For a change of pace, and a desire to get away from the incessant worries over the Westerners' evacuation plans (relax folks, you'll get out), I went up into the hills above Beirut Thursday, into the Christian enclaves where small shrines to Mary mark the sharp switchbacks in the roads leading up into the cedar and pines.
It's peaceful up here. Broummana is particularly picturesque, perched as it is on the side of steep hills that look down into valleys that then spill out into Beirut. During the 1975-90 Civil War, residents of the city would flee into these hill towns and watch the artillery duels between the various militias, between the Israelis and the PLO, between the PLO and the militias, between the Israelis and the militias... Well, you get the idea.
Stopping for lunch at an upscale Crepe-Away diner, I'm taken aback by the sheer normality of the scene. Young people hanging out and flirting? Check. Bad American pop music on the loudspeakers? Yeah, got that. Families playing peek-a-boo with their kids over menus? That, too. It was a typical Lebanese scene and one that would be instantly recognizable in, say, northern California. It was easy to forget that just a few miles down the mountain roads, people could suffer an Israeli air strike at any minute in fact, if there had been any bombings, we would have had a great view.
But the war had reached Broummana; we just had to look for it.
We found it at the local public school. Shi'ite refugees from the south had taken shelter here, in the heart of this Christian community that splits its loyalties between Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, which has a political alliance with Hizballah, and Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces, which are virulently anti-Hizballah and even anti-Muslim.
A few families fleeing the south arrived on Saturday, but numbers surged on Monday, said George Abisamra, an Aoun supporter who had volunteered to help out at the school. As of today, 400 people had taken shelter here, he said, and his party had taken it on themselves to organize care for them. "We have to help them," he said, "They are Lebanese."
In some cases, there's only so much one can do. I met Abisamra while witnessing a tragic, but increasingly common, scene. An extended family of Shi'ites from Tyre in the south was seated on a semi-circle of white plastic chairs. The men wore grim expressions. They had just been told that Hussein Zikehammede, 40, and his father, Hajj Zikehammede, 70, had been killed in an Israeli missile strike yesterday on their way south to fetch Hussein's wife and six children and bring them to safety. According to Hussein's cousin, Majid Hammadi, the two men were about a mile from their house when an Israeli missile struck their car, killing both. When a rescue truck attempted to retrieve the bodies, Hammadi said, the Israelis struck again. Today, they say, after a day in the street, the bodies are still unclaimed because people are too scared to approach the destroyed cars. Neighbors who witnessed the attack had called Hammadi with the news about an hour before we arrived in Broummana.
Hammadi's eyes brimmed with tears as he related the story. Then, he turned. Hussein's sister was being told the news. She kneeled before an older man, who was speaking softly to her, his face drawn, his eyes tortured. She cried out, "Hussein! Hussein!" in a long, shrill lament. She held her head in her hands and began to pull at her hijab while screaming out her brother's name. A young man tried to help Hussein's sister to her feet, but she couldn't bear to stand. Small children began to cry, and one little girl had a purple star sticker affixed to her forehead, a jarring symbol of childhood pasted over more grief than she should have to experience at such a tender age.
Hammadi pressed his thumb and fingers to his eyes and turned away, trying to push the tears back inside. But then he pulled himself together and turned to me. "We are with Hizballah, even if everybody dies," he said. "God forbid."
Then his eyes again filled with tears.