Friday, September 01, 2006

Journalism in Lebanon

(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.

Legends of the Lebanon War

(Originally published in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung as Legenden im Libanon-Krieg, 14 August, 2006)

BEIRUT: The old adage ‘the first casualty of war is the truth’ is as applicable to the Israel-Hizbullah conflict as any other war.
Disinformation has abounded from the get-go, with spurious statements made by officials, photographs doctored by the media, and web blogs full of claims and counter claims.
Israel’s justification for the war, and bombardment of civilian areas, has also rested on what now appear to be dubious claims.
The first claim is that the action that sparked the conflict, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah on July 12, was carried out on Israeli territory. But according to Amin Hoteit, the retired Lebanese army Brigadier-General responsible for demarcating the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel in conjunction with the United Nations in 2000, the Israeli soldiers were attacked and captured on Lebanese territory.
“They were taken on a road 120 meters inside Lebanon near Aitaa el Chaab,” Hoteit said on Friday. “There is no fence, no sign, and they [Hizbullah] did not cross any demarcation of Israeli territory. It is an uninhabited forest area only used by the resistance [Hizbullah]. We blocked the road after demarcation.”
Hoteit’s claim tallies with statements issued by Hizbullah and the Lebanese police following the incident that were not picked up by the mainstream media.
“Implementing our promise to free Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, our strugglers have captured two Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon,” Hizbullah stated on July 12. Hizbullah had warned the Israelis several times in the past that the group would capture and detain Israeli soldiers if they entered Lebanon and would use them in an exchange of prisoners.
The Lebanese police said the two soldiers were captured as they “infiltrated” the town of Aitaa al-Chaab inside Lebanon.
Israel’s second claim involves the targeting of civilian areas in Lebanon, which Israel justifies by claiming Hizbullah fighters are hiding among civilians and using residential areas to store arms. But the evidence on the ground seems to point the other way, according to analysts, NGOs, villagers and the party itself.
Israel claims its bombardments are aimed at destroying Hizbullah facilities and incapacitating infrastructure used to transport armaments and supplies to the guerrilla force. However, the attacks have not prevented Hizbullah from firing thousands of rockets into Northern Israel but have left over 1,000 Lebanese civilians dead, a million displaced and caused an estimated $2.5 billion in infrastructure damage.
“Hiding behind civilians is the only reason the Israelis can come up with, even if they are hitting a kindergarten or a school. In general 90% of their targets are against civilian targets, and in some cases hit the residences of Hizbullah leaders,” said Abass Awali, who has worked with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for over 20 years.
Little is known about Hizbullah’s military tactics but as analysts point out, the group does not engage in conventional warfare and uses guerrilla tactics.
Fighters are known to operate from their hometown regions, with locals not knowing whether a neighbour is a Hizbullah fighter or not.
“Hizbullah operates clandestinely as the area is strewn with informers,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University and expert on Hizbullah.
She said fighters carry their own supplies to avoid detection or interaction with villagers, and use a simple but effective way of communicating by telephone or walkie-talkie. “‘Meet me by my uncle’s shop’, or ‘next to my girlfriend’s house’.” No names, and no addresses.”
Villagers that had fled the village of Safaa, 20 kilometers south-east of Tyre near the Israeli border, a week ago said they saw no sign of Hizbullah fighters in the area.
“My neighbours may be Hizbullah, but I never saw any weapons. They are invisible warriors, we know nothing about them,” said Abass Ayoub, now living in a school in the Christian village of Safra, north of Beirut, where he has taken refuge with his family.
Ayoub said his only encounter with a Hizbullah fighter was when he was trapped for two days along with 20 others in a kitchen when the building was bombed.
“The fighter called to us that he had brought food and water, and left the supplies under a tree. He told us to come and get it, then left, but we were stuck,” said Ayoub.
Ghorayeb conceded there was “no way to be sure” that Hizbullah were not operating in and around villages. “But from sound reasoning, would they operate that openly? There are too many collaborators [with Israel].”
Awali said Hizbullah had altered its strategy from the 1982-2000 fight against Israel in the South.
“Their strategy is completely different from the last occupation. They would bring the rockets to a position and fire it from there, but this is not the story at all now. They have their own bases in the valleys and not in the villages,” he said. “This also explains how they are able to keep firing rockets at Israel.”
Hizbullah adamantly denies that it uses civilian areas to launch rockets and store heavy weapons.
“Military experts have said Katuysha rockets cannot be fired from buildings, it should be done from an open field,” said Ibrahim Moussawi, political spokesman for the Hizbullah-backed TV channel Al Manar. “The Israelis have also not given us any evidence of hitting arms caches. There would be sizeable explosions if they did.”
However, in the battle for the southern town of Bint Jbeil, Israeli Defence Force Captain Doron Spielman claimed residents were “trapped” inside the town by Hizbullah fighters, BBC News Online reported.
“Hezbollah blockaded the city before the battle began, and we now know at gunpoint forced the Lebanese residents to stay inside the city,” Spielman said.
Saad-Ghorayeb said the claim was “ridiculous,” as Hizbullah would not alienate members of its support base and logically would not need to threaten residents to stay in Bint Jbeil.
“How could villagers leave anyway? Vehicles could not leave the area and there is a curfew, why would they need to be held at gunpoint?”
The greatest condemnation of Israel’s military tactics have centred around the bombing on July 30 of a four-story residential building in the southern town of Qana that killed 28 civilians, mainly women and children.
Reporters at the scene said they had not seen any Hizbullah fighters in the area at the time, none of the bodies recovered from the rubble were those of militants, and rescue workers had found no weapons in the building that was targeted.
In a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the attack, the group said, “Israel has not presented any evidence to show that Hezbollah was present in or around the building that was struck at the time of the attack.”
Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, has blamed Israel for targeting civilians in Lebanon. “The pattern of attacks shows the Israeli military’s disturbing disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians. Our research shows that Israel’s claim that Hezbollah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let along justify, Israel’s indiscriminate warfare…In the many cases of civilian deaths examined by HRW, the location of Hezbollah troops and arms had nothing to do with the deaths because there was no Hezbollah around.”
However, with journalists, NGOs and independent observers not able to access villages in the south due to the conflict, and both sides providing disinformation, there is no definite proof Hizbullah has not resorted to using ‘human shields.’
Former General Hoteit’s claim, on the other hand, needs to be further investigated by the international community.

