It is rather strange, for lack of a better word, to drive and walk around an area that not even a week ago was the scene of extreme violence. But the experience was not akin to visiting a site where a major battle or historic event had occurred in the distant past, trying to recreate in your mind the destruction, the smell, or the climate conditions. The only imagination required concerned the actual fighting that took place between the Israelis and Hizbullah.
I accompanied my friend Peter, novelist Abdel Karim, and Emmanuel, our driver for the day, on a trip from Beirut to the beleaguered south.
Not far out of Beirut on the autostrade (motorway), the destruction became evident, with around 90% of the bridges we had to cross over or under destroyed, requiring circuitous routes on the coast roads or over dusty tracks.
As we entered Saida (Sidon) the main bridge by the sports stadium had been bombed, and out at sea we could see a French aircraft carrier, a frigate and a few Lebanese navy tubs.
The road to Nabatiyeh, the largest town in the centre of the south, was not badly damaged, and inside the city only a few buildings had been hit; most damage seemed to have occurred on the outskirts. Nonetheless innumerable windows had been smashed due to the bomb blasts, and bins were full of shards of glass, like ocean blue pools of water.
We drove over to the town of Arnoun, which lies below the Crusader castle of Beaufort, to visit my friend Mo.
But the army would not let us past without permission, so we had to go to a checkpoint near Marjayoun.
At the checkpoint a soldier asked Emmanuel where he was from. “Sudan.” “Ok, all of you from Sudan?” “No!? Holland etc.” Pull over.
Took 40 minutes to get clearance from Saida, with the official (hard to tell as he was in civvies)asking us repeatedly bwtween phonecalls where we were from, and then got Sudan mixed up with Suwed (Sweden). “Better that way,” smiled Emmanuel.
On asking each of us how long we had been in Lebanon - five years, four years, two months, Peter replied 10 years."From Qana to Qana."
As we waited dozens of empty army trucks passed us, heading north. Laden vehicles also passed us with people returning to their villages.
We then drove on to Marjayoun, a Christian village on the opposite side of the Litani river valley from Arnoun. The town had seen quite a bit of fighting, with tank track marks in the roads and bullet rounds dotting buildings and streets. Several cars had been squashed by tanks.
Apart from the army – numerous parked trucks and APCs, and soldiers loitering in barracks – few people were around.
We then took back roads across the valley that divides Marjayoun from Khiam. Outside the town every other building had been destroyed, and traces of extinguished fires were to be seen in fields and on hillsides. Some roads were blocked, either by debris or by shells, requiring some reversing and turning around.
Khiam itself was a wreck, and only got worse the closer we got to the top of the hill the town is built on.
What is interesting about Khiam is that it was the site of an infamous Israeli prison between 1982-2000 that held Lebanese prisoners in brutal conditions, including water and electricity torture (Red Cross were only allowed access in 1998). After the Israelis withdrew in 2000, the prison was converted into a museum, with previous occupants showing visitors around, and became a symbol of Israel's occupation of the south. The prison was often used in Hizbullah propaganda. For instance I went on a tour of the south two years ago with the Hizbullah-backed Al Manar TV, put on for international students (I was studying a Masters at the time at the American University of Beirut), and the prison was a major part of the one hour film that was broadcast. But three weeks ago the prison was totally destroyed by the Israelis - as if trying to wipe out the evidence.
The Israelis had certainly done a good job. Other than the buildings at the entrance and a few partially standing at the far end, the prison had been totally and utterly destroyed. All that remained was a thick layer of grey concrete dust and rubble.
From Khiam the road winds down into a valley, where there are fields and orchards. At the far end of the valley lay the Israeli settlement of Metulla. By the side of the road, a track had been carved into the soil by Israeli tanks. The earth had been kicked up and tobacco plants were covered in a thick coating of dark red dust.
Parts of the road had been totally destroyed, all that remained 25ft deep craters. Stopping to get out and look at one crater, a de-mining truck pulled up. We went to see what they were looking at – an unexploded one tonne bomb in a nectarine grove. Two men, from England, were noting down details. I asked them if they had found any traces of depleted uranium – none so far. Incidentally, I took soil samples from several bomb craters for testing at a lab in Beirut.
As we drove along the border past Kfar Kila – the road is but 5-10 meters from the fence at points – we saw, on the other side of the fence, photographers, squatting on their haunches, snapping away with powerful zoom lenses.
On looking down into a valley on the other side I saw four Israeli Merkava tanks lined up. At another point the border fence had been crushed, driven over by tanks and still not repaired – if you wanted to, you could have driven across.
At Fatima’s Gate, where you can walk along the border and see the Israeli military posts a mere five meters away, it was quiet, no soldiers to be seen.
When we arrived on the outskirts of Bint Jbeil, a town which bore the brunt of the fighting along with nearby Maroun Al Ras, it was clear that serious battles had occurred.
While we were stopping for a cool drink, a Mercedes pulled up with two men, who jumped out asking for water. They were clearly flustered.
Is that the road to Maroun Al Ras? we asked. “Yes, don’t go there, we heard gun shots. Only go if you have a very visible TV sticker, otherwise you may come under fire.” We decided not to go.
There was extensive damage to the outskirts of Bint Jbeil, but the destruction got progressively worse as we entered the centre of the town. Every building had either been shelled, shot at, burnt or nearly levelled, or a mix of the latter. The streets were dusty and full of debris. Walking around Peter and I cut into the old souk, clambering over rubble, twisted iron and building blocks blasted from buildings. Doors to houses lay open, inside either full of debris or eerily empty.
What was curious – I noticed the same thing in the southern suburbs – is that despite numerous shop fronts blown away or glass smashed, nothing had been taken. Shelves were stacked as they had been left, and fridges were full of bottles. But rotten perishable foods produced a terrible smell, an odour that was noticeable off and on throughout the whole south.
As we walked around the town an Israeli drone buzzed away over our heads – a reminder of how precarious the ceasefire is and that Israel still controls the skies. Equally, Peter and I had been lucky wandering off the main road. On the other side a sign had been put up telling people to not enter that road because of unexploded ordinance and cluster bombs.
Overlooking the rest of the town at one point we could see a school. The back end had been blown clean off, allowing the observer to look into classrooms, desks and chairs still lined up in rows facing what used to be a blackboard.
Although the distance covered had not been a great deal, we had taken around seven hours to reach Bint Jbeil. After around an hour there we decided to return to Beirut, going via Tyre. The long descent to Tyre goes through village after village, many coming back to life with people sitting on balconies or out on the street, but also bearing the scars of war with a bomb-hit building here and there.
Passing through the outskirts of Tyre, by the service taxi rank, we could see little destruction but also did not stop to venture further with the light fading fast. Just out of Tyre we had to take a dirt road normally used by agricultural workers. The air was thick with light greyish dust from the stream of vehicles slowly driving down into the valley.
It was a long drive back, taking the busy coast road to Rmeileh, then cutting onto the motorway before being forced off again, to then be stuck in heavy traffic until we had almost a clean run back to Beirut.
Upon return, all of us were filthy, covered in dust and sweat and absolutely ravished after our 12-hour tour. We foolishly had not brought any nourishment, other than water, with us.