“All we see are dead people.”
A twenty-something college student named Hassan tells journalist Belen Fernandez as they drive through the towns and villages of Southern Lebanon, referring to the posters of martyrs that line every road and plaster every storefront. Belen is an American, a journalist, a hitchhiking wanderer; Hassan is a Shiite Muslim from the battered border town of Houla who doesn’t believe in organized religion and despises the sectarianism that colors every personal and political interaction in Lebanon.
Given its proximity to Israel, Houla enjoys a rich history. In October 1948, as the Israeli enterprise was getting into full swing, scores of villagers were massacred by Zionist forces. During the occupation era, Houla was part of Israel’s “security zone,” which from 1985 until 2000 constituted an area of approximately 850 square kilometers—or 10 percent of total Lebanese territory—in which the Israelis ran the show along with their proxy, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), composed primarily of Christian and Shia Lebanese mercenaries…
The 2006 war brought new horror to Houla, as the Israeli military set about firing fatal projectiles into civilian homes and otherwise tormenting the population to which it had supposedly bid adieu six years earlier.
Houla is one of over a dozen locations that Fernandez visited during her weeklong journey throughout Southern Lebanon in February 2016. The seventy-one-page travelogue tells the extraordinary stories of ordinary people Fernandez encountered as she traversed the embattled landscape of Southern Lebanon, scarred and bruised by decades of conflict and destruction.
Having traveled to the region once before, immediately following the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and witnessed the devastating aftermath of that conflict (by the time she departed Southern Lebanon in November 2006, Fernandez wrote that “undestroyed buildings had begun to look odd and out of place”), Fernandez decided to return ten years later to see whether and how the place and the people had been transformed.
An avid and experienced hitchhiker – “I suspected one could sometimes learn more as a wanderer than as a journalist,” she writes – Fernandez relied on the goodwill of strangers for her daily excursions from the ancient Phoenician port city of Tyre, her chosen “base of operations,” to surrounding villages and towns, often flippantly designated as “Hezbollah strongholds” in mainstream Western media accounts.
The result is a refreshingly honest and human slice of Lebanese life, death, and resilience; a mosaic of martyrs, memories, and missing persons, woven together with threads of hope and an unwavering commitment to resistance.
Through her travels, Fernandez encounters fishermen, UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) troops, grandmothers, Hezbollah fighters, Lebanese intelligence officers, all of whom have a story to tell – of Israel’s twenty-two-year occupation beginning in 1978, of the 1982 war, of the 2006 war; of fleeing, of fighting, of selling out.
Both the landscape and the people are pockmarked by politics. The bombed-out remains of the notorious Khiyam prison, operated by Israel’s proxy, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), are still standing, a testament to the region’s dark history. A former Hezbollah fighter shows Fernandez the scar on his neck, a bodily reminder of war. And the state’s institutionalized sectarianism, a result of a confessional system instituted by the French in 1926, “boils down to a forcible division of the population along religious lines so as to perpetuate an elite stranglehold on power,” Fernandez writes.
War is mundane here, and fresh wounds are layered atop old scars. Hezbollah fighters, who took on Israel in 2006, are now fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria, and “a fresh batch of martyr posters has joined the existing multitude of faded remnants from the occupation era and less-faded remnants from 2006.”
Wars, even those past, are never really over. The state refuses to acknowledge its dark past; the country’s civil war is not even taught in Lebanese schools, “which allows sectarian leaders to continue disseminating their own divisive and politically-motivated versions of history to respective audiences.”
In Martyrs Never Die, decades of history and political strife are couched in the everyday stories of those on the ground who have lived, and continue to live, through it. Fernandez’s personal politics are clear: She is critical of Western media coverage of Israel’s military offenses (in particular from The New York Times), the cult of personality surrounding political leaders in the region, and the role of the UN, which on several occasions has failed to protect, and sometimes even harmed, the Southern Lebanese community.
And yet, while much travel writing tends to be self-centered, self-righteous, and self-aggrandizing, Martyrs is none of that. As The Nation editor Liza Featherstone writes, “Martyrs seethes with moral outrage, yet is never shrill or preachy.” Fernandez allows the characters she encounters to come alive and speak for themselves, never attempting to speak for or over them.
Her voice is full of personality, but not overbearing – the writing is accessible, sincere, and, on many occasions, downright hilarious. Her anecdotes about the impossibly hospitable families who insist on constantly feeding her and the friendly stranger who casually suggests she should sleep with him provide a welcome sense of comic relief and lightness to an otherwise quite heavy subject matter. Throughout it all, the reader can sense Fernandez’s genuine love for the people and the place, and a commitment to do right by them and their stories.
It is refreshing and rare to read journalism that is so human and that pays tribute to, as Fernandez writes, “the durability of the human spirit under fire.”