Bar Journalism

(Originally published, in translation, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung entitled Im Krieg hinter der Bar, 26/08/06)

During the media frenzy that the situation in Lebanon warranted over the past month, numerous news outlets ran the rather staid story of Lebanese bars open for business and people partying with abandon, seemingly callous to the destruction inflicted on the country.
The story was popular for numerous reasons, but high on the list has to be the ease of such a report. The journalist could go out for a drink after a day in the field, whip out a notebook, and get a story at the same time as enjoying the spectacle.
In some cases the story only involved visiting one of the few open bars in Beirut or venturing into the mountains to the restaurants and clubs transplanted from the capital in Broumana and Faraya.
The Lebanese nightlife story has been a popular one for the past several years for visiting journalists and pundits alike, remarking on the cosmopolitan clientele, the fancy interiors, designer music, and broad array of cocktails. A nightlife scene not rivalled anywhere in the Arab Middle East.
It is also a story that people in Europe and America could easily relate to, and perhaps even more so in a complex conflict where southern Lebanon is so different from Westernized Beirut.
In the Beirut and Broumana bars you can find cosmopolitan, multi-lingual youth willing to talk, whereas in the south a translator is needed and you cannot have such an easy exchange of views.
Some bar and restaurant owners were keen to talk to journalists, but the owner of Torino, one of the few bars to stay open in Beirut in the first weeks of the conflict, shied away from the exposure.
German-Lebanese Andreas Boulos said his small cafĂ©-bar was a “journalist hub” before reporters travelled to the south to report from the frontline. “Many had in mind the southern stories of destruction and this side, Lebanon still partying, but I really didn’t see it that way. I said come for a drink and take a break.”
For many Lebanese going to a bar was exactly that, a simple form of escapism away from the conflict, power cuts, and the confines of home to enter a world they were familiar with.
The Lebanese also have the unenviable experience of knowing how to survive during a war and maintain some semblance of a normal life.
Indeed, in 1982 during the civil war, the US Marines reportedly thought they had landed in the wrong country on seeing Lebanese tanning themselves on the beach in Jounieh, a Christian city north of Beirut that was the main nightspot during the war years.
What many of the nightlife articles failed to point out, however, was that Lebanon has always had such extraordinary disparities. The wealthy have always been able to party, dropping $8 for a drink, while the majority of the country earns just over $10 a day and are limited in their entertainment options
In the recent war this disparity was not as evident, many of the wealthy having left the country or hunkered down in the mountains, and nearly all bars and restaurants closed. Everyone else was sitting out the conflict at home, glued to a TV screen watching history unfold.
With people making minimal money, if at all, during the conflict, it was equally only the better off and the employed, journalists included, that could afford to go out for a meal or a drink.
“It was like journalistic tourism,” said Boulos, referring to the number of foreign journalists that descended on Beirut in the first week of the war. “But it was fun to see them also, journalists from all over the world: Australians, Polish, Japanese, Italian, South African, Spanish and, of course, Americans. It became a nice place for people to let out their stress.”
But also a place for journalists to mix work and pleasure, make connections and in a couple of cases, hire bar-goers as fixers and translators.
Boulos said he was repeatedly asked by journalists to be interviewed for television, newspapers, magazines, and radio.
“I didn’t feel harassed but the amount of journalists in the first four or five days was a shock. I was firm about not being filmed and interviewed, but couldn’t deny them interviewing customers if they were ok with it. They have always written on nightlife in Lebanon, how great and so on.”
Boulos was also asked to be in a documentary and write a five-day diary on his life that would be counterbalanced with a diary from Israel.
But aside from the diary suggestion, minimal attention was paid to the story behind the scenes, the trials of running a bar during a war and an economic siege, with the standard story revolving around why customers are there, what they think of the war, and the bar owner’s opinion of the customers.
Boulos himself encountered numerous logistical problems, power cuts, rising costs and emotional scenes.
“I had higher expenses during the last month [than usual], beside the stress factor. There was minimal electricity, which was a big problem as I had to pay for a generator, and prices went up on fresh goods. But there was no shortage of alcohol.”
Boulos was lucky however to have had staff live in the area and willing to work.
“We didn’t stay open for business’ sake, but to be morally independent and productive in any form. And when we worked we forgot what was really happening; it was better than sitting at home.”
But with stress levels high and emotions often running even higher, Boulos said his bar was the scene of a lot of drama, where lovers spent their last hours together before being separated by evacuation and heated alcohol-induced arguments resounded into the early hours.
With a tenuous peace now in place Lebanese nightlife will gradually drift down from the mountains and back to the capital, although with many bars and restaurants likely to have gone bankrupt and the city centre dependent on non-existent tourists, it may be a while before journalists report again on Lebanon’s once notorious nightlife.

