They’d been sheltering in a three-storey building at the edge of the village, because it was relatively new and built in the lee of a hill and they reasoned that it offered better protection than their less sturdy homes. Villages in a strip along the Israeli border had been shelled and attacked by Israeli aircraft for more than two weeks. Qana had been repeatedly hit. But the two families were among many who had been too frightened to flee to the nearest town, Tyre. The seven-mile highway was a junkyard of houses in rubble and burnt-out cars.
On streets around the Imam Ali mosque today, chunks of concrete and mortar still dangle precariously from crooked iron rods jutting out from rubble and dust. But much of the village the location, many believe, of a miracle when Jesus turned water into wine for a wedding feast has either been rebuilt or resembles a construction site. On every roof, it seems, young men are hauling buckets of cement and cinder blocks up by pulley. They look mildly curious when our group straggles into view, smile and return thumbs-up signs.
The assault on Lebanon had begun on July 12th, when Hezbollah fighters crossed the border, killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others. They claimed they intended to bargain the captured men for some of the hundreds of Lebanese Muslims held without charge in Israeli jails. Israel responded by launching a land, sea and air bombardment against the Muslim areas of southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and south Beirut, and against the infrastructure of Lebanon generally roads, bridges, ports, power stations, fuel stores, Beirut airport, factories. Nowhere was remote from the targets. Nowhere was safe.
Lebanon is smaller than Northern Ireland, a mere 135 miles by 50; hemmed in by Israel, Syria, and the Mediterranean Sea, it has a population of four million. In the course of the 34-day conflict, Hezbollah was to fire 3,900 rockets into Israel, according to the Israeli government killing 44 civilians and 106 soldiers; the Israeli air-force, meanwhile, flew 12,000 combat missions and its army fired 100,000 shells, killing 1,200 Lebanese, including 250 fighters, according to Hezbollah, 530 according to Israel. Villages along the southern border were attacked with particular ferocity—Tiri, Kafra, Zebquin, Aita El Shaab, Bint Jbiel, Tebnin, etc., etc. But Qana struck a particular chord.
Ten years previously, more than 106 Qana people, 41 of them under 16, had been killed in an Israeli attack on the UN compound where they’d sought refuge. There had been a chorus of protest across the world, although neither the UN (because of the certainty of a US veto) nor any western country issued a formal condemnation. Now the death storm of Israel had swirled across the border again.
At around one in the morning in the house where the two families huddled, as two of the men were making tea, a bomb slammed into the structure. Perhaps five minutes later, as local people rushed towards the scene and adults inside scrambled amid the smoke and screams to find who’d survived, a second bomb gouged into the earth alongside and exploded. It seems almost certain it was this second bomb that toppled the building.
The Israelis claimed their target had been Hezbollah positions nearby from which rockets had earlier been launched.
Muhammad Mahmud Shalhub, a farmer, 61, in the house when it happened, recalls: “When the first strike hit, the whole house lifted…I was sitting by the door. It got very dusty and smoky. We were all in shock…I started pushing people out whomever I could find.
“Five minutes later, another air strike came…We could barely breathe and we couldn’t see anything. There were three rooms in the house where people were hiding. After the first strike, a lot of earth was pushed up into the rooms. Then the house and all the earth dropped down onto us.”
Ghazi Udaybi rushed to the house when it was hit. He says he and others pulled a number of people clear after the first strike, but could do little after the second bomb struck. He’s scornful of the Israeli explanation. “If Hezbollah was firing near the house, would a family of over 50 people just sit there?”
Another man recalls voices calling from inside the debris, “Don’t die, Don’t die!” or crying for fathers, mothers, brothers, “Ali! Mohammed! Mama!”
