Monday, March 12, 2007

View from a Hilltop

Have you ever met somebody who has nothing? I don't mean somebody living in poverty, I mean someone who, already poor, goes on to lose everything. No? Meet Ali.

Ali lives in the tiny mountain-top town of Maroun Ras in southern Lebanon. Maroun Ras, while small, was the site of one of the most intense battles of the summer war. I visited it last Tuesday as part of a tour I was taking to find stories. After going down to the coastal city of Tyre to spend Monday night, I hired a taxi for the day Tuesday to take me around and show me a few towns in the south.

Let me interrupt myself for a second to allay the worries some of you may have. My process for deciding where to travel in the country is long and involved. I have a whole series of people I ask about the places I want to visit. Knowing each person I ask and their level of adventurousness and risk taking capacity, I can then make a judgment about where I can and cannot go.

Back to Maroun Ras. I ended up there after going through the towns of Yater, and Bint Jbeil. Let me give you a tour of the town. Imagine I'm standing on the narrow dirt road that passes by Ali's house. I'll give you a 360° tour, labeling the way I'm facing as one would label the face of a clock.

12 o'clock to 2 o'clock: open farmland. From where I stand on the road, the landscape drops off, not severely, into a long shallow valley. We're on top of a tall hill in Maroun Ras, and while it's short-sleeve weather on the coast only an hour west, I'm bundled in a heavy fleece as I survey the scene. About three or four kilometers away, the other side of the valley gives way to a set of steep rolling hills. They rise quite a bit higher than the hill I'm on, and I quickly learn that the tops of these hills mark the Israeli frontier. The Israelis, smartly, retain the high ground since many of the Hezbollah attacks last summer came from right where I was standing. It's unclear to me whether the Israelis grabbed the hills during the war or whether they already occupied that territory before the war began.

Three o’clock: A crumbling house, grand and somewhat out of place in a humble village, that was nonetheless another victim of the summer war. It’s a two storey house sitting at the high point of the hill. Columns support the second storey which overhangs a spacious porch on the ground floor. I would later go up to the house and knock on the door. No answer. I walked around to the other side, where an odd number of shoes waited outside the door. But again, no answer.

My driver tells me (and a reporter friend of mine subsequently confirmed) that after the battle for Maroun Ras, the Israelis took over the house. In the middle of the night, a band of Hezbollah members snuck back to the house and killed between six and twelve Israeli soldiers there.

As I walk on the porch, there is debris everywhere: old food items, broken picture frames, etc. I find there a shell casing, and my driver tells me that it came from an Israeli machine-gun. I have no idea if he’s right. On the far side of the porch, is some graffiti, presumably Israeli, depicting a Star of David with Hebrew underneath it. Walking up the stairs, there is more graffiti, impossible to tell whose, showing armed men aiming guns at baby-carriages.

On one side of the house is a virtual garbage dump, piles of old food containers, some labeled in Arabic and others in Hebrew.

Six o’clock: In the fore-ground is Ali’s meager tobacco field. I can’t really tell you the size precisely, but I can say that it would be easy for me to throw a baseball over the length of his field two-times over. Ali and the girl with him that I assume is his daughter claims that he was detained for twenty days by the Israelis during the summer war at the time he should have been harvesting his tobacco crop, and he therefore lost his entire year’s income.

The tobacco field is now ruined. It’s covered by heavy chunks of rubble and the earth is all askew and in disarray.

Immediately behind his field is a school. The fa├žade of the school has been devastated by shelling. Seemingly hundreds of holes penetrate its front. I’m not sure if the school has been re-patched enough on the inside to open itself to students. It’s a grim reminder that every war has its innocent casualties.

Nine o’clock. The main road of town stretches before me. Slightly downhill, the road runs straight just a couple hundred yards until the other end of town at which point it bends out of sight. It’s a gravelly dirt road, and it seems as though every other building along it has been destroyed. Clearly too poor to deal with the devastation, town's only marked sign of progress in the seven months since the ceasefire is that the debris has clearly been pushed off the road, creating an abrupt wall of crumbled building chunks along the way. A few people sit or stand along the road, but the overcast skies and the cold temperatures seem to have driven most of the people indoors. Either that, or they just get sick of looking at their shattered town.

Eleven o’clock. At the mouth of the road that leads through town stands Ali in front of his house. Ali, I have to believe, is well under five feet tall. At first I thought he must be over eighty years old, but the more I think about it, the more I have to wonder how much the lifestyle of a frontier farmer would prematurely age him. He walks stooped over and uses a cane that was once a broomstick.

I try speaking to Ali in Arabic but have a hard time understanding him. I turn to my translator in frustration, but he, a native speaker, replies that even he is having a difficult time understanding him because Ali's age has caused him to mutter and because he speaks a more formal dialect. Ali explains to us that he was “kidnapped” (his word, not mine) by the Israeli Defense Forces and held for twenty days without food or water. During that time, as I already mentioned, he lost his tobacco crop for the year.

Behind Ali is his house. The right side of it has caved in under the burden of bombs and mortar rounds. I was not invited in, but what little I could see from the doorway indicated a very simple way of life. Ali had no electricity and his water pump had also been destroyed. In front of his house was a slab of concrete, under which Ali kept a few modest jugs of water that he had somehow obtained. As I talked to Ali and learned his story, I asked him about the nearly unrecognizable hunk of metal off ten feet to his left. “My car,” he said. There was almost nothing left of it. Or, more accurately put, it was all still there but in a form too bombed out and too mangled to recognize.

I suppose that I was inaccurate when I said that Ali has nothing. It’s not true. He has half a house, a few hidden jugs of water, and a broken broom stick. He has all these things but little more. What scares me so much is that Ali has literally no means of making a dollar. He missed out on last summer’s income possibilities, and with the destruction of his farmland, he’ll miss out again this summer. Clearly, the fact that this town is so remote and so small means that aid has not reached Maroun Ras yet in any noticeable way.

I recount my trip with no political bias. I have long come to terms with the fact that it would be irresponsible of me takes sides in the summer war without visiting the other side of the border, talking with Israeli citizens, and taking in the damage there. But even so, the damage has been done, and I really worry about Ali’s future. Besides his house, his water, and his walking stick, Ali has a few graves in his backyard that belong to deceased family. Set in overgrown, unkempt grass, these graves provide a moment of respite in a town that has so little to be relaxed about. I worry that if Ali doesn’t get the help he needs, a helping hand to put him back on his feet, he could join his ancestors in the tranquility of his back lawn sooner than he should.


Peggy said...

There must be thousands of these stories--and reading just one personalizes it, providing a look at the magnitude of the impact of war. The news just gets worse and worse.

Hey, any chance for an uplifting story? I've just recovered from the bus bombing post! I would love to read about people working on peace, especially your age.

Meanwhile, Middlebury continues to stay buried in snow--another foot over the weekend. Some spring.


Anonymous said...

hey Theo
your blogs are are having such an amazing time....
I'm proud of you...