135,000 bombs dropped on Lebanon

The Israeli Armed Forces (IDF) launched 5,000 missiles, five-ton bunker-buster bombs and cluster bombs as well as anti-personnel phosphorus bombs each day into Lebanon for 27 days -- totaling over 135,000 missiles, bombs and artillery shells. During the last seven days of the war Israel launched 6,000 bombs and shells per day -- over 42,000, for a grand total of 177,000 over a heavily populated territory the size of the smallest state in the US. In contrast, the Lebanese national resistance launched 4,000 rockets during the entire 34-day period, an average of 118 per day. The ratio was 44 to 1 -- without mentioning the size differentials, the long-term killing effects of the thousands of un-exploded cluster bombs (nearly 50 killed or maimed since the end of hostilities) and Israel’s scorched earth military incursion.
The proportion of civilian deaths to soldiers was 41 to 116 or 26% of the total Israeli dead (but if we only consider Jewish Israelis and IDF members the proportion 23 to 116 or 16% of the Jewish dead were civilian.) Clearly the Lebanese resistance was aiming most of its fire at the invading IDF. In contrast, in Lebanon, of the 1,181 so far known to have been killed, 1088 were civilians and only 93 were fighters. In other words 92% of the Lebanese dead were civilians -- over three times the rate of civilians killed by the Lebanese resistance and almost six times the rate of Jewish civilians killed (the only ones who count in the Lobby’s propaganda machine). To put it more bluntly: over 47 Lebanese civilians were slaughtered for each Jewish Israeli civilian death.

(From The Lobby and the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon: Their Facts and Ours
by James Petras)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A ravaged environment

