It is that time of the year again. July. The summer.
Seven years ago, in July of 2006, I came to Lebanon for the first time. We had come to spend three weeks in this sparkling country, to visit people, the beaches and the mountains.
In my first two weeks in Lebanon, everything went very smooth. King football was ruling the world. Although Lebanon is not a football country par excellence, the fever of the FIFA World Cup in Germany had also gripped the Lebanese. Huge flags of the competing teams were flying all over Lebanon, with Brazil (for their artistry), Germany (for their strength) and Argentina (for their big Lebanese diaspora) being the most popular teams.
Then came Sunday July 9, the evening of the final. How could France ever lose this game? How could Italy play for a penalty shoot-out for almost the entire match? Was it the stupidity of a football player or the honorable character of an Arab man when Zidane gave a head-butt to Materazzi ten minutes before the end, only to be sent off with a red card? I could hardly sleep that night.
When the game was over, the international media prepared themselves for a long summer drought. No football, no news.
However, on Wednesday July 12, things changed. I first heard the news on CNN: in a cross border operation, Hezbollah – obviously trying to fill the international news gap with some news of their own – had killed several Israeli soldiers and abducted two of them.
I never looked at things the same way than I did before
I immediately knew: this is not good. But nobody could anticipate what punishment Israel had in store for all of Lebanon to avenge the deed of one of the country's militias (albeit the most potent one).
That day, we spent the afternoon at the beach. From way up in the sky, a buzzing sound came down. “What is this?” I asked the Lebanese around me. “These are Israeli airplanes hovering over Lebanon, looking at us,” they replied.
Back in the hotel, I was glued to the TV. What would come next? Nobody knew for sure. Lebanon was in a state of anxious stupor. However, in Tel Aviv, the planning of Israel's next steps was well underway. As always, Israel would “not stand idly by” when it was “forced to respond to a terrorist attack.” Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, had his day of glory. With unlimited speaking time on CNN, peppering every sentence with “terror” and “terrorist,” he was allowed to give the impression that the small scale Hezbollah operation was in fact a strategic threat to the state of Israel.
We had booked our flights back to Europe for Sunday, July 16. But when I woke up on the morning of July 13, I knew that these flights would not happen. Overnight, Israel had bombed the Rafic Hariri airport in Beirut out of service. We needed to improvise and call for assistance.
In a seminar I had attended a few months before the visit to Lebanon, I had been much impressed by the presentation of a French general. The general had ample experience with evacuation operations in Africa. Two of his statements had remained stuck in my head: “you must always plan, but the reality will always be different.” And: “Embassies never know how much of their citizens are present at a particular time in a particular country. Come evacuation time, they are always surprised by the unexpected high number.”
So I called the embassy. They took our names and promised to call back when their own plans were more developed.
Later that day, we drove to Beirut. I have never seen the road from Jounieh to Beirut this empty. Wonderful! No traffic jams. What sometimes will take two hours, took us 25 minutes then. We went to see the airline office, asking them how to fly home now that Beirut airport was in shambles. We left with tickets for a takeoff in Damascus.
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By now, Israel had started to heavily bomb South Lebanon. However, Beirut was bombarded as well, and even targets further north. Israel's strategy was clear: punishing all Lebanese for the pointless operation of one of “their” armed groups. Thus, Israel reasoned, Lebanon and the Lebanese would turn against Hezbollah to finish the job that Israel was unable to do six years ago.
What a vicious plan! My anger started to build up. Why would Israel put me in danger for something Hezbollah had done? However, things would get worse.
On Saturday July 15, we had enough of hanging around in our hotel room, watching TV and seeing Lebanon slowly dismantled, airstrike by airstrike. Nobody on the international political scene seemed willing to stop the Israelis breaking all hell lose. Whether Tony Blair, nor George W. Bush, and certainly not Condoleezza Rice who called Israel's aerial bombing campaign “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”. That one really hurt.
To distract ourselves, we went for a ride. We stopped in Dbayeh, north of Beirut, and checked into the ABC mall. Usually extremely busy and very crowded on a Saturday afternoon, the mall was almost empty on this day. The Lebanese preferred to await their verdict at home.
Later we passed by Jounieh harbor, where the Lebanese army operated a small naval base. We heard shots being fired. We stopped the car briefly, then carried on, because we couldn't see the source of the noise. But then again, louder, faster: machine gun fire. And there it was! Out on the sea, 300 meters from where I was, an Israeli attack helicopter was frantically shooting at the naval base.
Holy cow! We ran from the car into a nearby hotel. The concierge led us to a basement five floors underground. We were not the only occupants. About forty people had sought shelter in the dark. Some cried, some talked of the Lebanese civil war, most of them were silent. Twenty minutes later, the concierge came down again. “You can come up”, he said, “the Israelis have left.”
Back in the daylight, the scenery was hectic and full of stress and fury. Cars were driving off with screeching tires. Everyone was cursing. “Fuck Israel!”, was mostly spit out, mixed with a few “Fuck Hezbollah!” and some rare “Fuck Lebanon!”.
Stress had also befallen me. And an enormous feeling of injustice. I began to have an idea of how it feels when you have an instant urge to go after the ones who attacked you. I began to have an idea of how it feels when you want to grab a weapon, go to South Lebanon and fight.
I did neither of this. Yet, I felt how it possibly feels when someone becomes “radicalized” (as Western analysts customarily call it). When someone is driven by basic emotions such as fear and rage when answering to challenges. What would Zidane do now? Which butt would he kick? Under stress, violence may look like a conceivable option. Given the circumstances, nobody is immune from going that path.
After the Jounieh harbor incident, we definitely knew that we had to leave the country. Nobody in Lebanon was safe anymore. However, how to get to Syria?
Back in our hotel, we considered to hire a taxi to make the relatively short trip to Damascus. We were ready to pay the war price of 500 dollars. “Don't do this”, said the hotel manager. “Israeli fighter jets are now even shooting at taxis and ambulances.” Then the embassy called: there was a bus waiting for us on Sunday morning.
On July 16, 2006, quite exactly seven years from today, we fled Lebanon on a bus to Syria. The bus first took the highway to the north. Passing Tripoli was the hardest thing. We knew people there, we could see their apartment, their balcony, but we couldn't stop and tell them goodbye. I felt miserable. I felt like I was abandoning the people I knew, leaving them behind, setting them up to be harmed by the relentless Israeli pounding of Lebanon.
Crossing the border into Syria took us six hours. Luckily, an embassy official took care of all the paperwork. Ironically then, Syria was a safer place to be than Lebanon.
Back home, my feelings of misery and having been subjected to injustice never really left. I wrote my first letter to the local newspaper, denouncing the Israeli all-out attempt to destroy Lebanon. And I also took part in my first protest march, marching with a Lebanese flag, shouting for a war to end, for an Israeli military operation to stop and for Lebanon to be safe.
There were only five days in July. But I never looked at things the same way than I did before.
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