BEIRUT, Lebanon – This is the 16th installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native or New York who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.
A Summer Spent Fighting
For me, this summer has been quite different from the two that preceded it. In both the summers of 2004 and 2005, I worked at Seeds of Peace, an international camp located in Maine. As a college baseball player, I was to put my 'expertise' to use and spend six or seven hours a day teaching a game that I've been in love with since I was three years old. There was, however, one small catch. Many of the teenagers who I'd be teaching had never so much seen an inning of baseball on TV let alone picked up a ball or a bat.
The campers — most of them 14, 15 and 16 years old — came from all over the world. The majority of them came from Israel and from the occupied Palestinian territories. Others came from Pakistan and from India. From Greek and Turkish Cyprus. From Afghanistan and the U.S. And although they came from conflict and hatred, they came to talk about conflict and reconciliation. Face to face.
So, where do you begin with teaching the nuances of baseball when you're lined up across from five teenage girls from Afghanistan? Well, which hand does the glove go on, was always a reasonable place to start. Throwing and catching came next. Then some light batting practice. No doubt the kids were utterly confused, but quick progress was made and just about every time the bat made contact with the ball, a smile came along with it. In no time at all, they were playing actual games.
Camp baseball had its own rules: Four strikes and two outs to maximize action. All the while, I'd try to avoid using some of the vocabulary I'd picked up as a college player. Then, a particularly impressive home run was called a 'bomb.' A hard-hit ball was a 'missile' or a 'rocket.' Many of the campers knew otherwise from firsthand experience. A bomb was a bomb. A missile was a missile. A rocket, a rocket. And the consequences were not part of a game, but deadly.
Many of the campers came to like baseball. Two weeks into every 21-day session, female campers were given a chance to showcase their newly discovered skills. A neighboring camp, with American girls who had played or at least been familiar with baseball all their lives, would make the trip in for an afternoon pickup game. Remarkably, the kids from Seeds of Peace always held their own. Using purposeful and challenging lineup combinations — a Palestinian at shortstop, an Israeli at second base, a Pakistani at pitcher an Indian at catcher and so on — the camp miraculously won several of its games.
At the very most, my time spent at the camp was helping to provide future leaders of conflict areas with renewed perspective, with pause, with more complicated ideas about 'the enemy' or 'the other.' At the very least, and perhaps more likely, it was helping a couple hundred teenagers escape war and recapture their childhoods and their innocence, if only for three weeks. For 21 days they were given a freshwater lake to swim in, lined basketball courts to play on and an opportunity to make personal diplomacy even when state-level diplomacy had always proven more elusive.
This summer, I'm a long way from camp in Maine. Instead, I'm experiencing the failure of diplomacy firsthand; hearing the sounds it makes when it falls out of the sky. I'm seeing the images failed diplomacy creates and learning the reality that makes those images even harder to watch. I'm witnessing the effects policy has on actual lives and listening to voices that range between helpless and frustrated to vengeful and hate-filled.
Many of the voices I've tried to listen to have been those belonging to veterans of the long and bloody Lebanese Civil War. Different people have different opinions. Some talk about hatred that stems from the 18-year Israeli occupation of Lebanon's south, from significant and damaging Israeli strikes in 1993, 1996 and now again in 2006.
Others are incredibly frustrated with Hezbollah — an organization born out of that occupation — for undertaking unilateral, irresponsible, provocative and violent actions against Israel. And still others direct hatred at the Syrians, for their layered and continued influence and, among other things, their siege of East Beirut in 1989. Some have fingers pointing in different directions entirely but, at the end of the day, share a real desire for stability. With stability comes the luxury of knowing your family is both relatively safe and well fed. Generosity and goodness usually aren't too far behind.
Hezbollah and Israel were both incredibly busy yesterday. In case this morning's ceasefire actually went through and held, each side was getting in their last licks and intensifying attacks. Both sides were apparently trying to accomplish something, anything, in the waning midnight hours that neither was able to do over the span of an entire month.
Yesterday, I listened to some of these parting shots with six Lebanese youth. It was around 3 p.m. I was sitting in an Internet café in Achrefieh and sending an e-mail back to my family. The boys, most of whom looked to be 12, maybe 13 years old and certainly no older than the kids I taught baseball to last summer, were spending their Sunday afternoon playing video games.
Ten to 12 explosions inside of a minute has a way of interrupting fun. This time, the explosions and the window shaking were accompanied by some angry words. The games were put on pause and a debate ensued. What neighborhood was hit? Who was hit? What's the best way to find out? Web site names were discussed. Which Web site would offer the minute-by-minute updates that could be relied on? Another Lebanese boy entered the café somehow claiming to already have answers. Dahiya. Dahiya again, he said. It was a guess and so they kept searching, games still on pause, futures on hold and innocence lost.
UNICEF estimates that of the 900,000 Lebanese displaced by this conflict, 45 percent are children. Whether or not this morning's ceasefire is lasting and successful, the whole of Lebanon has an extraordinary task on its hands one way or the other. There is a resilience here that recalls that this country has bounced back and rebuilt before and suggests that it will do so again.
But what lessons will Lebanese and Israeli children take from experiencing this conflict from the middle? And will new generations of distrust, anger and insecurity ultimately be the result of 34 days of a summer spent fighting?
If you've been reading these reports, I'd like to hear from you. Send your comments, suggestions and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org