Qana: A Site Commemorating Jesus and Massacres--South Lebanon

UNIFIL Base, Naqoura

I was invited to visit a friend of mine in the UNIFIL—the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Area at its base of Naqoura, an hour's drive from the Southern Lebanese city of Tyre, which sits in a UN controlled zone on the border of Israel—on the firing line as my friend says. To enter the area you need clearance from UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army, the latter I only learned when I showed up at the check point and the Army guards questioned what my intentions were. Usually any guard will let you in without the extra clearance if you hold a UN ID. I had my UNRWA ID with me and so did my friend visiting from the UNAMA mission in Afghanistan.

It’s worth mentioning with Lebanese guards that all depends on the mood of the individual. Apparently that day, that guard decided I should not enter without an extra clearance. He was ranting about a big sign on the side of the road saying non non-Lebanese individual—in all honesty I had no idea what he was referring to. We sat and waited and pleaded and called numbers of people to try and get us through. Eventually a plain clothes officer came and asked what the problem was—we explained our situation, he looked at our badges and told us to wait a minute. 5 minutes later he came to us, returned our IDs and said we could enter—clearly this man was in a good mood and overturned the other guy’s moody decision. can enter the area without clearanceand then went to do some site seeing in the area. The drive into Naqqoura was gorgeous, winding along turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and touring the UNIFIL base was interesting and not at all reminiscent of the UNAMA base I had lived on in Afghanistan.

Afterwards we decided to drive on to nearby Qana for a visit.

Qana, South Lebanon

Jesus was rumored to have hid in Qana and this is the biblical site where he was said to have performed the miracle of turning water into wine. It’s a serene location on a hillside overlooking a valley of goat herders. A cave is tucked away and outside of it is an area where Jesus is said to have spoken to his disciples. Sites for Christians seeking refuge from persecution are spread throughout Lebanon, but it is rare that one should find a site for which a miracle and spiritual leader was said to have spent time.

Oddly enough, I stumbled across this site en route to something else Qana is known for—the 1996 massacre of 106 Palestinians seeking refuge in a UN compound operated by Fiji soldiers working with UNIFIL—the UN Peace Keeping Operation based in the South of Lebanon.

During what was known as, “Operation Grapes of Wrath”, Israel dropped bombs on Southern Lebanon in strikes against Hezballah. The conflict intensified and thousands of Lebanese civilians sought to flee the area and find safe refuge from the fighting. By 14 April, 745 people were occupying the United Nations compound at Qana. More than 800 were there on April 18.
Beginning with the second day of combat Israel had been retaliating within 10 minutes directly at any source of fire discovered by reconnaissance. This tactic was widely discussed in Israeli media, and well known to the Hezbollah fighters and Lebanese citizens.

According to report, on April 18, Hezbollah fighters fired two or three Katyusha rockets and between five and eight mortars at Israeli soldiers near the Red Line (the northern limits of the "security zone") from positions about 220 meters southwest and 350 meters southeast of the United Nations compound. 15 minutes later an Israeli unit responded by shelling the area with M-109A2 155 mm guns. According to the Israeli military, thirty-eight shells were fired, two-thirds of them equipped with proximity fuses, an anti-personnel mechanism that causes the weapon to explode above the ground. As a result of the shelling, 106 civilians died, with more wounded.

A video recording made by a UNIFIL soldier of Force Mobil Reserve (FMR) showed an unmanned drone and two helicopters in the vicinity at the time of the shelling. Uri Dromi, an Israeli government spokesman, confirmed there was a drone in the area, but stated that it did not detect civilians in the compound. The IDF initially and repeatedly claimed that no drone was flying in the area. The truth only emerged when a video filmed by a Norwegian UN soldier of FMR at a nearby hill clearly showed the presence of a drone. The Israelis were aware of their actions at a location which had been UN headquarters for so many years.
I had wanted to visit this site ever since reading Robert Fisk’s book, Pity the Nation. I feel that the souls of those lost to senseless acts of violence should be remembered in some way. Upon entering Qana, in addition to learning of the site where Jesus had lived, I learned of something else I had been ignorant of. Upon asking a man as to where I could find the site of the massacre, he responded, “Which one--the old or new one?” I had no idea there was more than one, so my taxi driver told him, the old one.

