No one in the village of Qana is waiting for a miracle to heal the deep scars left by Israeli air strikes that slaughtered over 100 civilians in 1996 and 28 in 2006. But, with the help of younger generations, residents are determined to move on.
QANA- In an unassuming warehouse filled with plastic bottles, among south Lebanon’s olive groves, Faten Chalhoub stands out. In a mauve chiffon shirt and smart black stilettos, she leans forward and speaks purposefully.
“When I was 10 years old, in 1993, we had to run away. That was the first war I witnessed,” she says about population displacement after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. “Then, in 1996, I had to leave my home and run away. We are sick of wars,” Chalhoub says on April 18, exactly 22 years after the first of two massacres that came to define Qana.
This southern Lebanese village is Chalhoub’s home. She believes its population of less than 10,000 can draw strength from its terrible past. The village has lived through enough.
On April 18, 1996, Israeli warplanes bombed a UN shelter in the village centre, killing 106 civilians who had sought refuge in the compound. Hundreds more were injured, including four Fijian UN troops. Most of the dead were women, children and elderly people.
The strike, which involved at least 13 shells, was part of Operation Grapes of Wrath, a fortnight-long military campaign launched by Israel in an attempt to pressure the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah. The Shia political party’s armed faction had been fighting Israel since the mid-1980s.
The Qana massacre anniversary comes as tensions grow over the possibility of renewed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Some of the village’s younger residents are channelling anti-Israel sentiment into a thirst for renewed war.
“We want to do to them what they did to us,” says 17-year-old Hassan Jaber, from Qana. “Israelis do not have feelings. People died [in Qana], and we need to remember this.”
According to the Middle East Reporter, a now-defunct news magazine that detailed the attack, the 1996 Qana incident prompted US president Bill Clinton to call for a ceasefire. A UN investigation later found that the Israeli claim of a technical fault was “unlikely.”
Then, during the 2006 July War between Israel and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s southern neighbour struck Qana again, killing at least 28 civilians in an air strike on a three-storey building.
Nicholas Blanford, a veteran Beirut-based journalist and author, witnessed the immediate aftermath of the 1996 massacre, and also reported on the 2006 attack.
“It was the weirdest sense of deja-vu, driving back along the same road to Qana just over 10 years later to witness the aftermath of another massacre,” he describes.
Qana’s residents must not only overcome a history of grief but also continuing infrastructural, economic and social problems.
People like Chalhoub are making change happen. The 34-year-old leads Qana Youth Association, a group of 25 volunteers determined to improve social conditions in the village.
The priority is rubbish, she says, looking down at blocks of crushed plastic and metal stored in the warehouse which functions as the association’s recycling centre.
Lebanon has chronic waste management problems and authorities often resort to burning piles of scrap and refuse in the open. A December 2017 Human Rights Watch report on the country’s trash crisis said the practice risked causing serious health problems.
“We visited the municipality and asked for solutions but it was taking too long”, explains Chalhoub. “They were burning rubbish in the open air, and it was hurting each and every one of us.”
Seven months ago, Chalhoub and the other volunteers decided to take action. They began to collect and sort through rubbish for recyclables from houses, supermarkets and cafes, which they would transport to their self-funded recycling centre.
“It was very difficult — we didn’t get any help from any organisation or authority,” she says.
Some 50 households in the village are now involved in the scheme and the Qana Youth Association will start working with schools over the next few weeks.
Unable to tackle larger problems associated with Qana’s traumatic past and population fluctuations due to emigration for work, residents have embraced the effort to recycle with open arms.
“They really wanted to [recycle] — they were breathing smoke [from the burning trash] every morning and every night,” Chalhoub says. “They couldn’t sit on their verandas anymore or open their windows.”
Chalhoub is also keen to improve the lives of Qana’s women, often held back by the village’s conservative values. The local council is made up of 18 men, with no female representation.
“We are half the population, if not more. It’s women’s strength that makes Qana strong. They feel empowered when they work with us, and that makes them less stressed at home — they feel less pressured to be just housewives,” says Chalhoub, who completed her master’s degree in the UK, and returned to Qana despite opportunities to relocate abroad. She now works as an English teacher in the nearby city of Tyre.
“We have proved the impossible is possible,” she explains, determinedly. “I gained my strength from experiencing war. When my students say something is impossible, I look them in the eye and I say, ‘Don’t say that, nothing is impossible’.”
Other active citizens like her are keen to show Qana’s residents are more than victims.
Fellow volunteer Hassan Dakhlallah sought shelter in the ill-fated UN compound with his mother and four brothers in April 1996 and fled to Beirut just one day before the Israeli air strike.
Now 31, he has since made money in the export business in Africa, but, like Chalhoub, also chose to return to Qana, a village where some believe Jesus turned water into wine — the first miracle attributed to him.
Hassan walks along the neat gravel path leading to a cave on the edge of the village, where Jesus is said to have sheltered. Across the valley, where wildflowers carpet the earth dandelion yellow, construction workers are busy building a stadium.
