Lebanon News

Subject of Civil War image begging to survive

BEIRUT: In 2005, after 10 days of searching some of Beirut’s poorest neighborhoods, Maher Attar had almost given up hope of finding Samar Baltaji. Twenty years earlier, Attar had photographed Baltaji on the streets around the Sabra and Shatila camps, which had recently undergone a spate of violence.

Baltaji had looked straight into his lens: a young woman whose crisp white blouse and neat hair belied the violence she was fleeing. However, her missing left leg, her crutches, and those used by the child at her side – her young daughter – spoke to the suffering she had endured during Lebanon’s Civil War.

Two decades later, one of Baltaji’s old neighbors directed Attar to her last known location in the southern suburb of Ouzai. He knocked on the door of a small house, where he was welcomed by an old woman. Attar assumed the woman, who had lost both her legs, might be Baltaji’s grandmother. He introduced himself and showed the woman the famous photograph. He asked her if she recognized the young woman in the white blouse. “Yes,” came the woman’s response: “This is me.”

Attar began to weep.

When Attar captured Baltaji’s defiant gaze that day in 1985, it helped to launch his career as a photojournalist. The image made the front page of The New York Times.

“The next day I got my first contract with AFP,” Attar told The Daily Star. As a result, he said, he felt an obligation toward Baltaji.

His encounter with her in 2005 came as a result of the TV documentary series “Images of War,” which helped him track her to Ouzai.

Having met Baltaji once more, he was reassured that she would be supported. A benefactor, he was told, had offered to buy her a house.

So, Attar was shocked when, on March 31 this year, as he was about to enter a gym in the well-off Beirut neighborhood of Verdun, he saw an unmistakable figure begging from her wheelchair.

“He asked me, ‘Do you recognize me?’” Baltaji told The Daily Star.

Not having seen Attar since 2005, she didn’t. “He started to assist me. ‘I photographed you. I’m Maher,’” she recounted.

For Attar, as for many journalists, the Civil War helped spur his career.

Baltaji, however, had not been afforded such luck, starting with the loss of her left leg in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Baltaji was at home breastfeeding her infant daughter – the youngest of three – when the house was struck by a missile.

Both Baltaji and her daughter had devastating leg wounds as a result of the attack and were taken to hospital. Baltaji said that, short on supplies, the doctors decided they would be unable to save both patients’ limbs and gave the mother better prospects for success.

“They told me that they wanted to amputate my daughter’s leg. I said ‘No, I don’t want you to amputate it,’” Baltaji said. “I said, ‘Amputate my leg, but not my daughter’s.’”

It was thus that Attar three years later took his famous photograph of Baltaji and her daughter, who kept both legs. Baltaji was at that time a housewife, living in Al-Tariq al-Jadideh with her husband, Ziad, who worked in a clothes shop, and four children.

In 2002, Baltaji suffered further misfortune when her other leg became infected. She was told by her doctor that the infection would soon spread throughout her body unless she was operated on, but gave her some time to consider whether she wanted to go ahead with another amputation. “Let’s do the surgery tomorrow,” she told the doctor.

Baltaji’s husband died in 2011 following an electric shock he suffered during routine home maintenance, leaving her and the family no money. Baltaji was unable to afford a grave for her husband. She had to involve the municipality to force her unwilling brother-in-law to allow Ziad to be buried in the family plot.

The following year, with barely enough money to survive, Baltaji started begging on the streets.

“I go to the street to live, to feed my granddaughter, to eat,” Baltaji said. “I want to also provide the rent. ... No one is supporting me. It’s just my son and me paying for the house.”

Baltaji said her son, Abed, has a job in pest control that covers the rent for their apartment but little else. “My son gets $600, he pays $400 for the house, there is $200 remaining. I buy the food and drink,” she said.

Struggling to make ends meet, Baltaji and her son recently contacted various local television outlets, trying to sell her story and potentially reconnect with Attar.

None were interested.

Nonetheless, chance intervened and the photographer and his subject’s paths crossed once more outside the gym in Verdun.

When Attar learned Baltaji was without the house he believed she had been promised and had been forced to beg to make ends meet, he was shocked.

“He asked me, ‘Why are you here?’” Baltaji recalled. “I told him my husband passed away. My daughter left the house when my husband died, took all my furniture, and left me alone with my son. Praise God I was able to make a living, supporting myself again even with very little.”

Attar asked Baltaji if he could photograph her. Once again, after 33 years, she looked straight into his lens. Attar took three pictures, and posted one on Facebook alongside his original photograph from 1985.

The post drew an immediate response. Attar collaborated with the Ajialouna Organization to set up a donation program called Nida Alkadar to support Baltaji, which he hopes will get her off the streets.

She hopes the program will provide her with consistent support, which has been sporadic in the past.

“I want to stay at home, comfortable, without being humiliated and begging or asking people to feed me. I don’t want to have to ask my brother for a loaf of bread,” Baltaji said.

“People only remember me during Ramadan. The rest of the year, no-one remembers me,” she added.

“Those with connections are the only ones who get help.”

Both photographer and subject believe their meetings have been providential. The latest “was destiny,” Attar said.

“I’m always grateful to God. God gave me Maher; Maher is a blessing from God,” Baltaji said. “He is a brother and a friend.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2018, on page 3.

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