Paradise Lost

In the summer of 2006, a Montreal family went home to Lebanon. They found love, affection, and the horrors of war. Most never returned

Hussein and other members of the Al-Akhrass family visit thte burial site of their relatives / Stephanie Sinclair

Ali al-Akhrass was never one to make rash decisions, and this dilemma was a vexing one. Across the ocean, a world away from the oppressive heat and day-to-day banalities of Montreal, lay the beautiful village of Aytaroun, in southern Lebanon. His thoughts drifted from his parents’ house in the hills to the beach outside the city of Tyre to the courtyard of his grandparents’ home in the village. There, he could sit and drink tea, his children playing around him, his problems fading away under a steady, cool breeze. Were it possible, Ali would move his family to Aytaroun forever.

But he had problems to deal with in Montreal. Ali’s pharmacy in the working-class district of Snowdon was undergoing extensive renovations, and, as owner and chief pharmacist, he hated to have the place out of sight. His house needed an addition to accommodate one-year-old Salaam, who was growing like a weed and didn’t have her own room. He worried about the health of his flower garden, which he’d just tilled for the summer planting, and he was anxious about what a trip might bring for his family. The last time they visited Lebanon, in 2002, it had rained continuously, and both his kids got chicken pox. They left early, expectations dashed.

The thirty-five-year-old pondered this decision for several days, discussing it with Amira, his wife of nine years, and his brother-in-law, Ali Blaidel, an assistant manager at the pharmacy. “Maybe we’ll go this year during the renovations, because next year we might not have a chance to go,” he told Blaidel over a round of 400, a popular Lebanese card game, sounding as if he were trying to convince himself.

“We might be going ourselves, you know,” Blaidel answered. Ali nodded distractedly and looked over to Amira. The next morning he reserved six return tickets to Beirut, and after readying the house for the children’s return to Montreal — they would begin school shortly thereafter — he thought about how his visits home were too infrequent. To hell with his problems. Heaven on earth was waiting.

The al-Akhrass family arrived in Beirut at night, exhausted from the long trip and the seven-hour time difference. They perked up, though, when they saw their families waiting for them. Amira hugged her parents for the first time in four years and promptly introduced them to Salaam and three-year-old Ahmad. “It’s like meeting angels,” Amira’s mother said after doling out chocolate and chips to the kids.

Amira was especially happy to see Manal, her youngest sister. The seventeen-year-old had become a young woman since Amira last saw her — suddenly there was makeup and talk of boys — and she was as sassy as ever. Amira’s older children, seven-year-old Saja and five-year-old Zeinab, took to her instantly.

Ali’s brother Mohammed, who had travelled with the family, bade the group farewell and left with his fiancée for southern Beirut. Ali and his family were staying in Ansar for the night; the next day, he and Ahmad would make the hour-long trip south to Aytaroun and prepare the house on the hill for the rest of the family. Then he would drink tea, maybe smoke a shisha, the traditional Arabic water pipe, and do little else.

A ytaroun is a village of about 7,000 set in the sloping mountains and red earth of southern Lebanon. Ever since Israel’s military retreat in 2000, an almost preternatural calm had emanated from its narrow streets and squat houses, a welcome tonic for the thousands of former residents who returned every summer. The families who left Aytaroun tended to be part of the educated, worldly, and fairly well-off Lebanese diaspora, and Aytaroun’s economy relies, to a considerable degree, on those who return.

Ali’s father, Ahmad, had built a three-storey villa in the hills, one of a dozen or so dotting the landscape around Aytaroun. An avid gardener, Ahmad coaxed lemons, olives, apricots, and tomatoes out of the rocky terrain around the house, all of which figured prominently in his wife’s cooking. During the occupation, Israeli tanks often rolled by not far from where the house now stood. The Israeli border was only a few kilometres away, but in the early summer of 2006 it might as well have been 10,000 — a distant, immaterial thing. Aytaroun was the picture of serenity, but still Ali was finding it hard to enjoy himself.

In the week that followed, he travelled back and forth between Aytaroun and Ansar, buying supplies, ferrying children from grandparent to grandparent, visiting cousins and in-laws, and bringing his wife and Manal to the huge Thursday bazaar in nearby Bint Jbeil, where they shopped for Mohammed’s wedding. He did all this by cab, as the only thing Ali hated more than borrowing someone’s car was having to drive the lawless Lebanese roads himself.

Sunday, July 9, was a respite. The family celebrated Salaam’s first birthday on the beach near Tyre, and Ali had bought presents for all four of his kids, lest any of them get jealous. He eased his 5’10”, 185-pound frame into a beach chair and thought about Amira.

