Saturday, February 17, 2007

Human faces of Lebanon

WHO will reconstruct homes and lives in this devastated country? (photo from

WHAT is really happening in Lebanon, after the devastating Israeli war? We hear a fair amount from the media about what this or that party leader or foreign power might be up to. We hear that someone has been killed, and may even get a mention of people still getting blown up by those cluster bombs scattered liberally by Israeli forces, thanks to the largesse of Uncle Sam and the British government.

We seldom hear from the Lebanese people themselves.

Last night, at a meeting called "Eye witnesses in Lebanon", organised by the Radical Activists Network, it was different. Aid volunteer Caoimhe Butterly and photographer Guy Smallman showed us some of the destruction which people are having to overcome, but they also brought out the human faces beneath the hijab and behind the freedom fighters' mask beloved alike by stereotyping media and romanticising Western leftists.

In fact it was a bad night for those who would prefer simplistic stereotypes. Among the crowds in south Beirut supporting the general strike called by Hizbollah, Guy Smallman found a Druze concerned at the government's failure to stand up to Israel, a Christian who was there because he was fed up with corruption, and Muslims, both Shi'ite and Sunni, who spoke not about wanting religious rule but about the needs of Lebanon's poor people.

It seemed not all Hizbollah supporters were fanatically religious, nor were all those taking part in the strike Hizbollahi - some were supporters of the People's party, a spin off from the Communist Party, for instance. Had Hizbollah wanted civil war it could have fought and won one, in Guy's opinion, since beside wide public support, enhanced by its stand in the war and help in reconstruction, it had more fighters than the official Lebanese army - and supporters within the army. But what the party's leader Nasrallah had called for were round-table talks between all parties in Lebanon, and the calling of early elections.

There were shadowy forces at work trying to provoke civil war. Guy Smallman described how masked men with arms had forced their way into flats in a poor, mainly Sunni neighborhood of Beirut, overlooking a college campus where Shi'ite students were meeting, and taken up sniper positions to shoot at the students as they were leaving. Despite such efforts he was optimistic that people would not allow a new civil war in Lebanon. He was convinced the real underlying issues were of class, not religion.

Caoimhe Butterly spoke mainly about how women and young people were taking part in efforts to overcome the experiences they had suffered, and rebuild their lives. Showing how those working in projects came from varied backgrounds, and with each person photographed she gave a name, and something about them. Sometimes the smiles on children's faces hid memories of bombing and horror they had seen, which came out in their paintings.

In discussion, some Lebanese who spoke from the floor were less confident their country could avoid civil war. They questioned whether Hizbollah, with its religious ideas, could ever overcome confessionalism or represent a progressive, working class-based force uniting those for change in Lebanon. One man pointed out that there were many poor Sunni too, and asked what was being done to help reconstruction in cities like Tripoli. A woman who described herself as a Shia said there were rich Shi'ites too, and she accused Hizbollah of excluding other, particularly left-wing, forces from its fiefs in the south, and the struggle against the invaders. Another Lebanese said this was no longer true.

Caoimhe Butterly said she hoped herself and Guy had not oversimplified issues, and they had not intended to romanticise anything, or hide difficulties. On the danger of civil war, though, she believed memories were still fresh of previous conflicts for people to risk another one.

There were questions about the destruction and dangers - over one million unexploded ordinances littered across southern Lebanon, and only 19,000 de-mined - and about help for reconstruction. Guy Smallman said Hizbollah had an engineer wing that was taking part in rebuilding in the south. Much of the money for rebuilding now came not from Iran, but Qatar. Other questions concerned pressure towards privatisation, and whether the Lebanese government was funding hotel-building rather than assisting poor neighborhoods, or restoring agriculture. There was also concern about the fate of Lebanon's remaining Palestinians, though Caoimhe said that ironically, some Lebanese were now refugees in Palestinian camps.

Asked about practical help, Caoimhe said people here could help projects in Lebanon, and there was scope for teachers and others to set up pen-friending and twinning schemes with Lebanese schools and youth projects.

ALL in all, this was a good evening spent getting to know a picture of Lebanon we don't often get to glimpse through the corporate media, and to hear an honest account both from the speakers and the Lebanese who raised issues with them. It started to bring Lebanese and London left-wing audience together in a way too often obscured and obstructed by the hazy rhetoric and demagogy of "big name" speakers on left and peace movement platforms. I hope we have more meetings like this, and more discussion.

Thanks to Guy and Caoimhe, thanks too to the Lebanese comrades who came along to raise their doubts and concerns, and thanks to the keen young people of the Radical Activists Network who made it happen.

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