By Victoria Brittain, the author of Death of Dignity - Angola's Civil War (THE GUARDIAN, 06/04/07):
From the rocky hills above the south Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil you look down over a valley of wild flowers and goats, where the word Hizbullah is scored into the grass. Three miles away is the border with Israel, and the red-tiled roofs of its settlements which face Bint Jbeil, the symbol of the war that Israel lost last summer. In 18 years of Israeli occupation of 10% of Lebanon, Bint Jbeil was the capital of Hizbullah's resistance, and it was unsurprising that it took the early brunt of Israeli air strikes, tanks, and street fighting in the 34 days of war.
The first UN convoy into the town after the war found a picture of devastation. "The main street looks like a set from Stalingrad," Unicef reported. "One school has taken a direct aerial strike, and one wall is missing. Another looks to have been the scene of a pitched battle." To me, it's less Stalingrad and more Ngiva, Cuvelai or Huambo, the southern towns of Angola shattered by South African apartheid in the 1980s. Here, as there, roads are scarred with huge potholes from shelling, and targeted bombing broke bridges and factories. For decades Angolan children have been killed by unexploded mines, and now the Lebanese are having to contend with cluster bombs in their fields.
Along the mountain roads into Bint Jbeil are thousands of pine saplings and young fruit trees, planted when the Israeli army withdrew in 2000. Above them are new posters of the young men who died here last year, another generation of shaheed (martyrs).
Memory and history are the keys to the resilience of this society. An old lady's house is already rebuilt, and there are rows of pewter bowls which belonged to her grandmother, the wooden cradle where she lay as a child, and a faded photo of her heavily-armed grandfather and uncles who fought the French. Her daughter offers guests orange-flower water made at home, as it always has been. Seven months after the war, Bint Jbeil's shops are open, streets and houses repaired and children are back in a makeshift school. This is one of the places where Qatari officials arrived with instant cash for rebuilding. All over the country are slick billboards of beautiful children and flowers, saying, "Thank you Qatar." This is not a society which allows the grim to triumph.
Israelis, too, know about the power of memory, and made an attempt here to rub it out. Another of their prime targets was the hill-top prison of Khiam, northeast of Bint Jbeil, where hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians were held and tortured by Israel's proxy, the South Lebanese Army, during the occupation. Khiam was the symbol of Israel's power, and the prisoners' will to resist it. Today, bleak Khiam is a heap of tangled rubble, watched over by a man who spent four years inside the prison and has been telling its story ever since. All he can show now is one small remaining corridor of cells, and an isolation punishment box which he can just fit his body inside.
But three years ago, when I was last here, the anniversary of Israel's withdrawal was a holiday, and there was an atmosphere of celebration under a forest of Lebanese and Hizbullah flags. Khiam then was a Hizbullah museum, where families were shown round by this same former prisoner. The Angolan government produced a white book detailing every attack by South Africa, and today Lebanese citizens are doing the same, documenting civilian losses, damage to housing, land and the environment in a website:
Memory and history will be served by this, but there will be a reckoning beyond it. South Africa learned to live with its apartheid crimes through its truth and reconciliation commission. Will Israel go down this route too?