On Saturday, the eve of the first month of hostilities, a loose coalition of NGOs and activists organized a “civilian convoy” from Beirut to the city of Nabatieh in south-central Lebanon.
The event is advertised as a form of “civil resistance” whereby participants will carry aid without prior approval from the Lebanese government or the Israeli Defence Force.
“The main goal, however, is not to deliver aid,” explains Rasha Salti, a spokesperson for the group. “We want to show solidarity with the people of the south and prove that we can travel freely in our country.”
Beginning at 7 a.m., some 200 activists and journalists — in roughly equal proportions — gather at a foreboding departure point: Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut.
Most of the activists are Lebanese, many of them sporting images of Ché Guevara, on T-shirts and buttons.
Also milling around are a gallimaufry of foreigners. What are they doing here?
A middle-aged American woman named Kathy Kelly explains that she lived in Iraq during the period of UN sanctions, attempting to break them.
“I was with an organization called Voices in the Wilderness, but ever since we were fined $20,000 for bringing medicines into Iraq (which we’re not going to pay) we have had to change name,” Kelly says.
Eventually she and her colleagues had to leave Iraq: “An apartment of foreigners was a liability to the other residents of the building where we lived.”
Unrepentant after Iraq, the $20,000 fine and four months in federal prison in the United States for wandering onto the property of the infamous School of the Americas, Kelly has come to the next frontier: Lebanon.
Aisha Bain, who has a master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from the School of International Service at American University in Washington D.C., is ticking names off the list of registered convoy participants.
She has just finished making a documentary film about Darfur. In spite of her best efforts with the list, it will take over three and a half hours to line up 50 cars, number them, and get them out of town.
There are some delegates from Code Pink, a women’s anti-war movement based in the United States. They explain that they were meeting with the Iraqi Parliament in Jordan and decided to make a side-trip to Lebanon. They have approximately one week in the country.
Diane Wilson is a shrimper from Seadrift, Texas. She began fighting environmental degradation and pollution 18 years ago and has been an activist since.
She describes the unbroken path of activism that lead her from the Gulf of Mexico to Martyr’s Square in Beirut. Her latest action, before coming to Lebanon, was a 30-day hunger strike against the war in Iraq. I ask what she had to break her fast. “Orange juice. It tasted very sweet.”
A Caucasian man who looks to be on a photographic safari tries to help in the organization by shouting “would all the Lebanese please move over against this wall. Would all the Lebanese please move over against this wall.”
He is completely ignored.
He is wearing a red shirt, tan pants (each with many pockets) and a tan sunhat of synthetic material, the kind that are sold in the outfitter shops in downtown Toronto.
He has the awkward, stilted manner of too-tall men who never do sport. Of course he is completely ignored. What is he doing here? Petra is in Jordan; the Pyramids are in Egypt.
Finally, at approximately 10:30 a.m., “horribly late,” according to Rasha Salti, the convoy leaves Martyr’s Square.
It moves southward in fits and starts until reaching the Nayfah checkpoint — the first on the road south from Beirut — where it is promptly stopped by the military.
At the front of the convoy the organizers are engaged in heated argument with one another.
Some believe that the Lebanese military know what is best for the safety of the group and they should turn back; others insist that the convoy must continue.
There is a sense that much of the purpose of the day has been lost: The convoy protesting Israeli limitations on movement in Lebanon has been halted by the Lebanese military.
At length, the three-person executive committee decides that passengers and drivers should leave their vehicles and carry the supplies by hand through the checkpoint.
The order is given, and with pitas and disposable diapers in hand, the crowd approaches the checkpoint.
The roughly 15 military men guarding the position form a line across the road as the young people approach, blocking their path. A few activists attempt to walk through the line but are physically pushed back.
I climb the carcass of a building next to the checkpoint to observe the crowd. Clearly visible below is the American from earlier.
Protruding from his daypack is the blue plastic drinking straw of a Camelbak Hydration System. One must remember the importance of drinking fluids while exerting one’s self in a hot climate.
The man crosses the line of soldiers who have gathered to stop the activists from passing. He wanders somewhat aimlessly behind their line for a few minutes, then returns, pushing through the soldiers in the opposite direction.
Taking a Lebanese flag, he crosses back and begins waving the red and white tri-colour like a torero, urging the crowd to charge through the line toward him. They ignore him, again.
I find the American, whose name I learn is Paul Larudee, after he has given up his flag waving.
He is busy explaining to a Lebanese organizer that the group now has two options. His preference is to try to walk across the line with the food in hand and then have the vehicles cross later.
“But we cannot cross,” complains the organizer. “You can see that the soldiers will not let us.”
“I walked across and they did not stop me or beat me. Why do you think that is? Let’s stop talking to the soldiers and just do it.”
He does not seem to believe that his foreignness was his passe-partout.
A Radio-Canada television team come over and say, “Paul, may we ask you a few questions?”
Apparently they know him. He is interviewed in French; his command of the language is good, but the answers are of the same drab colour and synthetic manufacture as his hat and pants.
The interviewer, however, is more striking still. He is outside the frame. As Larudee answers, the journalist’s eyes wander disinterestedly.
He is not seeking to observe the crowd, he is bored. It appears as though Larudee’s answers are completely irrelevant to him, and his unconnected and completely unprobing questions confirm this.
Of course he does not care: He has just relieved himself of the stress of the daily obligation to file.
The crowd eventually withdraws. They have been blocking traffic for over half an hour and seem to believe it is enough. They pile their supplies on the side of the road and sit down.
Apparently hungry from their efforts, a few begin to snack on bread and other food aid. Kelly opens a bag of green olives she was trying to carrying across the checkpoint and pops a few in her mouth before offering them to others.
After a snide remark, I confess that in Asia I snacked on a pack of biscuits poached from a tsunami aid shipment. Freelance photographer Jonathan Giesen recounts that when he was in Darfur, aid is all the westerners ate.
A little follow-up research on Larudee reveals that he has a PhD in linguistics from Georgetown University.
Thinking of Noam Chomsky, I wonder what the connection is between linguistics and activism.
An International Solidarity Movement press release, dated June 5, 2006, describes him, without any hint of sarcasm, as “one of those gifted people who can make a piano sing.”
It describes how he was arrested “on his way to the occupied West Bank to tune pianos and to support Palestinian non-violent resistance to the Israeli Occupation.”
I am still not sure what he has come to Lebanon for. But I have an idea: As he was not carrying any aid through the checkpoint, he must have been hoping to tune pianos in Southern Lebanon.