Ali had first seen his future wife in front of her parents’ house in Ansar on a cloudless summer day in 1997. She was a slight but assertive young woman en route to the corner store. The next day he asked her parents for permission to marry her. They agreed immediately, even though she was only fifteen. Ali came from a good family, and Amira’s mother noticed that he was always calm and polite.

Ali had immigrated to Canada from Syria twenty-eight years earlier, part of the tide that fled during Lebanon’s civil war. After securing Amira’s hand, he returned to Canada to prepare the immigration papers for his new bride. They were married a year later in Montreal.

She was incredible in the way she had raised their four children, Ali thought. Incredible because she respected both new and old customs — dressing the kids up for Halloween but also donning a hijab after Ali returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca in early 2006. There were disagreements, as in any other marriage, and Amira, he thought, did not always appreciate his troubles or why he was not vocal about them. But these problems were mere pebbles in the ocean.

The family moved on to Aytaroun on Monday, July 10, after a sad goodbye in Ansar. Saja and Zeinab began to cry at the thought of leaving Manal, who wanted to stay with Amira. Manal’s other sisters were married, leaving her at home with seven older brothers, none of whom could shop like Amira.

“Maybe I will go with Amira, then,” she said to her parents, as Amira looked on hopefully. “We’ll be back next week.”

Their mother could only laugh. “Go,” she said, and they did.

Two days later, in the early hours of Wednesday, July 12, Ali, his father, Ahmad, and his younger brother Mohammed had coffee in the kitchen of the house on the hill. Mohammed was about to leave for Beirut once again, but not before hearing his eldest brother’s usual jibes.

“So you’re getting married, Mohammed,” Ali said, cocking an eyebrow. “It means you’ve become a man. One day we are going to go to dinner — you, me, and our wives — and I’m going to pretend to have forgotten my wallet. And guess what? You’re going to have to pay! That’s what happens when you become a man.”

Mohammed stood up, embraced his father and brother, and walked out of the house to a waiting taxi. He arrived in southern Beirut about two hours later. People in the streets were firing bullets into the air. Hezbollah had successfully executed some sort of operation against Israel, and it was time to celebrate. Mohammed didn’t think much of it, figuring it was just another flare-up between Israel and the Shiite militia. He met his fiancée at her parents’ house and put the celebration out of his mind.

As one of the many Lebanese villages dotting the Israeli border, Aytaroun has never been far from conflict. Since the end of the occupation in 2000, though, skirmishes around the border had tended to start and end quickly. Typically, either Hezbollah or the Israeli Defense Forces would react to a provocation — often as minor as the pointing of a gun toward the other side — by firing across the border. Sometimes, Hezbollah would goad Israel into a retaliatory strike by launching a grenade or a missile, but this was usually the end of it.

In May 2006, however, Israel fired several rockets into southern Lebanon in response to earlier Hezbollah mortar attacks. In Aytaroun, a few windows were shattered and a forty-one-year-old named Fouad Hamad was injured.

“Let there be no doubt,” said Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert shortly thereafter, “we will deliver a blow to anyone who attempts to disrupt the lives of those who live in northern Israel.” Hezbollah supporters chanted the usual “Death to Israel” throughout southern Lebanon, but UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised both sides for avoiding further escalation. Aytaroun residents swept up the broken glass, re-opened their shops, and got on with their lives.

So when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on the morning of July 12, the people of Aytaroun — and, indeed, all of southern Lebanon — couldn’t fathom anything beyond a quick, relatively painless exchange between enemies. “People were happy, generally,” said Ali’s cousin Hussein al-Akhrass several months later, as he surveyed Ahmad’s house. Above him was a cannonball-sized hole next to a third-floor window from an Israeli shell launched several weeks into the catastrophic war that had ensued. “They thought it was going to last a few days, maximum a week.”

On Thursday morning, July 13, the people of Aytaroun woke up to the sound of bombs exploding. Ali’s children, eyes still swollen with sleep, asked about the loud, unfamiliar noises. Amira told them the first of many lies. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Just firecrackers.”

With his parents staying at the al-Akhrass house in town, Ali and his family were alone in the house on the hill, that much closer to the bombs. Worse still, Ali didn’t have a car; he’d looked at a used Mercedes that week but deemed it too old and unsafe for his family.

Ali and Amira made a decision. The block of al-Akhrass houses in town was already crowded, so they would go instead to Hussein al-Akhrass’s house. Though it was away from the town centre, Hussein and his wife, Nadia, also Canadian citizens, had a lot of space and many neighbours, making them less of a target than the isolated mountaintop house above the village.

Hussein picked them up, and shortly after 10 a.m. Nadia greeted them at the door. Ali looked perturbed, Amira worried. Saja, though, just seemed detached. She walked around the house in silence, dragging her giant red teddy bear, refusing to speak or eat.”

