(Originally published as Journalisten im Libanon in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, 7 August 2006)
BEIRUT: Israel provides foreign journalists upon arrival with a ‘welcome’ pack that includes useful contact numbers, maps, political speeches, and background information on UN resolutions and the conflict with Hizbullah. Journalists also have the possibility of embedding with Israeli troops and the dubious advantage of air raid sirens warning of incoming Hizbullah rockets.
None of this is the case for journalists on the other side of the border.
Journalists that were not already based in Lebanon when the conflict kicked off had to take a circuitous route via Syria after Lebanon’s one and only international airport was put out of action when Israeli warplanes destroyed the runway.
At the Syrian border, journalists are met with indifference by Lebanese border officials. Other than the mandatory entry form to fill in and a passport stamp, journalists are on their own; no maps, telephone directories or bundles of paper of useful information.
What kind of environment journalists were entering was evident before even crossing the border.
In the first week, tens of thousands of Lebanese fled to Syria, and the borders were inundated with people and vehicles clogging the roads. And with the main highway to the border destroyed by Israeli warplanes, vehicles had to take alternative routes through the mountains and hope they were not targeted like the smouldering wrecks of trucks, buses and cars to be seen on the drive to Beirut.
The capital is a city marred by war; the usually bustling streets empty and incessant traffic jams a distant memory.
But food and drink is available, and the odd restaurant and bar are open for business. Refugees are to be seen housed in schools, hotels and university dormitories, and veiled Muslim women walk the streets of the Christian areas that have taken in the displaced.
Although the war is being fought in the south, bombs have been dropped on the north of Beirut, the city itself and heavily in the now desolated southern suburbs, where Hizbullah’s headquarters were based.
Hizbullah organized a tour for journalists to visit the destroyed area of Haret Hreik the day after the bombings.
“They guided us through parts of the destroyed areas, calling us to retreat when jets were heard overhead,” said American journalist Jackson Allers.
Trying to get into the southern suburbs without authorization proved to be harder, with Hizbullah members patrolling the area on motorbikes.
“In Baalbek it was easy, in the southern suburbs it wasn’t,” recalled Dutch journalist Peter Speetjens. “It took an hour to try and get past the guards and we still weren’t let in.”
Other than the political, business and refugee stories to be done in Beirut, journalists have flocked to the areas that have been hit the worst by Israeli attacks, the areas around the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek and the southern port city of Tyre.
Speetjens took the opportunity of the 48-hour Israeli ceasefire last week to visit Baalbek.
“The Israelis said there would be no bombings in Lebanon, but we didn’t want to take the chance. Just in case we put TV on the car with tape, as PRESS is too long to spell out.”
He said he was allowed to enter the destroyed sections of Baalbek, accompanied by a Hizbullah member dressed in a “shirt, trousers and pair of house slippers.”
But with Israeli drones flying overhead throughout the day, Speetjens said he started getting concerned for his safety as the minutes ticked away for the end of the ceasefire.
“Every time we passed a truck on the way back I felt edgy, as they had been hitting trucks and bridges,” he said.
Speetjens fears were not allayed upon return to Beirut however.
“I am a bit concerned about working at my office, as it is next to a big bridge. Some people refused to come, but I lowered the metal window shutters, just in case.”
To the south lies the front line, the route beset with bombed-out bridges and craters taking people up to six hours instead of the pre-war hour and a half journey.
“Driving past Sidon to Tyre with the road empty and destruction everywhere I started to tense up,” said US radio journalist Ben Gilbert, who spent 10 months off and on in Iraq.
“As a BMW passed I wondered if the driver was a suicide bomber. Then I realized the stress factor was linked to Iraq. It’s a Pavlov-ian response, my body reacting to a danger I was used to.”
Other than the danger of air and artillery strikes, Gilbert said reporting in Lebanon was not comparable with Iraq, where over 100 journalists have been killed in the past three years.