As we drove we came to a stone which had directions to the old and new massacre sites, all was written in Arabic. We first visited the new site, 25 grave markers and pictures of men, women and children killed in an Israeli air strike on a building in which they had been seeking refuge during the 2006 war.

Onwards we drove to the old site. Remnants of the UN compound stood and part of the black UN sign could still be read. A parked Israeli tank sat next to the remnants of a building. A man, who’s name was Jimmy (so he said), came with photos and a history of the tragedy that took place in 1996. After having lived through these events, people can become desensitized to what they are experiencing and it was clear that this was the case with Jimmy. He described in Arabic details of the shelling and fires and then showed graphic images of the victims—body parts and mutilations. As he showed the images I physically began to feel ill and tears came to my eyes without my even realizing I was about to burst into tears. He flipped through the photos and all I kept thinking as he showed how they had died was that these were people, these were mothers and fathers and children and they had deserved better. No one even seems to know what happened there and they died in such a manner that you would not wish it on the worst of your enemies.

I had to walk away to catch my breath. I’ve found that I’ve had to do that too many times here in Lebanon.

Nahr el Bard and a Visit to the North

Nahr el Bard Crisis 2007-today

In May 2007, a three-month conflict between the radical militant group, Fatah Al-Islam, and the Lebanese Armed Forces at Nahr el Bard (Cold River) Camp (more commonly called NBC) in northern Lebanon destroyed the entire camp. Before the start of the shelling, the Lebansese Army ordered the residents of this camp out-- to pack their things and leave—to where no destination, only to get out within 24 hours. The refugees reportedly thought they would return back to their homes and left nearly all their possessions behind. Conflicting stories are told about the exact events of what happened during this time of chaos, but the end result was the same. Areas immediately around the camp sustained severe damage. It was the single largest act of destruction in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. At least 27,000 refugees were forced to flee and abandon their homes.

The neighbouring UNRWA compound – which housed schools, health clinics and relief offices – lay in ruins, as did homes, commercial properties, mosques and community facilities. All roads and water and sewerage networks were also badly damaged or destroyed.

Nearby Beddawi refugee camp bore the brunt of the crisis. As families desperately sought refuge in the first few days of the fighting, Beddawi’s population swelled from 15,000 to 30,000 almost overnight, with displaced refugees occupying UNRWA schools and community buildings. The massive population influx placed enormous stress on UNRWA’s services to the camp and on the Beddawi residents themselves. The selling population instantly overcrowded the already cramped living conditions. Palestine refugees with any family sought refuge with friends and family who had homes elsewhere.

The Army’s justification for the attack came from their accusations that the radical Palestinian faction, Fatah al Islam, was hiding weapons inside the camp. To my knowledge, no proof of this was every given. It sent a clear message to the Palestinians as to what the Lebanese opinion of their existence in the country was thought to be and what the consequences were for anyone stepping out of line. According to residents, the perpetrators of Fatah el Islam were not residents in the camp. They were using the camp for their own selfish purposes and in the end, thousands suffered.

A donor unit was created by UNRWA in order to raise funds for the rebuilding of the NBC and has achieved some success in its reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately for those afflicted by the crisis, other world events took precedence over the world stage. Soon after the NBC tragedy occurred, the Tsunami hit and the world’s attention became focused elsewhere and has remained focused on other issues ever since. Rebuilding of the camp has begun, but there is a lot to do and not enough money to do it. This is a common problem with UNRWA-too much to accomplish without the funds to do so.

A visit to NBC

In July, I traveled to NBC in order to hear a presentation by a consultant gender advisor on the findings of the situation of gender issues in the North. The North is approximately 1 hour to 1.5 hours to the north of Beirut, outside of Tripoli. This trip depends on traffic and the degree of suicidal speed your driver decides to use. That day, we made it in one hour exactly-which means we were flying and had a few near death accidents on the way.

The talk was interesting and I commend my colleague for overcoming some fundamental roadblocks for the presentation—the power was cut and the temperature was soaring. Power cuts are the norm in every area of Lebanon, including the glitz and glamour of Beirut—people fail to pay the taxes and it’s my opinion that corruption is involved. The difference between Beirut and a refugee camp is the ability to run generators to compensate for the lack of power. Amongst other things found in my colleague’s investigations and audit, it was found that women have increasingly become the breadwinners of the family, but due to conservative views are sometimes not able to work due to negative pressure by their family.

