The Fourth of July
By Yousif Hassan
It has been said that once a human being has nothing left but hatred
and desperation, he forgets much of what makes him human.
Even at 4:58pm, Southern Lebanon's July sun shows little hint of easing
its grip on the domain of earth over which it rules. In roughly 11 hours,
about 4,500 miles away, the United States will celebrate its 228th year
with a triumphant and majestic display of color and sound, as fireworks
light up the night sky over Washington, DC. Yet here in this land, the
sound of the fireworks raging for the past 9 years have been cacophonous
and hollow, leaving a feeling of a life unsettled.
In the heat today, however, all appears peaceful at Bawabit Fatima,
Fatima's Gate. "They just closed the road over there," sighs an elderly
woman with a wistful look in her dark eyes. Her handmaiden straightens
her dark red hijab for her. "Just a few months ago, you used to be
able to walk all the way down - down to those guys standing there."
It's difficult to hear her over the din of the Arabic music blaring
through a microphone belonging to a disheveled "souvenir" store to the
rear. On this Fourth of July, the store brandishes a different sort of
independence celebration - anti-Israeli propaganda and yellow
Hizb-Allah banners with green lettering. Just over four years ago,
the political party's militia drove back the Israeli army which had been
occupying much of southern Lebanon. The army retreated to the unofficial
border between Lebanon and what is referred to as Occupied Palestine; this
now U.N.-patrolled no-man's land is called Bawabit Fatima. The
yellow-and-green flag is ubiquitous in this part of the country - but toy
M-16s, in uncanny likeness to those wielded by Hizb-Allah's freedom
fighters, can only be found here at the store.
And so it goes at this place, and many other places in the South.
Painful reminders of a hurtful past litter every small village and every
dusty road, and wary eyes keep vigilant watch over a frontier ever at the
brink. Men and women with tough skin and even tougher hearts gaze upon
visitors with wizened, sad expressions. They know that their sons and
grandsons should be carrying toy cars, not the toy guns. A younger man,
little past 30, looks at his small boy and admonishes him for roaming
about with one of the toy guns. "Walid! Give me that!" he roars, the
anger in his eyes blazing. But turning back to stare at Bawabit Fatima,
he becomes angrier still, shakes his head, and hands the toy gun back to
A group of Saudi tourists, women clad head-to-toe in black despite the
merciless heat, point at the Israeli bunkers just on the opposite side of
the barb-wire fence separating the two sides. "Cowards," one of them
says. "Look how they hide in that thing pointing their rifles at us. I
swear not a single one of them - or any Jew for that manner - would dare
get as close as we do." Then, indignantly, she snaps a photograph of the
soldier in the bunker.
Other visitors' children clamber on top of a
ruined, small, grey Israeli tank and pose. On top of its diesel engine,
the "GM" logo is still legible, rekindling in their parents a loathing
that is difficult to suppress or isolate. One of the mothers spits on the
"It's the Fourth of July today," I say to her in Arabic. "Ironic
"What do you mean?" she asks with a curious mien about her.
"America's birthday," I tell her.
The look of disgust is obvious on her
face. "I hope they all go to hell," she says flatly and without raising
her voice. The irony in my comparison is overshadowed by the bitterness
in her tone.
Just then, the view of the tank is eclipsed by a bigger one emerging from
the neutral zone into the Lebanese side - this one is white and has "U.N."
emblazoned in bright blue on the front. Three armed soldiers look
stolidly down at all of the visitors, whose attentions are held by their
passing, but soon the tank is gone and with it the reflection that this
small part of the world requires their presence.
While my father heads toward the low, flat Hizb-Allah fortifications
situated alongside the border, a scrawny cat, oblivious and callous, seems
to materialize near the fence; its light-beige fur blended almost
perfectly with the fortifications it was lurking in. Without seeming to
realize the significance of its actions, it crosses through the fence to
the other side. The sight seems to bring a momentary smile to my mother's
tear-stricken face; she is a kind, peaceful woman who adores cats. But in
the same breath, she starts toward the store, seeing a donation booth.
There, for as meager a contribution as 1,000 Lebanese pounds, which is
roughly 66 cents, one can get a certificate of thanks in Hizb-Allah's
name. "A bullet for every pound" read bold Arabic letters in the center,
while the red seal of the "Muslim Resistance" can be found all around the
border. I marvel at how a woman like my mother, the cat-lover with tears
in her eyes, can feel pride in buying bullets. But inscribed in her
features is the same face every otherwise loving, child-protecting human
being here carries: hardened determination brought on by desperation.