We don’t know what to do,” Amira said to Nadia, who at thirty-nine had seen her share of strife in Lebanon.

“Don’t worry, these things never last,” Nadia said.

They spent the night in the garage, its corrugated metal doors rattling every time a bomb went off. In between, Nadia and Ali talked about the best kind of cream for her dry skin. At one point he whispered that he was conflicted about what to do. News on Hussein’s battery-powered radio — the electricity had gone out the night before — said the roads and bridges outside Bint Jbeil were largely impassable. Everyone fell asleep at about midnight, hoping for a ceasefire.

On Friday morning at about 11 a.m., Hussein, Ali, Amira, Manal, and Ahmad returned from a trip to the house on the hill. “We are heroes, Nadia!” Amira exclaimed. “We had to run from the car with the planes flying over us. And we got everything!” They brought back clothes and diapers, as well as vitamins, medicine, diarrhea pills for Salaam, and a portable dvd player for the kids. They also brought the dress Manal had chosen for Mohammed’s wedding.

After a lunch of hamburgers, potatoes, and Nadia’s orange cake, the group descended once again into the garage. Ali spoke often with his uncle, Abdel Karim, who lived in the city of Nabatieh an hour and a half away. He couldn’t get a taxi, Ali explained to Abdel, no matter how much money he offered. The radio said cars had been bombed as they fled, and he wondered if it wasn’t safer to stay put. The Israelis had hit the bridge leading into Aytaroun. Picking up the family would be difficult, but Abdel promised to try to find them a way out.

The sound of explosions — distant, muffled, but terrifyingly random — intensified. “More fireworks,” Ali told Ahmad, who, mercifully, believed his father.

Zeinab believed him as well. “It’s like the winter storms in Canada, but in Lebanon they happen in the summer,” she said. Saja crept into her mother’s arms whenever she heard the noise.

Hussein placed a prayer rug on the floor and passed around two Korans. They read from Ya-Seen, chapter thirty-six, whose eighty-three short verses are meant to ward off evil: “Glory to him in whose hands are dominion of all things, and to him you will all be brought back.” They lit candles and talked about what they would do when the war ended. Nadia hadn’t been to Canada in six years and wanted to know what Montrealers wore. Despite the explosions in the nearby hills, everyone managed to sleep.

On Saturday, July 15, Manal sprang from her bed on the garage’s concrete floor and decided everyone needed a change. She brought out her makeup, got dressed, and corralled Zeinab, Ahmad, and Nadia’s daughter Nour into a game of “cache-cache.” Nadia’s boy Mohammed ventured out to the nearby bakery to buy fresh manaish. Everyone, the whole town, he happily reported upon his return, was in the streets. “What war? ” he seemed to be saying.

Amira worried about Saja. The child was like her husband, only nodding yes or no to questions meant to prompt conversation. Away from the kids, meanwhile, Ali was anxious. “Can you call the Canadian embassy or the UN to see if they can get us out of here? ” he asked Mohammed over the phone. This was one of the first times he had ever asked his younger brother for help.

At two o’clock, as Nadia prepared more hamburgers in the kitchen, a bomb went off about 100 metres from the house. Five minutes later there was another explosion, this one even closer. Ali and Amira grabbed their four wailing children and ran for the garage; Nadia did the same with her two. Hussein stayed in the kitchen — he would finish cooking the hamburgers, bombs be damned — and prepared lunch for a huddled group of people with no appetites. The adults made a show for the kids of eating and talking. A half-hour later a shell-shocked calm returned to the garage.

Ali and Hussein went upstairs to use the bathroom when Ali’s phone rang. It was Abdel. “Where are you? ” he asked.”We are at Hussein’s house.”

“I’m sorry, Ali. I tried to get a car for you, but no one will do it,” Abdel said.

“What should I do?” Ali asked after a long pause.

“Look for the safest place,” he told his nephew. “Get out of the places where there is danger.” The pair said their good-byes and hung up.”

What should I do?” Ali then asked Hussein.

“There’s nothing I can say, Ali. If you’d like to go, that is okay. If you want to stay, you are welcome.”

“I think we’ll go to my grandparents.”

The family packed up their things, and Hussein drove them over to the al-Akhrasses’ four houses in the centre of town. Among other things, the family forgot a Walt Disney dvd, four princess figurines, a pair of Amira’s white sandals, and Manal’s brown leather belt, which she’d hung on the garage wall. It remains there to this day.

The four al-Akhrass houses sat next to one another on a skinny, nameless street. Ali’s grandparents’ home, the furthest to the east, was built some ninety years ago; the others, stretching about half the distance of a city block, were added forty to forty-five years later. Behind the houses to the south was a field where a neighbour dried tobacco. Behind that was a mountain crowned with a large reservoir that supplies Aytaroun’s drinking water.