After the presentation, I was able to tour through the camp and visited what are referred to as ‘the Barracks’. These are tin, prefabricated containers with 6 people put inside them to live—peering into the container it seemed 3 people could comfortably live-6 seemed impossible. There are three sets of them spread over the camp, each sub-human in living and vary in their poorness of quality. They consist of a large living space with two beds, a tiny kitchen and toilet. In the 40+C (100+F) heat of summer, these containers become virtual ovens. This combined with power cuts prevent even a fan from bringing some form of relief.

As a result, refugees choose to sit outside to keep cool in the shade—seeking comfort outside rather than inside their home. Still, the refugees extended invitations for a coffee or to come join them. And yet, as I walked through these horrendous containers I was repeatedly offered a coffee or water or a motion to join them in their sitting circles. Arab hospitality that permeates from the Palestinians continue, even when they nothing to offer except conversation.

The people living in these barracks are those who lost their homes from the destruction of the Lebanese Army in 2007. Their families have been refugees since 1948 and now again, since 2007; they are refugees living like sardines in hot ovens during the summer and then freezing in the winter—waiting for their homes to be rebuilt.

We then took a tour to see the old site that had been demolished—I had seen pictures, but the reality of the mass destruction that occurred was shocking. I was also shocked to learn that the Lebanese Army is able to patrol inside NBC; this is strictly forbidden in any of the other 11 other refugee camps, where the Lebanese Army has to sit on the perimeter—the Palestinian factions are in control on the inside. This is not the case in NBC.

My tour continued on to another camp nearby, Beddawi. I accompanied my friend and colleague to a carpenter’s shop, where we interviewed a married couple working together in the profession. It is a progressive idea to have a woman working in a field such as a carpenter, which is almost always dominated by men. UNRWA wanted to write an article on the woman’s activities. I helped assist with translation of Arabic to English and observed the wood crafts the couple produced. It was quite inspirational to see how a woman blazing a trail for her family and other females in the camps to understand that women can work and help bring in extra income for the family.

Murals, drawing and graffiti are common in the camps. One in Beddawi caught my attention and made me smile. On a main street in a Beddawi, a large mural depicts the familiar incident of the famous shoe thrown by an Iraqi journalist at then US President George W Bush. There have been increasing numbers of Iraqi refugees found in the camps alongside the Palestinians; there fore it was not entirely surprising that the shoe incident struck such a chord with the Beddawi residents.

Flashback to Once Upon a Time

I went through my old blogs and found one I had written when I was in Yemen called, "Once Upon a Time". I re-wrote it with some additions...

I tried to dream of home, but it has become a tangled memory for me. The normal life I knew of the past has changed and my childhood home is as foreign as the lands I’ve traveled to. My comfort zone has changed. People no longer ask when I’m coming ‘home’, rather they ask when I’m going to return…as I’ve proven I nearly always do.

I came back to the Mid East and felt comfortable again and happier than I have in years. I had thought it would be that way when I returned to the USA, but alas time has changed both me and the people who live there. I don’t understand why things are they way they are there and I don’t remember who I was when I lived there. I remember wondering what the Mid East was like…now I know and I can never go back to my naïve self.

The vague memory of my Friday nights involve making plans for a Southside Crawl and wondering if I could hold strong and make it to Bar 11 for the obligatory Long Island Iced Tea. Even a weathered Irish man would be astonished by the amount of alcohol I consumed. O Fries and Primanti Brothers sandwiches were a treat. Visiting my grandmother was a weekly tradition and fighting with my mother seemed to be a mandatory daily occurrence. Having to drive a car to work from 9-5 was the norm; paying $20 for a good meal was not such a bad deal. I supported the goal of my best friend getting married and promised I would be there for the wedding day. I never broke an arm, ran marathons and was always happy to have health insurance coverage from either my family or job. I spoke with a Pittsburgh accent and dreamed of the day I would finally leave the ‘City of Bridges’. The Middle East was a location on the map, a place of violence, wars and hatred towards the West.

