The suffering of others

I am driving on the road that separates East and West Beirut. On both sides families have lost beloved ones during one of the wars. Only a few years ago snipers killed, bombs destroyed, rockets burnt. Today, houses have been rebuilt, shops are open, veiled women cross girls in tiny shorts, men salute each other. But what about their memories? What do they dream at night? What does it mean to have neighbours that killed your friends only a few years ago? I have been accused of using stereotypes when describing Lebanon and, thinking about it, it may be the case. Perhaps because the stereotype covers the truth. A truth difficult to express because it is the other’s. Glamour is easier to describe than suffering. It is not my memory, they are not my wounds. I asked the driver what he felt as he explained how the fights took place and he said he felt nothing. His feelings are dead when it comes to his country. Feelings have been replaced by instincts, by survival tactics, by denial. Other Lebanese admitted that the only way to go on is to look forward and to hide the big shit of the past in a deep hole. Too many tears have been shed. I am trying to understand how the families of the dead live next to the murderers, just like in the Congo, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia. So near and yet so distant. How can hate turn into acceptance? Or is it only the outside I see, the survival part, and is it still burning inside? How long will the hate be contained?
As observers we can try to describe what we see, we can interview, film, write, but in the end we are unable to catch the picture. If you have observed human behaviour long enough professionally, you may turn insensitive yourself, hiding for the impossible truth. In the end victims and observers become one. With lots of words we say nothing. We keep our secrets in order not to face a reality that would make life impossible to live. The survival of the fittest, or the luckiest, also means the survival of those who master the art of denial. I am standing on the ruins of a prison in Khiam, South Lebanon, former Israeli territory, and I look at our guide. He is a machine, trying to explain what we cannot believe, because the truth is too hard to handle. Here men were hanged; there women were interrogated; here they were kept in a dark cell; these are the pictures of those who died here as a result of stress and torture. The guide shows no emotion. This is the past that can be used as an instrument in the war of propaganda. What does he feel? Nothing, he says. In wars we are far worse than we would ever admit. All of us. We know but we can’t accept. And yet we do. Indeed, we are a ‘pitiful lot’, as Shakespeare already told us. But then he knew all about the perversity of mankind, including his talent to kill for power, for money, for God or just for fun.

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