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 his boy.

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 tank.

"It's the Fourth of July today," I say to her in Arabic. "Ironic isn't it?"

"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 leave.

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 movie clip.

"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.

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