BEIRUT: The month long war waged by Israel against Hizbullah has caused considerable damage to Lebanon’s environment.
The coastline is marred by an oil spill, the air has been polluted by burning fuel oil, destroyed factories, forest fires and dust kicked up from bombings, and there is the possibility that depleted uranium (DU) and phosphorous bombs were used by the Israeli military.
On July 13 and 15 Israeli warplanes targeted the Jiyye power plant 30 kilometres south of Beirut, causing between 10,000-15,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil to spill into the Mediterranean.
Due to hostilities no clean-up effort was able to get underway, and the slick spread north along Lebanon’s coastline almost 100 kilometres into Syrian territorial waters.
“It is the biggest oil spill in Lebanese history, probably in the Eastern Mediterranean, and one of the biggest environmental disasters to hit the Mediterranean,” said Wael Hmaidan, an environmental scientist and coordinator of the Oil Spill Working Group, part of Lebanese environmental NGO Greenline.
However, bureaucratic difficulties with the Lebanese Environment Ministry have prevented a clean-up operation from starting, despite the ceasefire now in place between Israel and Lebanon.
“Heavy fuel oil is very tough to clean, and everyday there is no clean up it gets worse. The oil goes deeper into the sand, starts to dry out and be absorbed by rocks, and dilutes with the water to settle on the seabed,” Hmaidan said.
He believes carcinogens such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons and other impurities from the spill have entered the sea, causing an estimated $200 million in damages to ecosystems, the seafood industry and tourism.
The cost of the clean-up is estimated at $150 million, with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) allocating 50 million Euros last week as part of an anti-pollution action plan.
Computer models indicate around 20 percent of the oil has probably evaporated with 80 percent on the coastline and 0.25 percent, approximately 40 tonnes, still in the sea.
“It will require six months to a year to clean up the pollution, and marine life will take up to six years to recover,” said Hmaidan.
The effect of the spill on marine life, such as green turtles and the endangered loggerhead turtle, could be disastrous, with turtle nesting grounds to the immediate south and north of Beirut polluted by the spill.
“The hatching period is now, so we need to clean up fast. Turtles have a oil spill survival rate of almost zero,” said Hmaidan.
Although the other turtle nesting grounds on the Lebanese coast are in the south, near the port of Tyre, which have not been affected by the spill as the wind and currents dragged the oil to north, feeding areas will be affected.
The attack on the Jiyye power plant not only caused coastal pollution. One storage facility containing 25,000 tonnes of fuel oil burnt for three weeks, covering the Greater Beirut area with dark clouds.
Hmaidan said polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) usually found in transformers and electrical power plants could have entered the air, as well as dioxins and other organic pollutants. Some 35 factories were also destroyed in the conflict, but no studies have been carried out to assess what chemicals were present in the factories.
Studies also need to be carried out to assess the impact of the war on the water table and soil, and whether the Israeli military used weapons containing depleted uranium (DU).
“There are a lot of important question marks about environmental damage, ranging from bad to very bad,” said Rania Masri, associate professor of environmental science at Balamund University and a DU researcher.
“If DU was used, and we add on the potential of nuclear waste by-products in rubble, we are up Niagara Falls without a paddle,” she said. “And if we have DU in the soil, we have bioaccumulation.”
However, researchers are getting contradictory information on whether the Israelis used DU. And with inadequate research facilities in Lebanon, finding out whether DU was used will depend on the outcome of studies by European experts expected to arrive in Lebanon next month.
Investigations are also underway to ascertain whether phosphorous and other chemical-based weapons were used.
“If the Israelis used phosphorous the impact on the environment would be very high, as it would inhibit plant growth, and enter the soil and the earth,” said Layal Dandache, an agriculturalist with Greenline.
The reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure and residential buildings – estimated at 15,000 units – will also take its toll on the environment.
“There were many environmental problems before this war, but when massive reconstruction occurs like now, the environment takes a secondary slot. All the materials needed for reconstruction will cause huge environment stress,” said Masri.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Destruction – Part II: A trip of Southern Lebanon

