Written by: MAROŠ HEČKO
Photo by: MARTIN BANDŽÁK
Source: Dennik N
Screenwriter and musician Maroš Hečko travelled to Lebanon to see Martin Bandžák, photographer and co-founder of the MAGNA humanitarian organisation, which treats children and their families in areas of crisis. Martin Bandžák took several cycle of photographs in South Sudan, Congo, Haiti, Nicaragua, Iraq and Cambodia, and is preparing to publish them in a book. The latest additions are photos from Lebanon. The report by Maroš Hečko took place at the occasion of World Refugee Day (20 June), as did the MAGNA campaign under the name 'My Child' (Moje dieťa). All of the child portraits are online at www.tojemojedieta.sk.
Our driver Ali is a Muslim. Two years ago he became a Christian in order to satisfy his girlfriend's family. When he converted, his family threw him out and his girlfriend got engaged to a true Christian. Now Ramadan is distant to him but he is still a Muslim with regard to many of the things that he does and in some ways of thinking. He longs to establish his own village at the foothills of the Lebanese mountains, where he will have a big house and several wives. However, he doesn't act like a patriarch, he is kind to everyone, and he even manages to talk to the soldiers with the faces of marble in a way that makes them laugh.
Ali, along with Mohamed, the doctor in our four-member crew, know about all of the refugee camps in the surroundings, and so we discover them one by one, we talk to the elders, and create a picture for ourselves of how they live. Some of them have already been in Lebanon for a couple of years. The difficult conditions in the tents, which they have rented for 30 dollars a month, are made up for by comfortable seating in the shade with a hot sweet tea. They see how I am behaving towards the children, and because of it they offer me to sit with them, even though not a single one of them can speak any language other than Arabic. Although they have virtually nothing, they share what they do have with me.
Brick house and crisps
Ali tells me about the elders in individual camps. One of them, Ahmed, has a house made of bricks, with windows, a sliding door, and even air conditioning. The big television on one of the walls is a sign that his family probably doesn't suffer from poverty. Ali finds out from people that he distributes rations of water and food from humanitarian organisations to other members of the community for money. Instead of splitting everything evenly, he keeps a considerable part of the aid for himself, and he sells what he doesn't consume.
The humanitarian organisation MAGNA provides health care to children who are waiting for peace in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. People can help by contributing online or to account number IBAN SK 58 11 000 000 00 2943 00 4292.
He is distressed because he knows that people from Hezbollah have come to visit him. They go to his place regularly, and they talk about business when they are behind closed doors in his house. Ahmed sends his people to work on a field. They work hard on farms just for what Ahmed collects. If anyone stands up against it he removes them from the community. So far only 3 families have been expelled. The others didn't dare. They tacitly tolerate his power; nobody stands up against him. Ahmed also owns a shop by the side of his house. It is secured with a green latch and a lock. He puts it down as I ask him for some water.
There's a sign in the shop next to a rack: Pay immediately for cigarettes and chicken, you can pay for the rest later. Crisps take up the most space in the shop. They are also displayed on the streets in all of the towns and villages. In Africa and Cambodia desperate mothers give their children sugar water to drink. The children's tummies get big from the sweet water, and they look like footballs on top of their thin legs.
They are not satiated, but their mothers get them to stop thinking that they are hungry by giving them the drink. At this latitude mothers in poor circumstances use crisps to stop their children from being hungry. We come across it at every corner. A child is leaning against a door or is standing on the street in the dust, holding a packet of fried potatoes, eating the cheap substitute for a normal meal, which is low in nutrition, and of which there are multiple brands to choose from.
Hashish under the belt
We are travelling in the north of the country. We reach the most fertile valley Beqqa, in which at a height of about 1500 metres above sea level is the village Yammoune. The cold coming from the ground, the hot sun, and the sufficient water are ideal for cultivating high quality cannabis. It is used to produce hashish, which local people regard as being the best in the world. In the month of August the crop grows and matures. In September it gets collected, and then in autumn there is a new crop, which goes to Beirut in consignments of hundreds of kilograms.
A user pays fifty dollars for a tablet of it there. In Baalbek the same amount costs five dollars uncut. The entire production of hashish and distribution to Europe and surrounding countries are under the control of Hezbollah. They hire Syrians to work in fields and then they hire their children, who are still minors, to transfer large amounts of the narcotic to Beirut. Using plastic they wrap packages weighing 1 kilogram around the waists of children, and one or two watchers whose names are unknown to the children ensure that everything gets to where it's supposed to go. If a child gets caught by a police officer or a soldier, the watcher disappears.
