Remembering Saadallah Balhas
I first met Saadallah Balhas in March 1997 when I was researching an article for The Daily Star to mark the first anniversary of the Israeli artillery bombardment of a UNIFIL base in the southern village of Qana which left over 100 civilians dead.
For me, talking to the survivors of the massacre about their terrible ordeal was something of a catharsis. I had been in Tyre at the time of the Israeli bombardment a year earlier and had seen the smoke from the exploding shells in the hills behind the town. Shortly afterwards, I had stumbled through the carnage in the Fijian UNIFIL headquarters, an encounter with mass violent death that left a deep and enduring impression upon me.
I interviewed Saadallah, then a 57-year-old tobacco farmer, in his home in the village of Siddiqine. He was a stocky man with a shock of thick white hair and matching beard. He wore a black shirt and trousers. His face was ruddy and weather-beaten, his sausage-sized fingers gnarled and leathery from years working the soil.
He sighed often and fingered his beads continually as he told me his story. Saadallah had sought shelter with his wife and 14 children at the Fijian UNIFIL base on April 13, 1996, two days after Israel launched its Grapes of Wrath operation against Lebanon, a doomed effort to curb Hizbullah’s resistance attacks against Israeli troops occupying the south.
Like hundreds of other villagers living in the vicinity of Qana, Saadallah believed that the presence of the UNIFIL base would afford them protection from the Israeli onslaught.
In the early afternoon of April 18, he sat with dozens of civilians in the Fijian officers’ mess which was used to house some of the 800 refugees sheltering at the base. Just after 2pm, Israeli shells began hitting the Fijian headquarters. The officers’ mess received a direct hit from a 155mm shell.
“My sons were sitting in a row in front of me,” Saadallah told me. “A shell exploded in the room no more than a meter from where I was sitting. My children were all blown to pieces but because they were between me and the explosion, they saved my life. I was hit in the eye by a piece of shrapnel and my eardrums burst from the sound. I brushed my face to wipe away the blood and my eye fell out. My brother had been standing beside me but I could not find him, there was nothing left but meat. I could not even identify my children because there was nothing left of them.”
In all, 32 members of his extended family perished in Qana, including his wife and nine of his children from 30-year-old Ghaleb to four-month-old Hassan.
Saadallah’s missing right eye was replaced with a glass substitute and he wore a pendant around his neck with tiny photographs of his dead children. A dove represented Hassan as he had no photograph of the dead infant.
As the years passed, I would drop by to see Saadallah from time to time. Although I witnessed further violence in south Lebanon, I would observe and report each event through the prism of journalistic detachment. Qana, however, was different. Having been one of the few foreign witnesses to the slaughter, I felt I shared a personal bond with Saadallah and the other survivors.
In 2001, on the fifth anniversary of the massacre, I found Saadallah sitting at the cemetery in Qana gazing blankly at the rows of gray tombs that contained the bodies of his wife and children.
“I have more of my family here than I do in my home,” he told me. “It’s not like something you can forget, no matter how many years pass by.”
But the massacre was slowly forgotten, the tributes and commemorations dwindling in size and significance as the years passed.
I last saw Saadallah in April 2006, shortly before the 10th anniversary of the massacre. He was planting tobacco seedlings in the stony soil of a field near Aitit village. He paused from the back-breaking task to talk to me. He looked frail and tired, his stockiness had gone and he appeared a decade older than his 66 years. The lines on his face had deepened and the expressionless glass eye gave him a permanent countenance of forlorn melancholy.
“My sons tried to marry me off again, but I refused,” he said. No one can replace my wife, my partner in life.”
Saadallah lived through the 2006 war – and yet another massacre in Qana – only to die in June 2008. A black banner was slung across the road outside his home in Siddiqine, paying tribute to the “living martyr”.
The cemetery in Qana is undergoing a long overdue renovation to turn it into a permanent memorial. Beside the cemetery is a building that was supposed to be a museum built with Syrian funds and opened in 2000. It is locked most of the time, not that there was much to see inside. The few exhibits consisted of a handful of posters and gruesome photographs of the carnage wrought by the Israeli artillery shells.
But more haunting than all the images of butchered and burnt corpses was one particular snapshot taken a few minutes before Israel unleashed its 17 minute bombardment. Men, women and children were caught by the photographer chatting and laughing together, sitting on the floor of the Fijian officers’ mess, blithely unaware that they had but a few minutes left to live.
And there, to one side of the picture, is Saadallah Balhas, a smile playing on his grizzled face as he hugs his infant son Hassan for what must have been the last time.