A summer spent in a war zone

Rula Salam reflects on a month living under siege in Beirut

PhD student Rula Salam said living in Beirut under Israeli fire was “like being in a trance.”
PhD student Rula Salam said living in Beirut under Israeli fire was “like being in a trance.”

For most people in Canada, this summer’s conflict in Lebanon was a faraway occurrence.

But Rula Salam, a second-year English PhD student, found the war at her doorstep.

“Most of my life in Lebanon, I’ve known only war,” she said. “It’s like reliving what you’ve already been through time and time again.”

Salam was two years old when the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1975, and said she remembers how upset her mother was when the family moved temporarily to Bahrain.

“For as long as I can remember, war planes were flying over our heads,” she said. “It became something you became accustomed to.”

Salam returned to Lebanon in late April after a year at Queen’s. In Beirut, she reunited with her family, including her five-year-old daughter Nour.

Nour, whose name means “light,” had stayed in Lebanon the year before while her mother was studying in Canada.

On July 12, when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers, Salam said it didn’t seem like something that would lead to anything more: Israel has conducted similar prisoner exchanges in the past.

When the news reported that the south was being heavily bombed later that day, she said it was unbelievable.

“It was almost like a joke, something that’s hyper-real,” she said. “You hear it on the news, but you get the sense this isn’t happening.”

The targeting soon moved much closer to home for Salam and her family when the suburbs of Beirut were bombed.

“When warplanes hit the suburbs, the windows of our house would vibrate. We had to keep them closed or they would shatter,” she said. “My daughter would be sleeping next to me and she would wake up—what could I tell her? I would tell her, ‘These are very loud fireworks.’”

As the conflict escalated, Salam said, families from the south crowded into the comparatively safe city of Beirut. Destroyed roads, and Israeli targeting of trucks and vehicles, caused severe shortages in the cities.

“It’s like being in a trance where you don’t sleep, you can’t eat anything, you’re glued to the television, your ears are ... hearing the sounds of bombs,” she said. “Prices started going up, it was getting very hard to find something to eat. All the roads were cut off ... and trucks and lorries were getting targeted.”

Because of power outages and blackouts, it was impossible to refrigerate food or get hot water.

“You have to buy just what you need on a daily basis ... you have to go back to the Stone Age,” she said.

Salam said living in the middle of it all made her feel truly helpless.

“I felt I really had to do something for my country,” she said, adding that she even considered staying in Lebanon rather than returning to Canada to study. “All of a sudden, I didn’t want to come, because I thought if I stayed I could help ... but I worried for the safety of my daughter.”

Even after returning to Canada and to Queen’s, Salam said she wasn’t able to escape what was happening in Lebanon.

“Here, you’re just following the news, you’re talking to your relatives. It’s impossible to focus on anything but what’s happening in your country,” she said.

Salam said although many of her friends are aware of the situation in the Middle East, “at the same time, you have a lot of Canadians who have no clue where Lebanon is, let alone what’s happening there.”

Back in Kingston and studying at Queen’s, Salam is living with her daughter, mother and brother’s family.

Nour recently began school at Lord Strathcona Elementary School. Salam said her daughter is adjusting to life in Canada, but she’s still worried about her.

“[I worry about] how she’s going to cope, how she’s going to assimilate,” Salam said. “She’s very quiet. She cries, sometimes, at night, because it’s new here. The trauma of war, plus a new country, was very hard on her.”

Salam said the majority of Lebanese people don’t see Hezbollah as the terrorist organization it’s classified as.

Instead, Hezbollah is viewed more as a “naturally formed resistance,” which is part of the Lebanese government, a wealthy philanthropic organization and the country’s only capable military force.

“Four or five days into the war, 80 per cent of the population was supportive of Hezbollah,” she said.

She said some of Hezbollah’s popularity comes from the fact that it’s unique in most of the world in fighting against Israel in what is seen as Lebanon’s defense.

“This is something that nobody has tried to stop,” she said. “The Arab countries, they just stood and they watched ... if one oil provider just stopped providing oil for one day, that would put enough pressure,” she said.

“No one did anything to stop this war. Nobody in the world.”

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