It is rather strange, for lack of a better word, to drive and walk around an area that not even a week ago was the scene of extreme violence. But the experience was not akin to visiting a site where a major battle or historic event had occurred in the distant past, trying to recreate in your mind the destruction, the smell, or the climate conditions. The only imagination required concerned the actual fighting that took place between the Israelis and Hizbullah.
I accompanied my friend Peter, novelist Abdel Karim, and Emmanuel, our driver for the day, on a trip from Beirut to the beleaguered south.
Not far out of Beirut on the autostrade (motorway), the destruction became evident, with around 90% of the bridges we had to cross over or under destroyed, requiring circuitous routes on the coast roads or over dusty tracks.
As we entered Saida (Sidon) the main bridge by the sports stadium had been bombed, and out at sea we could see a French aircraft carrier, a frigate and a few Lebanese navy tubs.
The road to Nabatiyeh, the largest town in the centre of the south, was not badly damaged, and inside the city only a few buildings had been hit; most damage seemed to have occurred on the outskirts. Nonetheless innumerable windows had been smashed due to the bomb blasts, and bins were full of shards of glass, like ocean blue pools of water.
We drove over to the town of Arnoun, which lies below the Crusader castle of Beaufort, to visit my friend Mo.
But the army would not let us past without permission, so we had to go to a checkpoint near Marjayoun.
At the checkpoint a soldier asked Emmanuel where he was from. “Sudan.” “Ok, all of you from Sudan?” “No!? Holland etc.” Pull over.
Took 40 minutes to get clearance from Saida, with the official (hard to tell as he was in civvies)asking us repeatedly bwtween phonecalls where we were from, and then got Sudan mixed up with Suwed (Sweden). “Better that way,” smiled Emmanuel.
On asking each of us how long we had been in Lebanon - five years, four years, two months, Peter replied 10 years."From Qana to Qana."
As we waited dozens of empty army trucks passed us, heading north. Laden vehicles also passed us with people returning to their villages.
We then drove on to Marjayoun, a Christian village on the opposite side of the Litani river valley from Arnoun. The town had seen quite a bit of fighting, with tank track marks in the roads and bullet rounds dotting buildings and streets. Several cars had been squashed by tanks.
Apart from the army – numerous parked trucks and APCs, and soldiers loitering in barracks – few people were around.
We then took back roads across the valley that divides Marjayoun from Khiam. Outside the town every other building had been destroyed, and traces of extinguished fires were to be seen in fields and on hillsides. Some roads were blocked, either by debris or by shells, requiring some reversing and turning around.
Khiam itself was a wreck, and only got worse the closer we got to the top of the hill the town is built on.
What is interesting about Khiam is that it was the site of an infamous Israeli prison between 1982-2000 that held Lebanese prisoners in brutal conditions, including water and electricity torture (Red Cross were only allowed access in 1998). After the Israelis withdrew in 2000, the prison was converted into a museum, with previous occupants showing visitors around, and became a symbol of Israel's occupation of the south. The prison was often used in Hizbullah propaganda. For instance I went on a tour of the south two years ago with the Hizbullah-backed Al Manar TV, put on for international students (I was studying a Masters at the time at the American University of Beirut), and the prison was a major part of the one hour film that was broadcast. But three weeks ago the prison was totally destroyed by the Israelis - as if trying to wipe out the evidence.
The Israelis had certainly done a good job. Other than the buildings at the entrance and a few partially standing at the far end, the prison had been totally and utterly destroyed. All that remained was a thick layer of grey concrete dust and rubble.
From Khiam the road winds down into a valley, where there are fields and orchards. At the far end of the valley lay the Israeli settlement of Metulla. By the side of the road, a track had been carved into the soil by Israeli tanks. The earth had been kicked up and tobacco plants were covered in a thick coating of dark red dust.
Parts of the road had been totally destroyed, all that remained 25ft deep craters. Stopping to get out and look at one crater, a de-mining truck pulled up. We went to see what they were looking at – an unexploded one tonne bomb in a nectarine grove. Two men, from England, were noting down details. I asked them if they had found any traces of depleted uranium – none so far. Incidentally, I took soil samples from several bomb craters for testing at a lab in Beirut.
As we drove along the border past Kfar Kila – the road is but 5-10 meters from the fence at points – we saw, on the other side of the fence, photographers, squatting on their haunches, snapping away with powerful zoom lenses.
On looking down into a valley on the other side I saw four Israeli Merkava tanks lined up. At another point the border fence had been crushed, driven over by tanks and still not repaired – if you wanted to, you could have driven across.
At Fatima’s Gate, where you can walk along the border and see the Israeli military posts a mere five meters away, it was quiet, no soldiers to be seen.
When we arrived on the outskirts of Bint Jbeil, a town which bore the brunt of the fighting along with nearby Maroun Al Ras, it was clear that serious battles had occurred.
While we were stopping for a cool drink, a Mercedes pulled up with two men, who jumped out asking for water. They were clearly flustered.
Is that the road to Maroun Al Ras? we asked. “Yes, don’t go there, we heard gun shots. Only go if you have a very visible TV sticker, otherwise you may come under fire.” We decided not to go.
There was extensive damage to the outskirts of Bint Jbeil, but the destruction got progressively worse as we entered the centre of the town. Every building had either been shelled, shot at, burnt or nearly levelled, or a mix of the latter. The streets were dusty and full of debris. Walking around Peter and I cut into the old souk, clambering over rubble, twisted iron and building blocks blasted from buildings. Doors to houses lay open, inside either full of debris or eerily empty.
What was curious – I noticed the same thing in the southern suburbs – is that despite numerous shop fronts blown away or glass smashed, nothing had been taken. Shelves were stacked as they had been left, and fridges were full of bottles. But rotten perishable foods produced a terrible smell, an odour that was noticeable off and on throughout the whole south.
As we walked around the town an Israeli drone buzzed away over our heads – a reminder of how precarious the ceasefire is and that Israel still controls the skies. Equally, Peter and I had been lucky wandering off the main road. On the other side a sign had been put up telling people to not enter that road because of unexploded ordinance and cluster bombs.
Overlooking the rest of the town at one point we could see a school. The back end had been blown clean off, allowing the observer to look into classrooms, desks and chairs still lined up in rows facing what used to be a blackboard.
Although the distance covered had not been a great deal, we had taken around seven hours to reach Bint Jbeil. After around an hour there we decided to return to Beirut, going via Tyre. The long descent to Tyre goes through village after village, many coming back to life with people sitting on balconies or out on the street, but also bearing the scars of war with a bomb-hit building here and there.
Passing through the outskirts of Tyre, by the service taxi rank, we could see little destruction but also did not stop to venture further with the light fading fast. Just out of Tyre we had to take a dirt road normally used by agricultural workers. The air was thick with light greyish dust from the stream of vehicles slowly driving down into the valley.
It was a long drive back, taking the busy coast road to Rmeileh, then cutting onto the motorway before being forced off again, to then be stuck in heavy traffic until we had almost a clean run back to Beirut.
Upon return, all of us were filthy, covered in dust and sweat and absolutely ravished after our 12-hour tour. We foolishly had not brought any nourishment, other than water, with us.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Destruction Part 1