I thought that Islam was scary. I thought it was a religion based on violence and wanted to hurt the West. We were to be either with or against the enemy, who was Al Qaeda—no wait, Osama Bin Laden—wait, no better yet Saddam Hussein—or was it Taliban? Did we ever figure that one out??? War for me was men fighting in trenches—and like the action movies I saw on TV. I had never been exposed to how fragile life could be and how in the blink of an eye everything can change.

I have fallen in love with the Middle East—its culture and history so rich and diverse that it has taken years for me to really understand how much there is to it and how much I still have to learn. Islam is anything but scary. It’s full devotion and the basis of the religion is on peace. I really don’t understand why the United States believes the world is out to get them, when in reality many parts of the world feel the exact same about the United States.

Years of living in the Middle East has made me realize and that it’s not just a location on a map; rather it’s an intricate mix of people, cultures and languages brought together in the same geographic location. I see the violence and wars just I saw them in the United States, on television. Except of course in Afghanistan—but that’s a different story all together. My image of hatred has been replaced by experiences of relentless hospitality and curiosity of who I am and where I am from. Being American is identified by a passport, and explaining why I think a certain way is lost in translation.

Fridays involved hearing the local Imam at the mosque with the call for prayer and there is no Southside, let alone alcohol. Beer drinking and Long Island Iced Teas were replaced with sheesha smoking and in Yemen there was always the Qat. Friday became the Sunday in that the work week begins the next day on Saturday. Unless of course you’re in Lebanon, where the Christians are the majority and adhere to their work week.

Visits with my grandmother live now only in my memory along the rosary beads I took from her funeral. If I have the chance to fight with my mother it happens at the most once a week and involves dialing international—sometimes we don’t even know enough about each other’s lives to argue. Planning for my best friend’s wedding was done through emails and phone calls and ended with a falling out when I was not able to attend her special day. I have no car, and I would have a suicide wish or masochistic desire if I were to drive here—except for when I took to the wheel in Bahrain and I was worse than the others. I would seriously flip if I were to pay more than $5 for a decent meal. I have some crazy pseudo-British accent from time spent with foreigners and not speaking English.

Here in Lebanon, I have to worry about my clothes, what I look like in public. In Afghanistan, I worried I revealed too much. In Yemen, I would wake in the morning and conceal my pajamas with my abeya when I left the comfort of my air conditioned home. It didn’t matter if my hair was clean or dirty; styled or un-brushed; long or short; because it was always wrapped in a headscarf, hiding it from the public eye. Women’s legs, arms and faces were concealed in sheer flowing cloth, even on the most blistering of heat days. Yemeni men wear skirts, those of the Gulf wear long dresses and no one blinks an eye, nevertheless if one were to wear shorts a line of curious spectators would form wondering why they would choose to wear that.

I now know what trauma is both in a physical and mental sense. An injury to my back left me in unimaginable pain led me to go under the knife in Taiwan. My limited Mandarin led me to be in tears and also taught me how precious friends and family are int times of need. A near death experience in the sea near Somalia left me with a shoulder that will never be the same. Consoling my colleagues following attacks in Afghanistan and trying to understand the waste of life that occurs on a daily basis is something I may never truly understand or process.

CNN has been replaced by Al Jazeera. Fruits and vegetables are bought by the kilo at a corner produce stand, sometimes at 2 am; no more Farmer’s Market waxed apples bought with a two for one special at Giant Eagle. A caffeine fix is a complimentary Turkish coffee served in a porcelain cup, so much richer, yet so much more basic than the double soy grande skim latte that cost $5 and is served ‘to go’ in a foam cup. Regardless of fixed price tags, the price can always be negotiated.

Aside from Lebanon and Syria, church bells do not ring, even if they did they would be drowned out by the five daily calls to prayer reminding everyone that Allah is greatest and the Prophet Mohammed, his messenger, has written this for us in a sacred book. Praying does not occur privately or just on Saturdays or Sundays, praying here happens everywhere whether it is in a mosque, in a home or on a prayer rug in the corner of a grocery store.

