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News: Daily Dispatches from the War-Torn Lebanese Capital
By Dahr Jamail
Ah, the joys of reporting on a shoe-string budget! I’ve been working the last few days with a freelance photographer from Holland, Raoul. It’s always helpful to team up—both for the companionship and to split costs. Sometimes it’s necessary, working in a war zone in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language well enough to get by on your own, to hire a driver, interpreter, and fixer. So costs add up fast, on top of the hotel, feeding, and phones, which are always necessary.
Thus, Raoul and I once again hit the streets after deciding to split the costs of a driver. Not a professional driver, mind you, but one we hired on the cheap. This means he wasn’t used to working for journalists.
He arrived late—long after the time we were supposed to meet the person we’d hoped to interview, so we jumped in the car and asked him to step on it.
Nadim, the driver, a skinny 29 year-old college grad who, like so many Lebanese, is without a regular job, slowly made his way over to the infamous Sabra refugee camp, where in 1982 Lebanese Christian militiamen massacred hundreds of innocent Palestinians.
My eyes dart back and forth between my watch and the road, as driving here always entails the obstacle course of scooters, women walking with children in tow, the odd dump truck hogging the entire road, and loads of other cars. Even though so many residents have long since fled Beirut, traffic is alive and well in many districts of the capital city.
Suddenly Nadim pulls over and opens his door. While he’s halfway out of the car he barks, “I have to eat.”
I hold my hands up and spin around to find Raoul doing the same. “What can we do?” he asks. We stare at Nadim as he waits patiently at a bread stand while I continue to glance at my watch, watching the minutes tick off.
Five ticks later Nadim is back and lowering himself back into his seat. “I was hungry,” he says, turning the ignition.
Luckily for us, the guy we’re here to interview, Ahmad, a co-founder of the NGO Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), meets us with a smile near his office. We pay Nadim, coldly thank him for his time, and let him know we won’t be needing his services again. (Raoul and I agree to use a taxi service later for the return leg.)
Ahmad Halimeh, is one of those people who is always smiling, and always busy as hell. He brings us tea and we talk in his office. He says, “Our NGO, originally designed to serve the Palestinian refugees here in Sabra camp with health and education services, is now 90 percent engaged in working to bring relief to the war refugees from the south.”
With a staff of 20 volunteers and a few office workers, PARD is offering its medical services to over 100 families who were displaced from their homes in south Beirut and southern Lebanon. They are running a mobile clinic which is currently in the south, and also managing to find shelter for many of the families.
Our time with Ahmad highlights the dual nature of war—that it simultaneously brings out the worst in some human beings and the best in others. Ahmad and his organization are a bright spot in the darkness that has engulfed Lebanon, as the Israeli government has obtained a sort of eternal green light from the U.S. to carry on as long as it deems necessary.
“War is the total failure of the human spirit,” says British journalist Robert Fisk, which I think encapsulates it better than just about anything I have heard.
But war forces humans to survive under seemingly impossible circumstances, and in these conditions some strive to help others when barely capable of helping themselves.
We talk with Ahmad for a couple of hours and then tour the camp where so many hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered in 1982.
Later in the afternoon I met up with my friend Hanin, a Swedish journalist of Palestinian descent, who’d just returned from two days in Sidon, 20 miles south of here.
“The bombs are everywhere, and there are thousands of families there with nothing and nowhere to go,” she tells me. She was clearly traumatized after seeing bodies scorched by white phosphorous, and others cut to shreds by what were most likely cluster bombs.
After seeing similar atrocities in Iraq, I tell her what I knew of PTSD, and that she needs to get some sleep then start talking about what she saw.
“I spent time with a little girl who told me her brother and father were killed,” she says, beginning to cry, “And the girl asked me if my brother and father were alive. I told her, yes, they were.” She drops her head in her hands and weeps.
War is indeed the total failure of the human spirit. And unfortunately, the decrepit, despicable stench of this war is everywhere you turn in Beirut. And I wonder and wish and ask myself why people like Ahmad aren’t allowed to govern. Instead they have to pick up the pieces generated by those who do.
Originally posted on Mother Jones website: www.motherjones.com