Following is another excerpt from my book Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the hitchhiking trip through Lebanon that photographer Amelia Opalinska and I conducted shortly after the Israeli assault of 2006. The book is due for release February 1, 2010 by New World Digital, Inc.
For additional information about Coffee with Hezbollah or to PRE-ORDER the book, please visit: http://belenfernandez-writings.blogspot.com/.
Belén Fernández (email@example.com)
Location: Kfar Kila, Lebanese-Israeli border (where the book’s cover photograph was taken).
Context: Amelia and I arrive to Kfar Kila at night and are invited to stay at the house of Ali and his family, who refer to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon 6 years prior as “Freedom 2000”; proximity to Israel nonetheless results in difficulties sleeping.
In the bathroom I established that the family’s citrus garden was not being bombarded. I crept downstairs, where I established that:
- it was 5.32 AM according to the Hezbollah clock.
- it was a different time according to the other clock.
- the bombardment was a combination of French UN trucks banging down the street and the household washing machine.
When Muhammad woke up several hours later, he confirmed that the French had also failed to demarcate the boundaries of Greater Lebanon during their post-WWI mandate, resulting in the exclusion of the Chebaa Farms from Freedom 2000. Dragging Amelia, me, and the binoculars out to the balcony for a daytime examination of Israel, he endorsed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s claim that land was an issue of honor, not meters. He then reminded us that Greater Lebanon in its current manifestation covered 10,452 square kilometers, Farms included.
Amelia and I wondered why Lebanon was not measured in square millimeters, and whether the Chebaa Farms were perhaps just one farm. Muhammad went to the kitchen to make coffee; we followed him inside, only to be intercepted by Myrna, who dragged us back out to the balcony with the binoculars.
Freedom 2000 was once again brought into question when breakfast in the citrus garden was accompanied by a large machine that was currently being paraded up and down the Israeli side of the border to the tune of periodic deafening booms. In between recoiling in accordance with the booms, Myrna and Muhammad explained that Israel was “tending her garden,” and that garden tending was usually augmented by an aircraft whose job was to “make plant live forever.” Amelia and I:
- applauded Israel’s ability to disguise psychological warfare as a quest for the nonperishable apple.
- wondered if the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform had been aware of such alternatives to chemical attacks, when the US provided it with crop-dusting helicopters in the 1980s.
Ali then appeared with a rifle, and he and Muhammad tended the citrus garden by shooting at all birds attempting to stage cross-border raids. Amelia and I tried to institute an impromptu bird sanctuary and general animal rights zone but in the end were reduced to running inside, encumbered only by the fact that the slippers Myrna had lent us were four sizes too small.
We continued walking until we reached the road parallel to Israel. After observing a few parallel vehicles, we visited Fatima’s Gate, where the Lebanese army and the IDF ostensibly now sat staring at each other. In reality, the Lebanese army sat staring at a mound of camouflage, under which was buried the IDF.
Amelia was encouraged to photograph the mound by both the Lebanese army and Ali, who added that we could also throw a stone if we wanted. Amelia and I:
- reminded the Lebanese army and Ali that Hassan Nasrallah had come to regret cross-border authorizations.
- wondered where Frankie’s German navy was now, but supposed that the only waters in the vicinity were the revitalizing waters of the occupied Golan Heights.
- asked the Lebanese army if we could ride in their tank to the Chebaa Farms. (We could not.)
With the same efficiency he had undoubtedly applied to Hezbollah’s paperwork, Ali waved down two passing cars and recruited both of them to go to the town of Chebaa, whispering to us that we would go with whichever filled up with gas and returned first. We ended up in a green Mercedes.
On the way to Chebaa, we passed first through the Greek Catholic town of Marjayoun, former headquarters of the South Lebanon Army, where the IDF had briefly occupied a Lebanese army barracks in August of 2006. Lebanon’s Interior Minister had described the takeover as an Israeli ploy to use the Lebanese army as a human shield, despite the fact that the army had not been made to stand in front of Israeli tanks—a tactic reserved for the West Bank and Gaza. Amelia and I tried to brainstorm other circumstances in which the armed forces of a nation at war would be referred to as a human shield by a member of the national government.
Israel soon authorized the evacuation from Marjayoun of the Lebanese army and 3000 civilians, among them refugees from surrounding villages who had fled there based on the fact that it was Greek Catholic and the former headquarters of the SLA. The evacuation was to occur under UN escort and would override Israel’s threat to bomb anyone driving south of the Litani River who was not engaged in humanitarian activity. (Repairs to civilian infrastructure were not considered humanitarian activity, and Israel warned that UN peacekeepers would be considered a military target if they attempted to repair a bridge linking Beirut to Tyre.)
The Marjayoun convoy, over 500 vehicles in length, was escorted as far as the Bekaa Valley and then left to fend off an unmanned drone, which once again mistook the Lebanese army for human shields and fired on the convoy, killing at least seven refugees. Amelia and I contemplated:
- what would happen if Hezbollah loudly tended a garden in front of Fatima’s Gate, and
- whether the Lebanese army would still be considered human shields in this case.