Destruction Part 1

Yesterday I joined the masses returning to the southern suburbs. Roads were busy, back to the usual traffic jams in places, and upon arrival in Mreyjeh, an area I used to live in and last visited two weeks ago, the difference couldn’t be more pronounced.
From resembling a post-apocalyptic future movie with nobody around, the area was filling up again and butchers, fruit and veg sellers, dukanee (corner shops) and barbers were open, albeit with no electricity.
It was clear that many people had only returned that day or the day before.
“Hamdullah a-salameh!” (Thank God you have arrived safe and sound), embraces and kisses on the cheeks as people greeted friends and neighbours they had not seen for weeks.
“Where were you?”
In Sanayeh (an area in West Beirut near Hamra), the mountains, Byblos…
“All ok, your family, the village?”
And so on, based on my exchanges and the people I overheard.
No one I knew, or talked to, had lost friends or family in the war but posters of the dead were to be seen on the main roads not far off. More are likely to appear in the coming months of the “shuhada” (martyrs) on lampposts, walls, and slabs of concrete that serve as traffic dividers.
“Is this a victory?” came up in conversation with several people, instigated either by myself or by acquaintances.
The response was a unanimous yes.
“Israel took a beating…”
“They will not try this again…”
One young chap, who spent the entire war in Mreyjeh (like my friend Hassan), pointed to two posters of Nasrallah either side of his apartment’s front door – “he protected us”.
“But what will you do now?” I asked him, as he used to work with his father selling fish. (The sea is now polluted from Jiyye, 30km south of Beirut, until the far north as well as 100km of the Syrian coastline by15,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil from a power plant destroyed by Israeli warplanes on July 13 and 15. (Separately targeted were the walls of the preventative tanks, constructed to stop a spill entering the sea)).
“I don’t know, God will provide.”
My journalist friend Peter and I then met up with Hassan at his family’s apartment. His mother and brother Abass were just about to drive to the south.
“We may not get there before midnight,” he said - the roads to the south are jammed due to the sheer number of people heading home and damaged infrastructure putting a spanner in the works.
“Why not go tomorrow or the day after?”
“Well, my mother insists on going home,” he said, rolling his eyes.
We then set off – Hassan, Peter, Hassan’s sister Miriyam and her friend A – to walk to Rweis and Haret Hreik to see what the wrath of Israel looked like.
We had just passed the cemetery of Bourj Al Barajneh, on the edge of Haret Hreik, when the damage became evident, smashed glass and dust littering the streets.
Then, the sight of utter destruction hove into view, a 12-storey building that had been totally levelled to around 10 meters high. Smoke still drifted out of the wreckage.
JCBs were moving away rubble, and previous occupants walked through the wreckage to try and salvage some personal items. There were quite a lot of people also walking around, taking in the destruction and snapping photos with camera phones.
We then walked past apartment blocks still in one piece, then on to more mounds of concrete rubble. It was hot, sweaty and dusty, people holding tissues over their mouths.
Hassan sucked in his breath on seeing a building he helped construct over a decade ago half-demolished.
“Strong building though.”
The Haret Hreik Husseiniya (a building used for religious gatherings) was the size of a football pitch, and lay utterly gutted. Buildings surrounding it were equally wrecked. Apartments had been cut in half – half a lounge, half a kitchen, oven and fridge still there.
We then walked into the area surrounding Hizbullah’s political HQ.
This was where considerable damage was evident for thousands of square meters.
On looking at one demolished building, Hassan cussed. Another building he had constructed. Hassan then pointed to the badly damaged building opposite.
“This building has been rebuilt three times. It was totally destroyed in 1985 when they [CIA, M16, Saudi intelligence] tried to assassinate Ayatollah Fadlallah but instead killed 80 people and wounded hundreds.”
Fadlallah’s house, behind the Haret Hreik municipality building, was also destroyed we were to see later, as were Hamas’ political offices.
We walked through the Shura council building. You passed through a gate and left through the gate on the other side, but there was no remaining structure standing in between.
Out of the gate was another mound of rubble and dirt. That building had been hit several times with craters, carved deep into the red soil, in two places.
The smell in places we walked through was terrible at times, from rotting fruit and veg, dairy products and possibly, decomposing bodies stuck under the wreckage.
We saw some people with large black bin-liner bags full of clothes and no homes.
P met a friend that ran a pool hall in Hamra. “That was my house,” he said, pointing to a levelled building.
“Hizbullah will provide us with money to rent a house for a year while it’s rebuilt. It is ok.”
(Tomorrow, Thursday, I am venturing to the south for the day - Destruction Part 2).

Monday, August 14, 2006


There are mixed emotions in the capital today. People are optimistic but also highly doubtful that the ceasefire will last. “There will only be peace when it is an equal peace,” said Sami, a baker from Saida temporarily living in Beirut. “I will head south tomorrow to check out the area, I know my house is still standing.”
My friend Hassan, from the southern suburbs, sounded happy on the phone. The bombs have stopped falling on the area and people are returning to the neighbourhood. “Israel will not try this again, they have paid a high price for trying to stop Hizbullah.”
The manager of the office I was working in today (no electricity at home) was whistling a tune. “I hope it lasts,” he said.
But other people I talked to today were not so optimistic. “The ceasefire will not last, how can it with so many Israelis down in the south? They will do anything to keep us down, and only need the smallest provocation to start the fight again,” said Rami.
Local shopkeeper George was also not too hopeful. “It will not last, and who knows, maybe fighting will start between the Sunnis and the Shia. The Israelis know this and will try it. This will not be good for us Christians.”
There are definitely more cars on the roads and people out and about. One of the few ‘benefits’ of the past month is that I have been able to cycle around the city without the risk of being hit by a car – drivers here do not know how to handle cyclists, and anyone who has been here knows what the traffic scene is like, chaotic to say the least – so cycling may be out later on in the week. I hope so.
But the power cuts are still with us, and the sky is strangely overcast. At this time of year one hardly ever sees clouds, yet alone what look like storm clouds, but I think this is to do with the environmental damage caused by Israel’s broad arsenal and the bombing of oil plants.