Lebanon is a country in which it is as difficult to live as it is to
An American visiting Mu'takal Khiam on the Fourth of July will see no
significance lost in the holiday despite being in a country almost half a
world away; for this former Israeli detention block turned museum
commemorates daily its own Independence Day of sorts. On May 24, 2000,
Hizb-Allah recaptured the village of Khiam from the occupying Israelis,
entered the prison, and freed the over two hundred detainees therein.
Today, the former prison welcomes droves of people; Lebanese,
Palestinians, Saudis, and even two Americans walk into a small, dark room
near the entrance of the detention block. A twenty-minute film, perfectly
subtitled in English, recreates atrocities in living color, setting the
tone for the rest of the visit. At the end, the clip memorializes those
who were martyred in the camp, 24 young men and women in all. When the
short film ends, no one seems able to move or speak - even a little
5-month-old infant stops crying, as if sensing the solemnity of the
moment. Finally, someone from outside opens the door.
Abu Aziz, the tour guide, recounts a harrowing tale as visitors move
through the prison camp's rooms. His knowledge of the facility and events
sounds first-hand; people wonder until he explains that he himself was a
detainee here for six years. "Conditions were atrocious before the Red
Cross came in 1995," he says. He gestures toward a small room no more
than two meters high and about two to three meters long and wide. "This
was your typical prison room before the Red Cross," he states. "There
would be about three or four of us in here at a time," he finishes
sullenly, adding emphasis to the dreary point already made by the film.
From room to room he leads, pointing out interrogation chambers, solitary
confinement rooms, "food deprivation areas," and the like. Nodding
towards a small bucket on the floor, he reveals that this generally served
as the "bathroom" for up to five men sharing a cell - a detail not in the
"When the International Red Cross arrived in 1995, human conditions and
treatment improved slightly due to international pressure," explains Abu
Aziz, as he opens the door to one of the rooms in the back of the complex.
Yet the cynicism in his voice is hard to miss. Inside, a three-meter high
ceiling rose above the old ceiling line, still visible about a meter and a
half below; the walls contained small, rectangular windows sealed with
barb-wire mesh, permitting sunlight and air to enter.
Finally, Abu Aziz arrives at a central open area, marked by a tiny,
barracks-like structure and a large, wooden pole wrapped with some type of
thin wire. The barracks-like structure is actually a very small room with
a single blue steel door and no windows. A small, rectangular-sliding
grille is built into the door, but it's easy to see that the grille can
only be opened from outside. Abu Aziz calls it the "Sunlight Room." Here,
prisoners in solitary confinement would be brought every day; the guard
would open the grille and allow the light to enter for exactly ten
minutes. After, the prisoner would be returned to solitary confinement.
As everyone around stares in abject silence, the guide moves in front of
the pole. He clears his throat and takes a long breath as if about to
speak, but he looks down at the ground around him instead. When he looks
up, painful memories flicker in his eyes. His voice, not so strong any
longer, begins, "Just about all the brothers who became martyrs..." He
falters, but recommences momentarily with a clearer tone. "Just about all
of the death that happened around here had something to do with this
pole." Abu Aziz details how long the spells of torture would last and what
occurred. Prisoners would be hung from the pole by their wrists and
whipped while his or her family would be forced to watch. Bleeding, open
wounds would become infected over the course of the days he or she would
be left to hang. Oftentimes, if the torture did not produce a successful
interrogation, the wires beside the pole would be wrapped around the
victim and currents of electricity sent to surge through the body, burning
the body from within and reopening external wounds. Most of this
information was presented in the earlier clip, yet the former prisoner's
speech evokes a much more vivid pathos.
About 20 detainees died within a few months of exposure to "The Pole" and
its torture, due to illnesses and complications arising from their abuse.
But Abu Aziz's voice is at its most somber as he relates the tale of one
of his friends. Pointing to a photograph of a young man to the left of
the pole, he chokes out, "Haitham was about 22 and an engineer. He and I
became brothers while hanging from this very pole. Certain conditions,
experiences... bring people together and men assume the responsibilities of
the other, you know." Despite the painful recollection, Abu Aziz's voice
grows stronger and he speaks on, as if the memory were as fresh as
yesterday. "I was removed and returned to my cell, but Haitham was left
up there. He received the worst torture I'd ever seen. He was martyred
hanging right here from this spot on the pole."
And then, the tour was over. The visitors, as if harangued by the
experience, exited sullenly into the courtyard, asking few questions.
The crowd bore an eerie resemblance to the throng of prisoners depicted in
nearby pictures, exiting through the very same area on their own Fourth of
July - May 24, 2000.