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The General Who Humiliated The City

The General Who Humiliated The City

Monday, 21 June, 2021 - 10:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

I don’t like memories. It is the house of the past, which sometimes revive painful feelings. It was a hot and bloody summer. Ariel Sharon’s forces surrounded the city and blocked its arteries with tank chains. He wanted to punish the city because Yasser Arafat turned it into a podium to publicize his right to recover the stolen land. It was an unequal battle. A sophisticated war machine capable of spreading rubble. An ingenious machine in the art of devastation.


We had the illusion that it was the toughest day. The planes began to attack the buildings, demonstrating their skill and the quality of their weapons. The smell of anger erupted in the besieged city. It is the first Arab capital to be blockaded by the Israeli army from land, sea, and air. The city felt a kind of shame because the world could not prevent murder of this magnitude. Under the inferno of bombardment, the city was mourning its martyrs with its head held up, despite the pain of its losses.


The purpose was clear. Forcing the fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organization to leave for exile away from the Arab-Israeli line of contact, and expelling Arafat’s victory sign from the land of Palestine. Despite the city’s stubbornness and resistance, it had no choice but to bid farewell for the cause, which seemed beyond Lebanon’s ability to embrace. The city felt the loss. But it did not feel humiliated. Israel’s fiercest Generals could not break its will. They could not take away its dignity. The Lebanese did not stop making the sacrifices by forcing the occupation to withdraw from Lebanese lands, and without succeeding in extracting Lebanon from its natural waters due to its Arab affiliation.


The experience of besieged Beirut left its marks in my soul. The unjust war was considered the most terrible of evils, especially when an ancient city finds itself in the grip of a hostile General who has the power to wipe out lives and buildings. But the following days showed me a more lethal General.


Years later, the profession took me to the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. The purpose was to cover Eritrean liberation movements secretly infiltrating into Ethiopian territory. But that mission was not the highlight of the trip. Fate made us fall into an episode that one can hardly recover from.


We decided to visit the refugee camp in the border area, where starvation was threatening those who escaped the raids of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam and an unprecedented drought that killed the already meager crops. I was among those who considered that news of the victims of hunger necessarily contained a degree of exaggeration.


In the camp, where tents were scattered, we roamed around the “residents”, whose eyes were full of despair, waiting for a rescuer in the form of a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. Lean bodies moving slowly, as if afraid to disintegrate…Eyes attacked by an unusual yellowish color…Naked boys whose bones protruded beneath the skin as if threatening to pierce them…Suddenly, we heard women screaming of pain. Someone spoke in a normal tone, announcing that a new child had died of starvation.


I had a deep desire not to believe what was happening, as I was a young journalist who had not yet learned the cruelty of this world to which we belong. Minutes passed, then we saw at the edge of the camp an old man walking with sad, heavy steps, carrying in his arms a small thing wrapped in a rag. We asked, and the answer was that it was a recurring scene. It’s the grandfather carrying the body of his starving grandson and going to bury him nearby. I followed him and I saw withered young men digging a small hole, in which the grandfather placed the little body. Tears filled the eyes of the gray-haired man. I stared at the grandfather and the wrinkles on his face and heart. Deep sadness, muffled anger, and complete surrender.


As aid was late to arrive, death stole more of the camp’s residents, often favoring children. I published in the Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper the story of the camp and the picture of the grandfather carrying his grandson to the pit of hot sand. Lebanese readers found it difficult to believe the story, and among them were those who asked me if there was a certain party that deliberately arranged this “charade” to speed up the arrival of aid.


The word ‘hunger’ was not present in the dictionary of the Lebanese. Poverty was there, but hunger did not succeed in knocking on doors and sneaking into homes.


After decades of recklessness, adventures, and manipulation of what remained of the foundations of the state, hunger came and set up its tents and took control of the country. About four decades ago, the Israeli war General tried to humiliate the city, but he was unsuccessful. Today, another General came and wrecked its dignity.


The driver offered to take me for a ride after sunset to see how Lebanese sneak into piles of rubbish to dig for what keeps their children safe from hunger. My heart was broken, as this is Beirut, the city of dreams, wildness, poems, songs, ideas, and paintings…


General of poverty came along with the General of hunger. The General who devoured the salaries and stole bread loaves and assassinated peace of mind. The situation of the country, whose youth dream of jumping from its sinking ship into exile, reminded me of the conditions of the camp I visited on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.


The General of poverty is a natural result of the practices of the Generals of confessions, sects, and parties. The Generals of the past, its wounds, and its evil.


The Generals, who gambled with the dignity of the citizens and their livelihood. They also gambled with the bones of their martyrs and missing.


Never has defeat smelled so powerful. The humiliation of the citizens has never reached this level. Humiliation greets you at the airport and then wishes you goodbyes.


This is an article I wish I hadn’t written. But I witnessed how mafias succeeded in destroying a country and assassinating its inhabitants. And how the General of poverty succeeded in crushing a city that Sharon’s tanks could not humiliate.


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