So I ask myself, when did it all become normal and when did I lose touch with my own native home? When did I stop comparing myself to others and realize that I was one of them? When did a language so unfamiliar and cryptic become easy to understand? I love it. I’ve changed. If I compared myself to myself ten years ago, I would not know her. I have come a long way since that time not so long ago when I was a curious teenager living in the Northeastern United States. The experiences, people and places I have had the opportunity to encounter can not be expressed in words nor replicated on film. They exist only in a continuous movie played only in my memory.

As I gain more of these experiences I am beginning to realize that life is a series of events meshed together in a bittersweet symphony that no one will ever be able to capture in shape or form.

And so I continue to live and absorb these experiences, for what purpose I am still attempting, if ever, to comprehend…

4th of July in Beirut

I was invited to go to the US Embassy as part of their 4th of July
Celebration. I was surprised to get in as it is invite only and the list
had been closed for weeks...however, a fellow American at UNRWA pulled
some strings.

The Embassy in Beirut is tucked away and I was glad to have my trusted and
reliable taxi driver Imad take me there as any other taxi would try to
charge an arm and a leg. Taxis in Beirut-and most of the Mid East for
that matter, do not use meters. It's a system based on negotiation and
understanding of distances while computing prices. Eventually, we found
the embassy and after passing through three layers of security I was on
American soil abroad. The Embassy sits up on a hill overlooking the
Mediterranean Sea. The view is gorgeous--as it should be considering that
all Embassy staff working there are confined to its compound and are
allowed out only twice a week with armed guards.

I have often debated if I would want to work as Embassy staff and after
meeting the employees in Beirut, it became strikingly clear that it would
not 'fit' my interests and lifestyle. I love being abroad--I've traveled
to 40 countries and lived in 5 extensively, however, the reason I enjoy
being abroad is experiencing the culture and meeting new people. Working
for the US government does not allow for much of this, especially in the
ares of the world I'm interested in working.

The party included an open BBQ buffet, a Native American tribal dance, men
in cowboy hats with lassos and to top it off a mechanical bull borrowed
from a place called El Rancho located in the mountains of Lebanon. For an
hour there was a bull riding competition to see who could stay on the
longest and the only indicator that we were still in Lebanon was the 4
minute blackout that occurred--Beirut has rolling power cuts that involved
a generator kicking into gear when the power goes out.

We could see fireworks in the distance and one of the staff told me that
the US is able to save money on fireworks in Lebanon as there is always
some Lebanese setting them off. So very true. Once I had some kids
setting off full out fireworks underneath my bedroom windown when Brazil
won a match for the World Cup.

I've been overseas for the 4th before, but this was by far one of the most
random and enjoyable.

Summer Recreation Activities

UNRWA in Lebanon has partnered with a Canadian NGO called Right to Play
and is participating in a series of activities for 8 weeks as part of a
summer camp. This is a pilot program and, if successful, will be used in
the future as an after school program. I am tagging along to observe the
activities which begin at 3pm every day.

I was able to go last week to the Ein El Helweh Camp in Saida,
approximately 45 minutes south of Beirut. Ein El Helweh is probably the
most famous camp in Lebanon as it has representatives from all of the
Palestinian factions based inside the camp. It is also the most densely
populated and makes for sensory overload when walking through it.

Something I found to be shocking was a bullet hole next to the inside
entrance of the boy's school that we were visiting. The Fatah
Party--completed with decorations of Yasser Arafat photos--is neighbors
with the school and when there is a dispute with the party and outside
Islamic extremist groups, they often battle it out with fire fight
shootouts between each other--the school is the middle ground.

A colleague of mine who lives in this camp had to be on lockdown for three
days in January when a domestic dispute erupted into what sounded like all
out war fare in the camp including rocket propelled grenades being
launched. So, it makes you wonder, where does a refugee seek refuge?

The day I entered Ein El Helweh, I used my UNRWA ID to pass the Lebanese
Army checkpoint outside the camp. I could hear popping noises in the
distance and my escort told me this was normal there to hear gun
fire--made me a bit uneasy.

Inside the schools I observed the artwork of the children--most of it
focused on the Palestinians history, their hope for a right to return and
the situation in Gaza. I enjoy looking at children's artwork as it
conveys the honesty in what the people feel without the need of
censorship. The drawings I saw were ones depicting the hope that allows
them to endure the suffering they experience on a daily basis.