Sundays are usually quiet in Beirut, but the emptiness of the city is accentuated on this particular Sunday, a day after, to the month, that the war began.
Tomorrow at 8am the ceasfire is supposed to begin, but this afternoon the otherwise eerie silence – I can hear backgammon dice being thrown on the balconies opposite my apartment – has been shattered four times so far by heavy aerial bombardments on the southern suburbs. The glass wobbles on the building opposite and my heart does the rumba.
Looking from my desk through the window, the 'Hariri' mosque in Martyrs' Square in the distance, there is a red sky. "Red sky at night, shepherds delight." Will it be tomorrow?

I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet hall deserted
Whose lights are fled
And garlands dead
And all but he departed

Thomas Moore (1779-1832), Oft in the Stilly Night

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Welcome to 1982

Today I was woken up by a text message from a friend, ‘Welcome to 1982.’ Indeed, if you have not already seen this image, have a look on Time magazine’s archive for August 16, 1982. The cover photo depicts Ramlet Al Bayda in Western Beirut with buildings ablaze. Beneath TIME is written, ‘Destroying Beirut’, and at the bottom left, ‘Israel Tightens the Noose.’ The parallels are extraordinary, and the wordage highly apt.
Only a few hours after receiving the text the old lighthouse in Ras Beirut (the new one was destroyed in the first week of the war), was targeted. The lighthouse is less than five minutes drive from where Time’s 1982 photograph was taken.

The power situation is definitely worse, with power outages longer and longer (only five hours today, between 5-10am), and businesses struggling to power generators. Last night at Torino, a bar in Gemmayzeh, it was like a disco, with the lights continuously flickering off and on. Talk, among ‘citizens’ and the numerous journalists out for a thirst quencher (Magnum, The Sunday Times, US Radio, South African newspapers, Time etc.), revolved around Israel’s strategy, whether they would push beyond the Litani river, Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on TV, and what is likely to happen after the war ends.
Nasrallah’s speech was important in many regards. One because it encouraged the Lebanese to be united and not ‘play into Israel’s hands’ by fighting one another or engaging in demonstrations that could bring about the downfall of the Siniora government (which some people call for), and secondly, backing the decision to deploy the Lebanese Army in the South. Thirdly, Nasrallah essentially apologized for killing Arab-Israelis in N. Israel (target was an arms factory nearby), and called on all Arabs in Haifa to leave…

A couple of days ago I visited a high school in the Christian village of Safra, 20 kilometres north of Beirut, that housed 60 refugees from the southern suburbs and the south. Each family was allocated a classroom to sleep in, with food and drinks provided by former General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. The FPM has been doing a wonderful job in supporting the displaced and bridging Muslim and Christian animosity.
In the corridor on the first floor, sat on stools by windows that overlooked the Meditteranean shimmering below, two men told me about their experiences.
Abass Ayoub had fled the south five days before, from the village of Salaa, 20km to the south-east of Tyre. He said he spent two days with 20 others trapped in an underground kitchen when the building was bombed, with “no water, no food, only God.”
“We felt like we would die, the children were very scared. I saw death and then life returned when we were rescued,” Ayoub said. He added that he still cannot quite believe he survived.
Mohsen Charab, a Palestinian married to a Shia-Maronite Christian woman, said he fled Haret Hreik in Beirut’s Southern Suburbs. He said he had tried to visit the area to see if his apartment was still there. “But the area looks like Stalingrad – you know Stalingrad? – up to your head in rubble.”
“Most people here don’t know if their house is in one piece or not.”
Charab said “we are Hizbullah in our heart now. Everyone, even my baby daughter.”
“They can kill all of us, but there will always be one left that will resist. When we die we die like this,” he said, his two fingers raised in the victory symbol.
“What the Israelis don’t realize is that they are dealing with people who are used to being beaten. We are poor, we are beaten everyday. In 1982 when the Israelis captured us they would leave us in the sun all day to try and make us suffer sunstroke. But we would go outside for 4 or 5 hours a day to prepare, so it wasn’t anything to us! And when they would electrocute us, we would be happy, as we had no electricity!” Charab said semi-ironically.
Another man introduced himself to me. His wife and 10 month old daughter were killed in a bombing in the south. At only 22 years old, he looked much older than his age.
Children ran along the corridors and played in the playground. If these displaced were not here because of the war, one could be forgiven for thinking the school was a summer retreat, escaping the humidity in the mountains with the stunning views of the sea.