“It’s great to be able to walk around and not worry about the possibility of your head being cut-off. In Iraq you can’t do random interviews and the level of US hatred is so high it’s dangerous to be a foreigner. Here you can walk out of the hotel, meet someone and immediately do an interview,” he said.
Journalists are also not hampered by censorship restrictions, as the Israelis and Americans impose on journalists when embedded with military forces in Northern Israel and Iraq.
“You can go and drive anywhere you want in the south, soldiers won’t stop you, but it is risky. I think it would be great to meet Hizbullah fighters and embed with them,” said Gilbert.
Journalists have met Hizbullah fighters while out in the field however. “We managed to talk to a few Hizbullah fighters and saw how well trained they were,” said Hugh McLeod, a journalist for Scottish newspaper The Sunday Herald. “They took our names, telephone numbers and publication details. They were very professional and clearly followed a drill.”
Without the option of embedding with Hizbullah, journalists are confined to the beleaguered city of Tyre and excursions to neighbouring villages to see the aftermath of Israeli military strikes.
“You can hear the war but you don’t see it directly. It’s very strange,” McLeod said.
Due to the danger of visiting the frontlines, and communications hampered by power cuts and drones affecting telephone coverage, McLeod said staying up to date was problematic.
Equally, food, water and fuel supplies are running low in Tyre, and the Israelis had carried out a commando raid on a building on the outskirts of the city.
“The main problem is that there is no guarantee you will be safe,” McLeod added. “Even today two guys were killed on a scooter near a chicken rotisserie we used to eat at. It was a shock for everybody.”
Former journalist and English teacher Mohamed Ajami, from the southern town of Nabatiyeh, joined the growing ranks of fixers and translators now working with foreign journalists when the conflict started.
He said the accommodation media personnel are staying at in the old part of Tyre, all clustered around a specific hotel, had weak foundations and lacked defences.
“We are sitting ducks. Just because we are with the media it doesn’t mean we are immune from attack,” he said.
Out on the road it is the same story, with no guarantees that media vehicles will not be targeted, as has occurred to dozens of cars, vans, and ambulances, and even UN positions.
“There is no way you can ring the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and say we want to go to Bint Jbeil,” said McLeod.
Visiting outlying towns and villages during the aerial ceasefire, Gilbert said the roads were eerily quiet.
“It is scary because no one is on the streets as you pass through towns that should have 5,000 people. You can see for miles, hear the drones, and know that someone in Israel can see you and could press a button. Hopefully they can see TV emblazoned on the car,” he said.
For freelance journalists such as Gilbert the risks of leaving Tyre are even higher than for the major media outlets, which have GPS systems to pinpoint their exact location in relation to Israeli bombardments and scout cars to go ahead and check the safety of certain routes.
“If your car breaks down and you are all alone, what happens? I don’t know the south very well and you are in a battle zone, so you try to attach yourself to a convoy of journalists or civilian vehicles. There is definitely safety in numbers,” said Gilbert.
Miraculously only one journalist has been killed so far, a young Lebanese photojournalist killed in a missile strike while travelling by taxi to the south.
But Ajami thinks it is only a matter of time before more journalist lose their lives.
“If the conflict goes on journalists will be killed, there are a lot down here, and the chances of casualties are high,” he said.
With journalists largely confined to the relative safety of Tyre, McLeod said reporting involved visits to refugees, hospitals and schools or “ambulance chasing.”
“But a week ago two ambulances were hit, so we are more wary now,” he said.
Ajami said the other danger journalists faced was the possibility of being cut off from the rest of Lebanon, as there is now only one road out of Tyre.
Indeed, with the Masnaa border closed following an air strike last week, there is only one route out of Lebanon, the northern border with Syria. If any more transport links to the north are destroyed, the country could be completely isolated from the world, and journalists would be stranded alongside the Lebanese.
“We are in the same boat as the Lebanese, there is no possibility of being evacuated,” said Gilbert.