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Where "Earth Speaks to Heaven": A Day at Hezbollah’s War Museum
Text by Cherine Yazbeck
A scenic hill in South Lebanon that Hezbollah fighters once used to launch attacks against Israeli troops is now a museum to commemorate martyrdom and victory.
This is the Mleeta war museum. Built in 2010, it stands as a reminder of Hezbollah’s main source of popular legitimacy – the liberation of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. Hezbollah fought against Israeli troops during their occupation between 1982 and 2000. In 2006, Hezbollah also fought a bloody war against Israel that lasted for 33 days.
The museum stretches over more than 65,000 square meters and includes an outdoor exhibition as well as a projection hall and indoor cafés.
On display are military equipment, fatigues and weapons of different calibers abandoned by Israeli troops as well as equipment used by Hezbollah fighters.
This project is still under development. Once completed, it will include a luxury hotel, a paintball arena and a cable car station that offers visitors a scenic view of the area.
While Hezbollah has been discreet about the project’s cost and source of funding, it is estimated that the museum has so far cost several million dollars.
The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism recognized the “Tourist Resistance Landmark”, as Hezbollah names the Mleeta museum it, as an official Lebanese tourist site.
The main gate has a college campus feel. At the entrance there is a café, a souvenir shop and snack bars. After climbing long stairs, the visitor reaches a circular observation area in the middle of which there is a memorial plaque honoring fallen fighters.
One is free to either walk around alone or join a complimentary guided tour in different languages. Guides are former militants who generously share their experience with curious visitors that flock to Mleeta from the Persian Gulf, Hezbollah’s Lebanese supporters, in addition to a few Westerners.
The guide suggests that Hezbollah is not a terrorist group and aims only at defending its country. In its war to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the party has tried to distinguish itself from Sunni militias it is fighting, which it labels as “terrorist”. Hezbollah says the purpose of its involvement in the Syrian quagmire is only meant to deter extremist groups from threatening Lebanon.
A tour of “victory”
The tour starts with a short documentary film extoling the militia’s victories, accompanied by a soundtrack of explosions, military music and religious chants. The film features footage of Hezbollah’s battles against Israel and the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah giving a speech, claiming that Israel “has fallen.”
The indoor exhibition hall showcases a variety of captured Israeli arms and equipment displayed in glass cases and galleries beneath ground level.
On the wall, a large panel with aerial photos maps out the destruction and casualties which Hezbollah claims were inflicted on the civilian population during the last Israeli incursion into Lebanese territories in 2006. Other giant panels offer a detailed anatomy of Israel's military machine and show satellite pictures and map coordinates of potential Hezbollah targets in the Jewish state.
Across the main square is the “Abyss” – a construction that symbolizes Israel’s defeat and withdrawal from Lebanese territory. It consists of a two 20-metre wide hollows that contain mangled Israeli tanks amidst giant Hebrew letters and scattered ammunition. Inside the round sunken arena lies a model of an Israeli Merkava tank with its gun barrel tied in a knot – this is a mockery of Israeli forces, portrayed as weak and defeated.
Scattered around the outdoor arena, Israeli military hardware and empty vehicles carcasses lie belly-up to underline the victory of the Party of God over “the Zionist enemy”. The labyrinth of walkways allows a 360-degree view of this dramatic “art” installation.
The combination of reality and artistic narrative continues as the path leads into the woods, where networks of waist-high trenches, camouflaged by small oak trees, lead to a tunnel; these are the rugged tracks that battle-hardened fighters used during the occupation to monitor enemy positions and hide from war planes and drones. The reconstitution seems unrealistic at times; however, the life-size models of resistance fighters planted in “daily-life” poses fuel some realism.
The details of the constructed setting are important as they display the nitty-gritty reality of a Hezbollah guerrilla fighter. Resistance against the enemy and martyrdom are the two major themes of this outdoor exhibition.
This former hideout was part of the militia’s trench-line. The pathway links up with the “Cave”, the “Outlook”, and the ‘Tunnels”, all of which formed part of the defensive complex used by the fighters. A field hospital and a camouflaged rocket launching site portrait the experience of “fierce mujahideen” who patiently endured all kind of hardships.
"The Cave" was once used secret as a secret bunker. Hezbollah fighters dug it over the span of several years and had to work in discretion, day and night.
A large part of the network lies underground, dug deep into the rocky hillside. Hezbollah built a legend around its tunnel digging skills. According to the tour guides, it took the fighters over three years to hack out the limestone. Under occupation, this underground complex housed hundreds of fighters and was equipped with a kitchen, a prayer room, a field hospital, a dormitory, a command room and living space for up to 30 fighters.
The passage takes visitors to a lookout point high above villages perched in rolling hills. The spectacular green and peaceful scenery contrasts the exhibition’s military ambiance.
For Hezbollah supporters, Mleeta is revered as a symbol of courage, commitment and sacrifice.
Unlike official war museums in Western countries, in Mleeta, the party has added a religious militancy as well as an emphasis on martyrdom. The exhibition’s cryptic slogan "Earth Speaks to Heaven" sounds like a philosophic statement that summarizes Hezbollah’s reliance on religion as a source of political legitimacy.