On Sunday at about 3 p.m. Ali watched with trepidation as Israeli jets streaked the sky. Amira, the children, Manal, and Ali’s mother, Haniya, gathered downstairs in the small room used to store tobacco leaves. Israel’s bombing campaign had slackened overnight, but Ali still desperately wanted to leave. Salaam was sick, and the family didn’t have much drinking water left. Earlier that afternoon, a bomb had hit the mountain above, showering the al-Akhrass houses with dust.

“Did you talk to the embassy?” Ali asked Mohammed over the phone.

“I couldn’t get through,” Mohammed answered, prompting only silence from his brother.

“Stay at the house, don’t go anywhere,” Mohammed said.

Ali laughed. “Where do you want me to go?

“A Hezbollah fighter later recounted that at about 5:30, on the road in front of the house, two of the group’s men approached from the east at a brisk, military clip, barely acknowledging two others coming from the west who, like them, carried machine guns. The pairs dashed up either side of the al-Akhrass houses, sweeping past the buildings to a meeting point in the barren field about fifty metres to the south. They knew they had to keep moving; Israeli planes were as dangerous as they were precise.

It was the most bizarre, sickening feeling, Ali’s aunt Saada would say later. One moment she was washing dishes in the kitchen of Ali’s grandparents’ house, looking west out of the window; the next, everything was jumping toward the sky.

The bomb hit just behind the houses, creating a six-metre crater and turning all but Ali’s grandparents’ home to rubble. His aunt Saniya opened her eyes to find herself pinned under a wall in what had been the kitchen in the western house.

Another aunt, Fatima, stumbled about the wreckage, her face a mask of dust and gushing blood. Shrapnel riddled her body. A piece of metal had pierced her right eye and lodged deep into her skull. Despite this, she never lost consciousness. She walked aimlessly down the street, yelling for an ambulance.

His uncle Ali flew several metres forward, coming to rest nearthe street. He succumbed to his injuries several hours later.

Saja, Zeinab, Haniya, and Manal were blown out of the basement and into an underground water reservoir, killing them instantly. Rescuers found the bodies of Amira, Salaam, and Ahmad thirty-two days later, under the rubble, Amira still clutching the bodies of her youngest children.

Ali al-Akhrass flew forward about eight metres, landing on his back. He screamed for help. Salim Morad, Aytaroun’s mayor, was nearby when the blast went off and hustled Fatima and Ali into an ambulance. During the ride, Ali thought someone was holding onto his arm, and he howled to be let go. The mayor said nothing, knowing that only skin kept Ali’s right arm attached to his body.

Ali’s father suffered second- and third-degree burns over much of his body. He still questions why he, an old man, lived when so many others died.

Dr. Ibrahim Said received Ali at Bint Jbeil’s Salah Gandour Hospital between six and seven in the evening. The emergency room saw about 250 patients that Sunday, with only four doctors able to get back to the hospital to help. Ali had blood in his chest cavity and a ruptured spleen, as well as a deep wound to the left side of his body. His arm was still dangling from his shoulder. His right lower leg was badly injured, and Dr. Said said he didn’t know if he would have to amputate. First, he had to save Ali’s life.

During the three-hour operation, the doctor drained Ali’s chest and removed his spleen. Incredibly, he survived, and after Ali woke up Said told him that he didn’t much like being a doctor in Lebanon. “Maybe I’ll go back with you to Canada,” he said. Ali laughed.

Salah Gandour didn’t have an intensive care unit, so the Red Crescent team put Ali in an ambulance bound for Saida, about an hour’s drive away. They managed to get five kilometres before turning back; the bombed-out road made travel impossible.

At ten o’clock the next morning, the team put Ali, along with his aunt Fatima, into another ambulance. Though stable when he left — his blood pressure was normal, and Said gave him four units of blood — he desperately needed intensive care, and the Red Crescent would try to get him to Beirut through a criss-cross of back roads. The trip, which would normally have taken about two hours, took five. Along the way, Fatima heard her nephew moaning, “my arm, my arm.”

Then all went silent.At that moment, in the back of an ambulance, was a man who, caught by cruel circumstance in a place he considered paradise, had lost his wife, children, mother, and several other members of his family. Ali al-Akhrass died just outside of Beirut, the blood still seeping into his bandages.

Aytaroun Buildings pummelled by Israeli air strikes / Stephanie Sinclair
Nour Al-Akhrass holds the dolls of a young cousin who was killed in the war / Stephanie Sinclair Members of the Al-Akhrass family: Ali, Amira, and their children in the centre / Stephanie Sinclair
Martin Patriquin
Martin Patriquin is a Montreal-based writer. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, and iPolitics.