In this scene from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War I describe a city plunged into a civil war and how we learn to deal with it.
No one is ever prepared for civil war. It begins without warning in the city you now call home, a city that has worked its way into your soul like great lovers do. And when you are blessed in so many ways, you do not hastily pack up and leave just because there is machine gun fire at the end of your street. You persuade yourself that the fighting will stop, that the warring factions will come to their senses. Why would they not when the very existence of their city is at stake? You are naïve. You do not understand how hatred builds up when there are no wise leaders to repair the social ills that fuel this kind of discontent.
When the first mortar shells rain down on your street you know enough to run frantically for cover. But you quickly learn that civil war is not about a single round of mortar fire. It begins in one neighborhood and spreads like an invasive cancer. Bombs begin falling at random for days and sometimes weeks at a time on more and more areas. Eventually civil war invades every neighborhood.
You learn to deal with water shortages. You awaken in the middle of night to wash your clothes when water finally begins to flow. You fill buckets for doing dishes, watering plants and flushing toilets. You find ways to surmount the daily power outages. Your children finish their homework by candlelight at the kitchen table while you prepare the evening meal. In spite of the night-long battle in your street you have your children dressed and fed in time to catch the school bus at 6:45 A.M. And when schools close because of war–sometimes for months at a time–you hire a tutor to keep your children’s minds usefully occupied.
You stock up on sugar, flour, rice and canned foods. You no longer walk your streets casually stopping at the green grocery and the bakery. Instead you dodge behind overturned shipping containers in order to avoid the lurking rooftop sniper. You pray a lot for your family’s safety and for the courage to hold it all together. You retreat to your kitchen. Cooking is like taking a tranquilizer. Most days your table is full of people engaged in lively conversation, which is good for everyone’s morale, particularly your children’s. You strive to create an atmosphere of connectedness, of community with great food and wine. This helps alleviate the fear. It wards off despair and becomes a therapeutic act of resistance.
Months pass; the senseless killings and kidnappings increase. Explosions become an integral part of each day. You try to ignore them. You must carry on. You run your errands, send your husband off to work and your children to school. Young men from the neighborhood, whom you’ve known as children, become militiamen. They set up roadblocks and round up unsuspecting civilians. Fresh corpses turn up daily in every corner of the city. Your husband disappears on his way home from the office. Hours later he reappears miraculously to tell how he was robbed, beaten and left for dead. The grocer across the street whom you have known for years suddenly becomes the enemy because of religion. The taxi driver whom you regularly use can no longer come to your neighborhood for fear of having his throat slit.
The war begins in the spring of the year. You are convinced that by winter the warring factions will come to their senses and resolve their differences. Winter comes and they do not. When an opposing militia muscles its way into your neighborhood and tries to take control, you adopt a kind of psychological ownership of your street and you think protectively about it. When your own militia takes up arms your husband joins them. You stay put, intent on fighting for as long as it takes to regain control of your streets. You are convinced your rights will prevail and that sooner or later you will win.
Your love affair with the city affects your judgment in totally irrational ways and, as in any unhealthy relationship, you ask to be fooled. However mad, the lover-city is clever enough to entice you back each time you think of straying. A credible rumor or a visit from some foreign dignitary lulls you into the false hope that the horrors will stop. When a truce is announced you are the first to cheer, “See, I told you,” particularly when it lasts a long time and life seems to return to normal. It is only after you have become acclimated into the habit of war that you are suddenly hooked. All logic deserts you and you abandon any notion of leaving the city you love.
This book is available for purchase here.