The children seemed to enjoy the activities very much--laughing and
playing. They liked that I could speak Arabic so that they could talk to
me--this is a skill many of the International Staff lack and the kids love
the opportunity to speak to foreigners who understand them. I attended a
meeting with an Operational Support Officer and Head Master of the school
to discuss issues surrounding the activities and found that there was an
issue with paying for electricity in addtion to funding for supplies. It
seems that all problems are related to money.

Currently I'm tasked by the Protection Officer to collate observation
reports for the Protection Office related to the findings of all 5
recreation locations and is what will keep me occupied for the next coming
days in addition to assisting with a training for all Head Teachers at the
Hariri Canadian University on Thursday and Friday. Originally it was to
be on Saturday, but due to the Ayatllolah's death in Lebanon there was a
day of mourning yesterday that affected the schedule. I must admit that I
am happy to not have to do a 6 day work week!

Work at UNRWA

A colleague of mine in Afghanistan had been the first to inform me of the
work that UNRWA does. UNRWA-the United Nations Relief and Works Agency-is
based in five locations--Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza--it
provides the primary relief and assistance needed by Palestine Refugees.
It suffers from a severe lack of funding and as a result, nearly all the
programs that UNRWA supports suffer.
I had applied for an internship in both Damascus and Jerusalem, but it was
with personal contacts that I was offered the position in Beirut.

I'm working as an ombudsperson--a link between the camps and front office
in additiont to work as a protection officer. It's overwhelming to say the
least. As an intern I have found myself staying at the office until 6 at
night and sometimes being required to work on Saturdays. The Agency
depends on all individuals to the full extent--therefore, this is a very
'hands on' way of learning.

I've also made several trips to the camps--Borj al Barajni, Shatila, Sabra
and Ein El Helweh. It is shocking when you first see them and I sometimes
forget that the colleauges I have at work return to them on a nightly
basis to live. For me, I can enjoy the life that Lebanon has to offer--for
them their reality is confined to a camp with little hope for the future.

Life in Beirut

Most of my family was scared to death when I told them I would be spending
the summer in Beirut. Images of war torn times and descriptions of Tom
Friedman's book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, were in their minds.

Reality is, Beirut and Lebanon are more like Europe than the Mid East.
Beirut is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world and the people
who live here take the time to be as well groomed as possible-looking like
they stepped out of a spa at 6 am in the morning. Women are obsessed with
heels. I went hiking with a group of Lebanese and we had to stop en route
to buy proper shoes because one of the women showed up in stilettos. No
I'm not joking.

Things are quite expensive, as they are in any major city. Getting out of
Beirut in the summer is the norm...Beirut sits at the base of mountains
and once you go up into them you can get a break from the heat and
humidity that is constant.

The New York Times ranked Beirut as being one of the top travel
destinations in the world...I'd believe it. This country has made a
rebound and is only going to be getting better.

Of course the bullet riddled Holiday Inn looks like a massive tombstone
serves as a reminder of how bad things can get. Apparently the Amer of
Kuwait owns the property and just can't decide what to do with the

Work with UNRWA

A colleague of mine in Afghanistan had been the first to inform me of the work that UNRWA does. UNRWA-the United Nations Relief and Works Agency-is based in five locations--Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza--it provides the primary relief and assistance needed by Palestine Refugees. It suffers from a severe lack of funding and as a result, nearly all the programs that UNRWA supports suffer.
I had applied for an internship in both Damascus and Jerusalem, but it was with personal contacts that I was offered the position in Beirut.

I'm working as an ombudsperson--a link between the camps and front office in additiont to work as a protection officer. It's overwhelming to say the least. As an intern I have found myself staying at the office until 6 at night and sometimes being required to work on Saturdays. The Agency depends on all individuals to the full extent--therefore, this is a very 'hands on' way of learning.

I've also made several trips to the camps--Borj al Barajni, Shatila, Sabra and Ein El Helweh. It is shocking when you first see them and I sometimes forget that the colleauges I have at work return to them on a nightly basis to live. For me, I can enjoy the life that Lebanon has to offer--for them their reality is confined to a camp with little hope for the future.