Sanna Shalhoub, 18, round face, bright brown eyes, a smile of instant friendship to greet us, who lost her mother, father, older sister and two younger brothers, readily recites her story for us, and for an Al Jazeera crew covering the anniversary: “I was scared, but normally when I’m scared I cry out for my mother or father. I stood up and shouted ‘Mum, Dad’. I said, ‘If you can hear me, answer me’. I screamed and screamed but no one answered…
“Before my parents died, it wasn’t like this. We were all together. But after I lost them, my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, there was no love anymore. There are times when I don’t just feel alone in the house or the village, I feel alone in the whole world. If I could have just one moment from the time when my mother and father were alive, for them to talk to me or just call my name, I would feel the luckiest person alive.
“Although the place has been knocked down and is just land, I like to go there and sit thinking that this is the place I was sleeping. Here, my brother and I used to eat. Here, my father and mother and I used to sleep. There are still some of their clothes by the side of the road. I look at them and remember how we used to live here.
“Everyone says that we should change these thoughts in our heads and that we must forget, especially the day of the massacre. Before the war, I didn’t believe that there was an enemy watching our every move. I didn’t know there was an enemy that was so desperate to destroy Hezbollah. Now, all my thoughts are political. I wonder if the day will come when I will seek revenge against the Americans and the Israelis. Could it happen that the tables will turn and I will see myself avenging my parents’ death with my own hands? Inshallah, God willing, it will happen like this.
“When I am lonely, I feel I must change this feeling, so I go to the graveyard. I read the Quran for my parents, talk to my brothers and sister. It makes me feel happier.”
It was 6.30 am before ambulances and rescue crews made it through from Tyre, having been turned back three times by continuing bombing. Bodies dragged from the devastation lay waiting to be loaded into a refrigerated truck. There was a flurry of hope when a baby, Abbas Ahmad Hashim, was cradled out by a medic, tongue protruding from a mouth filled with dirt, but he couldn’t be revived.
By evening, the bodies had been tagged and bagged in plastic and laid out on a floor at the hospital in Tyre. They were: Ahmad Mahmud Shalhub, 55; Ibrahim Hashim, 65; Hasna Hashim, 75; Ali Ahmad Hashim, 3; Abbas Ahmad Hashim, 9 months; Hura Muhammad Qassim Shalhub, 12; Mahdi Mahmud Hashim, 68; Zahra Muhammad Qassim Shalhub, 12; Ibrahim Ahmad Hashim, 7; Jafar Mahmud Hashim, 10; Lina Muhammad Mahmud Shalhub, 30; Nabila Ali Amin Shalhub, 40; Ula Ahmad Mahmud Shalhub, 25; Khadija Ali Yusif, 31; Taysir Ali Shalhub, 39; Zaynab Muhammad Ali Amin Shalhub, 6; Fatima Muhammad Hashim, 4; Ali Ahmad Mahmud Shalhub, 17; Maryam Hassan Muhsin, 30; Afaf al-Zabad, 45; Yahya Muhammad Qassim Shalhub, 9; Ali Muhammad Kassim Shalhub, 10; Yusif Ahmad Mahmud Shalhub, 6; Qassim Samih Shalhub, 9; Hussain Ahmad Hashim, 12; Qassim Muhammad Shalhub, 7; Raqiyya Mahmud Shalhub, 7; Raqiyya Muhammad Hashim, unknown.
The women shrouded in black who sat by the grave stones in the gathering dusk as we left, murmuring prayers from the Quran, glanced up and nodded as we presumptuously took pictures and faintly acknowledged our goodbyes. Children scampering at the edge of the burial place waved and smiled. A man whose back had been broken in the blast and was sitting in a wheelchair, waved and pointed to his lapel to show he was wearing the Black Shamrock badge we’d given him earlier.
As our minibus lurched out onto what passes for a main road, we all swivelled round to look back until the village of Qana had passed out of sight. “I’ll tell you,” volunteered Kieran Gallagher, “Fucking up Raytheon was the best thing I ever did in my life.”
EAMON McCANN lives in Ireland and can be reached at: Eamonderry@aol.com