At 8 a.m. local time on Monday, a cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon went into effect.
Within hours, tens of thousands of Lebanese — bunkered down for the past month in public schools, mountain villages or relatives’ homes — flooded the streets of Beirut’s suburbs and the highway to the south of the country.
In the southern suburb of Haret Hreik, one of the worst hit urban areas, hundreds of awe-struck observers strolled amid collapsed buildings in streets where no car can now pass, their neighbourhood transformed into a bizarre pedestrian mall of destruction.
A man named Ahmed Khatib, who appeared to be waiting for something, asked if we were from the BBC. No, the Yukon News. Perhaps you’ve heard of it also?
“Then I hope that you can ask Mr. Tony Blair why he has taken away my home again. I lost one home already in the ‘80s. I have come again today and found that my apartment is gone.”
Did you lose any family? “No.” Well, perhaps things could be worse then?
“I did not lose any family today because I am the only one left. I already lost nine members of my family in the ‘80s,” replied Khatib.
“I am Palestinian, from Haifa. My family used to have a home there. I pray to God that Hassan Nasrallah will hit my home in Haifa and whoever lives there now. If I see a Jew I will hug him. But if you tell me you are from Israel, I want to kill you.”
In another sector of the suburbs called Bourj el Barajna, we came upon the smouldering wreckage of a massive apartment block being worked over by backhoes, bulldozers and a bobcat.
Water containers, ventilation fans, and other fixtures normally on rooftops 20 storeys up were strewn on the ground.
Shouts erupted as the backhoe uncovered something. A body. There were nine the day before; this is the first on this day.
As it was dug out, rescue crews immediately covered the cadaver with a shroud. There were shouts to the journalists not to take pictures of the body itself — a gesture of respect for the dead, I presumed.
More shouts. Two bodies this time. Caged in twisted rebar, they could not immediately be freed. Someone produced bolt cutters. As the first of the two was removed, photographs were again only to be of the workers and the stretcher bearing on it a cloth with the outline of something beneath.
Again, as the workers dug the second body, they pulled up an improvised shroud (a bath towel) to cover whatever they had exposed of him.
The feet stuck out, but his torso and head were buried. When finally an arm was loosed from the rubble, it was small and I could tell that this was a boy, not a man.
I prayed that they not pull on the arm to try and dislodge the boy’s head — if the body was rotten something might tear off. Mercifully, they continued digging.
My gruesome prediction would not have come true, however: The death was too fresh and the body had not yet begun to decompose. The blood on the arm was only half-coagulated and still red, not black.
When finally the boy was extracted, he was not immediately wrapped in the garish towel that had so far served to conceal him. Instead, one of the workers held him up by the armpits to the crowd of journalists and bystanders, whose shutters went wild.
Disturbingly, the only similar scene I had ever witnessed, the only precedent I had for understanding this morbid spectacle, came from the Disney film the Lion King.
The boy looked just like the lion cub Simba as he his held up by the shaman Rafiki to the trumpeting and braying of the animal kingdom.
The boy was held up not momentarily, but for a very long time.
Time enough for another worker to run his gloved hand through the boy’s dusty black hair, grabbing hold and pulling his slumped head upward to show his face to the crowd, as they did in the French revolution, showing the severed heads of the decapitated to the gathered crowds.
I knew that somewhere, someone was happy about this death. For it sent a thousand gruesome images of Israeli barbarity around the world. This boy, indeed, everyone in this building, had contributed to the “victory” Hezbollah now declared.
They needed him to be killed — and the Israelis had obliged. The boy, I imagined, did not want to die. It did not matter: He was part of something bigger, something that, frighteningly, the man holding him up seemed to understand.
Leaving that place, I saw a teenager looking stoically on. He had Roman, statuesque features. His arms were held firm and straight by his sides; his chin was slightly upturned. On a blue T-Shirt, these words appeared: “Freedom. You can wish for future happiness but the only time you can be happy is now.”
Did he know what the words meant? “No.” I asked a bystander to translate them to him. He listened, then smiled, sweetly. But I could see how big and moist his eyes were now, as a crack appeared where there was a flaw in the marble.
On Tuesday we traveled south toward Marjayoun, a city close to the border from which Israeli troops had withdrawn only a half-day before.
Although the ceasefire is unproven and, many believe, fragile, the people displaced by the conflict were returning in droves to the places they are from.
“No one expected so many to return so quickly,” said a Lebanese doctor. “But (Hassan) Nasrallah has told them to return, so they do.”
Southbound buses, cars and trucks filled both sides of the divided Beirut — Sidon highway.
In the previous weeks, two overpasses (in addition to numerous bridges) between Beirut and Sidon were bombed. At each collapsed overpass, the eight southbound lanes bottlenecked into a single track, resulting in heavy traffic jams.
Many vehicles had to be pushed up and over the steep incline, further slowing the progress of the massive millipede.
“Where is the government of Lebanon?” complained one man, referring to the absence of any construction equipment to clear the road.
While the cabinet had yet to meet since the beginning of the ceasefire, Hassan Nasrallah made promises of Monday for reconstruction in a televised broadcast Monday evening.
Numerous Hezbollah flags and posters made clear the crowd’s allegiance.
Some of the returnees, expecting to find their homes destroyed, tied foam mattresses on the roofs of their cars so that they might at least have something to sleep on when they arrive.
They reminded me of people who return to the Mississippi valley after a flood: They have lost everything and know they will lose it again, yet still they return.
The Lebanese have an attachment to places, to the land that is difficult for North Americans to understand. Our Lebanese hosts explained one evening that when they build a new house, they build it for 100 years.
“We never move. We are born in one place, and we die in that same place. This is not a matter choice.”
At last, a few kilometres from Marjayoun, we could go no further. A bridge over a cool blue creek had been bombed and there was no alternative route. About 100 people were waiting as a work-crew slowly rebuilt the bridge.
The creek flowed in an idyllic valley. Children passed the time throwing rocks in the water; a man waded across carrying a watermelon.
The sun was setting and, overwhelmed by the peacefulness of this place, I wanted to stay forever. I tried to convince my traveling companion to sleep the night, but he wished to return to Beirut.
With the sense of having missed the chance to understand Lebanon for the first time, infuriating rationality prevailed.
On the road home, our motorcycle was rear-ended at a stop. As we inspected for damage I turned and saw a banner stretched across the road.
It read: “Vous avez détruit les ponts. Nous passons par les coeurs des gens.”
“You destroyed the bridges, but we pass through people’s hearts.” So it is. Hezbollah has won — the first round at least.