18 August 2006
Yesterday afternoon, I joined other World Vision staff and volunteers on a walk through the southern suburbs of Beirut – Dahieh and Haret Hreik, as they are known locally. None of us were prepared for what we would see.
We gathered at the World Vision office in nearby Ain el Roummaneh. There was a sense of giddiness in the air. No bombs had landed in Beirut since the long-awaited ceasefire just two days before. We were practically bursting with energy, and began singing the songs we’d been teaching displaced children over the past three weeks. The neighbours across the street gathered on their balconies to see what all of the commotion was about. Then we piled into several cars and our makeshift caravan proceeded down the road and into Dahieh.
The entrance to Dahieh is marked by a huge bomb crater precisely in the centre of a major four-way intersection. Driving on, we soon encountered the desolate shells of abandoned buildings amidst massive piles of debris. Our celebratory mood just a few minutes earlier completely vanished.
“I feel as if I’ve gone back in time,” I said to my companions, remembering my childhood during the civil war. Destruction confronted me in every direction: broken balconies hanging from twisted wires; crushed and mangled cars; remains of clothing, curtains and furniture; black holes that were once rooms.
We left our cars and continued on foot. The air was thick with dust and stench. We encountered many people wearing facemasks. Others clutched tissues or handkerchiefs tightly to their faces.
I looked to my left and saw mattresses and plastic chairs. On my right were children’s toys and a broken television set. Several men and boys were removing rotting watermelons from a destroyed shop. And old men asked me: “Is this the beginning of World War three?” Then two teenage girls passed by, and I overheard one of them say to the other: “This is my uncle’s building. No wait … that one is. Yes, I’m sure of it.”
I stared at the structure and felt like Alice in Wonderland – a tiny figure looking into a huge dollhouse. Seven floors of rooms were cut in half – living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms. A large refrigerator, door flung open, was perched precariously above me on a broken ledge.
A few steps further and I found myself facing a row of flattened buildings, their concrete floors stacked like pancakes. “Step on nothing but the rocks,” a young man told us. I wondered what could happen if I did otherwise.
Our group turned right and walked uphill. We passed a family picking through debris. So far they had uncovered pillows, blankets, cupboards, a water pipe, washbasin and books. I noticed books strewn everywhere. We passed beside a partially flattened building, and one of my colleagues spotted a wall clock through one of the windows. It was still running, but 10 minutes late.
Passing by another sunken building, I looked down into a sitting room, complete with chandelier and china cabinet. The room, which had probably stood ten stories high, was now half underground.
I stepped carefully around heaps of cement and twisted metal, passing toppled buildings lying on their sides. Then a pungent smell pierced the air. I knew that it came from one or more corpses, and I was glad that they were hidden from my view.
Leaving ‘ground zero’ of southern Beirut, we reached our cars and started the drive back to Ain el Roummaneh. Proper structures, filled with thriving families, soon replaced the bombed-out buildings left behind.
I thought about the scale of the destruction I had just seen, and about the lives and livelihoods of people whose homes were destroyed – gone in a moment, never to return.
I felt I had witnessed a terrible piece of history, frozen in time. I wondered about the value of my own belongings, and how dearly I hold on to them. I felt the dust of smothered lives settle upon my body. I had been subject to sights of the strangest nature. I replayed them in my mind, over and over.
I returned home, my heart wrought with emotion. Perhaps I was now wiser to the ways of war. But I could not have foreseen such an experience.
Thia is a Lebanese volunteer who travelled to south Beirut with other World Vision staff following the 14 August ceasefire.