Gangs just safeguard themselves by using children. They know that minors won't go to prison. The police officers or soldiers will take the material and sell it on the black market themselves. Ali told me that the parliament has already been trying for some time to pass a law making the farmers sell the entire crop to the government administration, which would control the processing and sale through a medical network, but so far things are still working the old way.
The refugee camps are of various sizes. One hundred to five hundred people live in the small ones, but some have almost thirty thousand living in them. Bad economic conditions and mainly families not having money to pay for health care forces families to let their children distribute drugs. Many try it on their own also in bigger towns but in the end they either force children to beg or offer them for sex to get food and a bit of money.
The lack of hygiene is why I see children surrounded by hordes of flies. They sit on their mouths, and crawl into their ears and nostrils, they're all over them.
We arrive at the edge of Hermel, from where we can see the first village in Syria. Here it can be seen that not all of the elders think as avariciously as Ahmed. They fairly distribute everything that they get from the government. A big tent is designated for the children. It's more than two hundred square metres, and there's a school in it. The tent is called 'Peace Centre'. The children made a coloured sign that's above the door, and they used crayons to colour in the big letters.
Inside, three women try to entertain the children and to teach them something. There are about twenty children. I get involved in the process. I draw pictures for the children, we make cars out of plasticine, and the children like my ideas, they are interested in everything new, we count in English, and in a couple of minutes each of them knows how to count properly using their fingers and say the right words for the numbers.
They come to me one by one so that I read to them what's written on their T-shirts. It's moving when they find out what slogans they wear on their chests. Ali translates it all into Arabic for them. Several children don't speak though. They look like they're maybe 7 or 8 years old, but they just make incomprehensible noises, which is disturbing for me.
Some families had luck in their hardship. Zafir managed to protect his children and to move them from occupied Homs to Baalbek. His daughter Nasma was four years old when members of ISIS invaded the city and devastated their entire district. The fury didn't end, ISIS executed innocent people in very cruel ways. They used machetes to cut off the head of anyone they didn't like or who claimed to be Christian.
The father hid with his children in a place where the soldiers didn't find them. Those were the two longest days of their lives. They waited without food and with just a little bit of water until the army left the devastated area. When they finally left their hiding place, there were decapitated bodies lying on the streets, victims of the soldiers. They even made football goals on the square and kicked the heads as if they were footballs.
Zafir, Nasma and others saw dead bodies during their escape. The children were hugging their father, and little Nasma had her little hands around his neck and didn't want to let go even far past the city when they could already walk without bending over along the way. In the end, he managed to take the children out by means of paid escorts from Syria. He was convinced that he had saved them. The children were calm and in Baalbek a rich man, Mister Aysun, took charge of them, with his wife. A miracle had happened. Just a couple of days ago they were in the epicentre of insanity and suddenly they had a miraculous welcome full of love and understanding.
Jihad of the Heart
The house in which Nasma is living now is a luxurious multi-storey villa on a hill. The whole of Baalbek in the valley and the Lebanon mountains with snow on them can be seen in the distance from a garden with flowers in bloom. The Syrian family got accommodation from Mister Aysun. He offered them the whole ground floor under the condition that Zafir takes care of the house and the garden. However, in this little paradise, a calm place with no cars, shooting or screaming, Nasma remembered the images from Syria when she first saw the happy children of the owner of the house. First all of her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes fell out, she stopped speaking, she got one panic attack after another, she cried constantly, and she suffered from insomnia.
Zafir with help from Mister Aysun found a doctor who gave a strong anti-depressant for the child. Even that didn't help. The child didn't sleep for entire months and they couldn't rid her of bouts of anxiety and depression. Just half a year ago Nasma began going to a psychologist, who she asks about herself already. Now she is six years old, and even after living in a magnificent house on a hill for two years she keeps sheltering herself with her father. She hugs him, she closes her eyes in front of us, and occasionally some tears roll down her face.
"Sometimes she even smiles", her happy father told us, but the manic depressive situations haven't gone away yet. She hasn't even started speaking again, and she still doesn't want to play with the other children at the villa. She sits in a corner under the veranda and mutters something to herself. Who knows what and in what language. Even her own father doesn't know.
Jihad of the heart has a different meaning than jihad of the sword, which is so often used in Western media sources as a Muslim religious war. This notion is not even recognised in Islam, it was artificially assigned to it. Jihad by heart, by word and by hand, are more important notions to true Muslims than sword and war are. That also applies in the family of Mister Aysun. They took in Zafir's family, and they have great patience to offer Nasma as much calm and protection as she will need.
Eyes. Those little, dark eyes look at me intently at night as well, when total silence rules at the hotel and I naively think that in my dream something else will replace them.
Written by: MAROŠ HEČKO
Photo by: MARTIN BANDŽÁK
Source: Dennik N