Richard Lucas discovers an extraordinary museum devoted to contemporary conflict in the Middle East.
After years of open conflict, and in the midst of continuing political strife, Lebanon nevertheless remains a prime tourist destination offering visitors some of the most splendid sites in the entire Middle East. From the extensive Roman ruins of Tyre in the south to the cedar forests of the north and the exquisite temples of Baalbak in the Baaka Valley, the entire country is a tourist Mecca. But one site you won’t find in the guidebooks or travel brochures is the impressive War Museum at M’leeta. One reason may be that it was opened only fairly recently, but another is undoubtedly its highly politicised and controversial nature.
Getting to M’leeta can be a bit difficult as it is not a village or town but a remote mountain in a secluded region of south-east Lebanon in the rugged ranges between Jezzine and Nabtiyeh. This not surprising, as it was here at M’leeta that the resistance movement against the Israeli invasion started and centred its clandestine activities.
When the rough country road becomes newly paved, you’ve reached the site. There is a large car park to the left and above it the main gate, which gives the impression of entering a modern college campus. You will be given a plan of the site and are free to walk around on your own or join with a guided tour in several different languages. Just above the entrance is the administration building, a restaurant, and a string souvenir shops and snack bars. Then you arrive at the main square, with its immense circular fountain.
To the left is ‘the Hill’. After climbing a series of stairs you reach the circular observation area on top. From here the scenic view is outstanding. And anyone can understand the strategic position of the place. It was here, on this hilltop, that Hezbollah began. In the middle of the circle is a monumental plaque honoring fallen fighters.
Next to the fountain is the multi-media centre, where the cinema shows a documentary film about every ten minutes. The film, obviously conceived for Arab audiences, extols the success of Hezbollah and the eventual demise of the Israeli Army, backed by a soundtrack of explosions, martial music, and religious chants. Despite the obvious propaganda angle, it does contain some good documentary war-footage and provides a fairly good insight into the history, the structure, and the mentality of the organisation. The film ends with the Israeli defeat in 2006 as its army falls into what the Hezbollah refer to as ‘the Abyss’.
Crossing the main square, we come to the area of the compound which is called the Abyss in obvious reference to the defeat of the Israelis and their withdrawal from Lebanese territory. It is a large modern art structure using Israeli armored vehicles, tanks, artillery pieces, and other equipment to represent symbolically the situation facing Israel at the end of the 2006 invasion. The chaotic scene of shattered metal, twisted barrels, and overturned vehicles is somewhat reminiscent of what happened to Pharaoh’s army as it was engulfed by the waters of the Red Sea – except that here the engulfing waters are replaced by the rock and sand of south Lebanon.
Walkways cross over, around, and through, giving visitors the opportunity to view the installation and its static confusion from various angles. I got the feeling there was something other worldly here. The dry ecto-skeletons of military hardware and the hollow carcasses of vehicles lying belly-up in the sun created the impression of something insect-like, with helmets scattered around like so many metallic egg-pods. Whether one agrees with Hezbollah’s version of history, whether one supports the movement’s resistance or not, one thing is certain: in the Abyss there is a strong visual statement which rivals some of the best in modern art.
On the other side of the Abyss we come to what is known as ‘the Pathway’. The Pathway is part of the Hezbollah trench-line. As visitors walk through the Pathway, various pieces of military equipment used by the fighters are presented at the battle stations. The Pathway also links up with the ‘Cave’, the ‘Outlook’, and the ‘Tunnels’, all of which formed part of the defensive complex used by the fighters.
A large part of the network lies underground, dug deep into the rocky hillside. It is said that from a small four-metre square crevasse in the rock more 400 metres of tunnels and galleries were dug into the mountain side. At one time this underground complex housed hundreds of fighters and was equipped with kitchens, hospital, sleeping quarters, command room, and more.
Once out in daylight, the path continues to various defense positions with panels presenting equipment and combat units: Special Forces, Anti-Tank, and Anti-Aircraft. At the end is the ‘Field of Honor’, a well-tended garden with benches, drinking fountains, and nearby restrooms. Here several monuments are erected commemorating the movement and its fallen heroes.
Back down at the main square there is the War Museum. Here a wide variety of captured Israeli arms and equipment is on display in glass cases and in sub-ground-level exhibition areas. On the wall a large panel with aerial photos maps out the destruction and the casualties which Hezbollah claims were inflicted on the civilian population during the last Israeli incursion into Lebanese territory. A large majority of civilian deaths were caused by Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages, which, in the documentary film, are said to have been the result of Israeli retaliation and punishment for the growing resistance to the invasion.
A Mountain and the Heavens
For the people of Hezbollah this isolated mountain top called M’leeta is revered as a place of courage, commitment, and sacrifice – a place where ‘the Land Speaks to the Heavens’. Most of the visitors I saw were from Lebanon or neighboring countries, some openly supportive of the movement, others simply curious or out for a pleasant day in the country.
Recently the site has become recognised by the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism as an official tourist site, and from what I understand more and more Western tourists are coming here. Whatever your political views may be, a visit to M’leeta is well worth the effort. One should plan on spending the better part of the day there, in view of the immensity of the site.
Tel: 00961 (0)7210211
address: Jarjou-Ein Boswar Road, Iklim al Tuffah, South Lebanon.
Entrance fee: 200 L£ (about $1 US).