suffocating

I cannot recall the last time I walked out of a movie before it was completed. Normally even if I find a film repulsive I stay to get a better sense of the overall film. But the other night I had to leave. I went to see the film Massaker at a small basement theater in Hamra. The film is a few years old, but I had never seen it. The film features interviews with six former Lebanese Forces (LF) fighters who worked in cahoots with the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in Lebanon to execute the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. The film masks the identity and the faces of the people in the film, sort of like the film Meeting Resistanceabout the Iraqi resistance, though not as aesthetically pleasing as the former. But it wasn’t the film’s aesthetics that disturbed me. It was the content, the things that these men shared with the camera. They told stories of being taken by the IOF to the Zionist state for training where they trained and where they were forced to watch one film. Just imagine what subject matter was forced upon them? Yes, it was a film about Nazi Germany (interesting he didn’t remember the name of the movie but recalls Charlie Chaplin–I suspect it was The Great Dictator). Obligatory viewing. But they had the wrong audience. Don’t Israelis know that all of their alliances are always made with anti-Semites? I mean these LF fighters were on the one hand proudly showing off their IOF uniforms with Hebrew labels inside while simultaneously saying that they use the word Jew instead of Israeli because they don’t like Jews. Why? “Because Jews crucified Christ.” And, of course because the land doesn’t belong to them. And yet they fight with and obey the IOF. No questions asked. These LF men were told that Palestinians killed Bashir Gemayel and therefore the death must be avenged. They followed. They told us if women were crying, begging for mercy then they shot them immediately. They spoke of a pit into which an LF man who worked as a butcher slaughtered Palestinians as if he were slaughtering goats. As if it were normal. We are told that Palestinians were forced to throw other Palestinians’ bodies into the pit before it was their turn to be show. We are told that they more they killed the more they came to “enjoy it.” We are told that the IOF prepared everything meticulously: they were ready with quicklime and sand for the pit of bodies massacred and plastic bags for the top layer and a tarp to cover it all up. All done in the cover of darkness before the journalists could arrive and witness the massacre. So no one could see. So no one would smell. One man tells us how much he loves horses and how horrible he felt when he saw dead horses from massacre. But he felt nothing at the sight of dead human beings, of dead Palestinians. Another spoke in detail of a woman being raped and then shot. He spoke in great detail about the laughter, the cheering on as the woman was being raped. Then I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe and I left.

In a different way I felt like I was suffocating yesterday when I went to an office in Nahr el Bared refugee camp for a meeting yesterday. The office was in one of those pre-fabricated buildings that so many of the families are living in now. These steel/zinc buildings are literally impossible to breathe in because of the intense heat and humidity. We opened some windows and got some fans going (until the electricity cut out), which helped a bit. But it was not just the heat of the space that was suffocating. It was the stories I was about to hear from a population that I had not heard from in this camp yet. It was a meeting with the farmers of the camp. It was a meeting where we heard stories about damage to the camp that I had not heard about before, to a sector that is extremely urgent and important: the farmers, the fellahin.

Palestinians differ from most Lebanese farmers. To be sure, both groups of people suffer a great deal of poverty (and, of course, this problem can be extended globally thanks to agri-business conglomerates that have corporatized farming). To date, no one has surveyed the losses that the agricultural sector suffered as a result of last summer’s war on Nahr el Bared. And, actually, these farmers lost only their farms and their livelihood last summer; they lost it the previous summer as well due to the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. Unlike Lebanese farmers who were compensated for their losses due to both of these wars, Palestinian farmers have received nothing. This is partially because Lebanese farmers have a union and Palestinians are not allowed to join this union (though sometimes they do meet with each other).

Palestinian farmers used to get loans from a man (I think the man is called a dolman) who would give the farmers around $10,000 per season and to whom they are now in debt, especially because of the lack of a harvest for two years in a row. This loan goes to material and must be paid back with interest, plus the man takes all their produce that they harvest and sets the prices so they are completely under his domain. Welcome to the feudal system of the 21st century. After the July 2006 war there was no market, no ability to export the food to the rest of Lebanon and so the fruit stayed on the trees and the harvest was lost. Last summer the farmers had tried to get their greenhouses ready again on various farm land that they rent (Palestinians are not allowed to own any land in Lebanon), but because of the war last summer in the camp they could not access the land their livelihood depended on cultivating. This year they must begin within a few weeks time if they are to have a harvest and an income the coming year.

The farmers I met with do a variety of farming jobs. Some pick olives in Lebanese olive groves and sell it as olive oil or as olives. This is the biggest aspect of the agricultural sector. Others pick almonds, potatoes, grapes, mukhliyya, cabbage, ful, peas, cauliflower, and spinach. I also met a man who is called the “mushroom magician” because he’s famous for the mushrooms he helps to raise for Lebanese land owners. But more than 90% of the people lost their farming jobs because of last summer’s war. There was also a dairy industry in Nahr el Bared. There was one really large dairy factory in the camp that used 3 tons of milk per day to produce cheese, labneh, yogurt. They would purchase 1 ton from people in the camp who raised cows, and the other 2 tons from nearby Lebanese farmers. The products made in this factory were exported to all other parts of Lebanon and they had cars for distributing their goods. Some of the dairy farmers I met with who raised cows (some had around 10, some had around 20) all found their cows dead after the war on Nahr el Bared. All the livestock (also geese, chickens, ducks, pigeons) died except for 2 cows.

I suppose most of the damage from the war and the effect that all this has had on the farmers is to be expected after a war. But there was more. There were trees in this refugee camp. All sorts of trees. Lovely areas that the farmers described as “paradise.” These trees were burnt down by the Lebanese army. Others were cut down. Greenhouses were also burnt to the ground. And then some areas where there were trees were bulldozed. Some families tried to rescue an area where there were previously trees by replanting and watering them. It turns out the soil was poisoned. It all sounds so familiar. It sounds like the IOF or settlers were here.

The farmers need and want to get back to work. Those who have attempted to do so have found that the Lebanese army checkpoints to enter and exit the camp make farming and exporting outside the camp rather difficult as the soldiers force the farmers to unload their trucks to check it and in the process the produce gets damaged.

There are vegetable markets for food back up and running in the camp, to be sure. But there are farmers who deserve the right to get back to work as well. They have the right to work without suffocating conditions that stifle the work that they do. As one man said to me, “We are Palestinians, we are the fellahin. But we are the fellahin without land.”

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