Qana’s younger generations are keen to minimise the religious divides that ripped Lebanon apart during and after the 1975-1990 civil war.
“We have both Islam and Christianity here in Qana,” Hassan says. He is visibly upset after seeing graffiti scrawled on the stone carvings of Jesus and his disciples at the supposed site of the miracle.
“We’ve been asking the tourism minister to build a glass case to protect these carvings, but… ,” his voice trails off as he shakes his head.
As these young volunteers try their best to improve lives in Qana, residents still have to grapple with the constant painful memories seared into the village and its environs.
Mounira Hassan Balhas, 59, remembers the Israeli strike in crisp detail. She, her husband and their 12 children had taken refuge at the UN shelter, believing it would be safe.
The air strikes blasted the body of her eight-year-old daughter Dunia into so many pieces that she was buried in a bag.
Her husband Ibrahim, then 41, was killed by shrapnel during the second strike hitting the UN compound. According to a later Human Rights Watch report, Israel’s military used “anti-personnel shells designed to explode above the ground and spread shrapnel over a wide area in order to maximise casualties.”
“A piece of shrapnel hit him in his throat and killed him,” Mounira recalls at her home, a simple concrete building in the hamlet of Jebel Botm, a few kilometres from Qana. “I hugged him and started screaming, but nobody could hear anyone else during the attack. [His remains] were not deformed, but the shrapnel slaughtered him.”
She describes how other relatives rushed to try to help, but then a third shell exploded.
“My cousin Saad Allah, his wife and his sons came and tried to help my husband, The third bomb came at that moment and they were all killed. They were piled on top of each other.”
After the attack, Mounira found employment in tobacco picking but no longer works and cannot read or write to spell her late husband’s name.
Large numbers of Qana’s residents, who are mostly Shia Muslims, have made money in African countries such as Cote d’Ivoire and Congo. Shiny Audi four-wheel drives and large holiday mansions dot the village. But it remains unclear how much of those earnings or other remittances filter back, with other residents living in basic breezeblock houses, like Mounira.
She spends most of her time at home with her daughter Lina. The 28-year-old was left partially paralysed after the 1996 Qana massacre, which she cannot remember. She still has splinters lodged in her head, and is on medication for life.
Mounira says her daughter was hospitalised for a month afterwards, mute and paralysed, “She didn’t even recognise me. She lost her memory.”
The pair visit Ibrahim and Dunia’s graves regularly, on holidays and other occasions, but time has not made it easy for Mounira to articulate her emotions.
“What should I feel? If you were me, wouldn't you feel bad? Or relive old memories?” she asks. “We were one family, living together in the same house, and this is how we end up. It is not easy.”
As survivors visit the memorial building housing all 106 victims this week, politics — including the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections on May 6 — are never far away.
“Scouts of the Islamic Message” from the Shia political party Amal Movement march in band formation outside the memorial building, which stands next to the ruined UN compound. They wait to greet Randa Berri, the glamorous wife of Amal leader and parliament speaker Nabih Berri.
Lebanon’s national flag flutters alongside Amal insignia as crowds gather, some blasting anti-Israeli songs, and the party’s security brigades direct traffic.
“In the shadow of unfortunate political upheaval, as a result of the upcoming elections approaching on May 6, let me – through this site, which has always represented unity and coexistence – invite you to consolidate the merit of all the villages, cities and towns of the south [of Lebanon]," Randa appeals to the crowds. She stands at a podium emblazoned with Amal’s logo, overlooking the graves of massacre victims.
“Nabih Berri has spared no effort to relieve the deprivation and inequity in this beloved spot of Lebanon — the south of development and liberation.”
"This is Lebanon," Blanford says, "and politics will never be far away, even at such occasions remembering terrible human loss."
He remembers how tensions at the first anniversary of the attack ended with a fight between Amal and Hezbollah, also dominant in southern Lebanon.
“I wrote about it at the time; what a shame [the fight] was when survivors were trying to pay their respects to their loved ones. But these things very quickly become politicised.”
International tensions are never far from south Lebanon either, as its residents know all too well.
Last summer Moshe Yaalon, who was head of the Israeli Army's intelligence branch at the time of the Qana massacre, said, “Every Lebanese [person] will suffer from the next war because all infrastructure will be destroyed."
Hezbollah is believed to have strengthened its weapons arsenal since the war in 2006, having acquired 120,000 rockets from Iran, drones and anti-tank missiles, according to a Council for Foreign Relations report from late 2017.
Those who have lived through Qana’s horrors are less hungry for war than some young residents like Hassan Jaber, the 17-year-old from Qana.
“We are not scared,” Hassan Dakhlallah says. “There is no one who likes war, but we are not afraid. We will not leave our lands. If there is a war we will replant the trees and rebuild our houses, because this is our land.”
But Mounira, for one, cannot tolerate the thought of another conflict.
“Who can endure more? People are afraid, we had many wars," she says firmly.
“Of course we are afraid, because we have a bad experience with war. People who don’t feel afraid are people who have not faced what we faced.”