A man in the street offered to sell me some fresh fish today. “From the sea?” Yes. “Ah, no thanks.” With the coast polluted from Tyre up to Tripoli, the oil spill even reaching Cyprus, local seafood is most definitely off the menu. As everyone knows this, I am rather puzzled as to who would actually by the fish.

Leaflets were dropped by the Israelis on Beirut this afternoon, threatening a ‘painful and strong’ response to Hizbullah rocket attacks on Israel. Israel has also imposed a 7pm curfew on the northern coastal road, saying any vehicle moving could be hit. Residents of the southern suburbs were also told to leave.
Israel tightens the noose.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bombs, Bananas and Fixers

Beirut is overcast today, reflecting the mood of the country. Nearly 1,000 killed, probably far more if we include bodies still stuck under rubble, one million displaced and $3.5 billion in infrastructure damage (Lebanon currently owes $46 billion in debt repayment, roughly 180% of GDP).

Seems as if I can’t even take a shower in peace these days, the sound of a bomb dropped on the southern suburbs destroying the tranquillity of a much needed blast of H20 to wash off the dust and sweat after a long day on the road.
Talking to a friend just afterwards who had just returned from the south to Eastern Beirut, he asked what caused the noise. “A one-tonne bomb on the southern suburbs.” “But it sounded so close.” “Yeah, even sets off car alarms here. Can you imagine what it must be like 10 minutes walk away from where the bombs are being dropped? Knock you off your seat.” Another explosion reverberated through the city ten minutes later.

The impact of a near total economic blockade is increasingly obvious as every day passes and the two oil tankers fail to dock.
Food store shelves are noticeably emptier, bananas are not to be had (roads cut to the plantations in Southern Lebanon and no imports), more shops and restaurants are shut, and newspapers are running out of paper.
The Daily Star is down to a single sheet (four pages) and is not published in conjunction with the International Herald Tribune (‘please go to the web’).
Buses have increased the price of a ticket 100%, from 500LL (US$0.33) to 1000LL ($.66). A taxi ‘service’ driver told me that he waited two hours, from 6-8am, to get 20,000LL ($18) worth of fuel. He then added, while asking me for double the usual fare, that he was ‘lucky’ to have got more than the 10,000LL maximum – ‘they know me at the garage.’
A journalist friend who worked in Iraq told me the lines for petrol reminded him of Baghdad.
It is a good time however for shopaholics, with clothes sales of up to 70%.

People that are making money – aside from the usual war profiteers – are media fixers, an industry that sprung up over night and is flourishing.
Good fixers that translate, arrange interviews and know the south (in particular) are making up to $400 a day. But not enough some say due to the risks they run.
In fact one fixer asked me to get any friend coming from Europe/US via Syria to bring him a Kevlar bullet-proof vest.
“At $1500 a good investment, modern body armour. I want the works, helmet, neck protection, visor, torso and protection for the essentials. I think you should do the same if the situation continues.”
Some fixers don’t however venture beyond Beirut, keeping journalists informed about the latest developments from the Arab media over the phone and arranging appointments with officials etc.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Business and humanitarian news

Apologies for not writing for a few days, I had to work all weekend and have been working everyday for over a month now - tiring to say the least, and the early morning bombs on the southern suburbs don’t help REM sleep…
Had a conversation with the vice president of the Lebanese Industrialists Association (the Prez is out of the country), Charles Arbid, and what he had to say was rather gloomy: 95% of factories have shut and 35 destroyed (including dairy, glass, shoes and clothing).
He thinks what industry is still running, mainly food industries as the only good people are buying, will also close within two weeks unless a "Safe Economic Corridor" is created to let in essential supplies, raw materials and fuel. So far no corridor has been established and the two oil tankers that have bobbed off the coastline for the last several days are still there. The tankers’ insurers are refusing to let them dock unless the Israelis give a guarantee of safe passage. The request has been refused.
Arbid described the situation as a “blockade” (as he stressed to an EU official): there is only one border crossing, in the north, but with bridges destroyed on Friday just north of Beirut, transporting goods is difficult and with 450 trucks targeted by warplanes, many truckers are refusing to work unless they are paid handsomely for the risk.
Only aid relief planes are landing at the airport, and all ports are closed. The Bekaa valley, the “breadbasket” of Lebanon and an industrial hub, is equally out of action. As it was, Lebanon imported an estimated 90% of its food requirements.
Conservative estimates put the damage to the economy at a conservative $2.6 billion and $200 million in losses for the industrial sector.
Interestingly, the association highlighted the fact that Lebanon signed the EU-Lebanon Association Agreement in 2002.
“The Agreement calls for the creation of “area of prosperity” among the EU and its Mediterranean partners. Israeli military action and overwhelming military force are not compatible with this area of prosperity that we aspire to build.”
The country is also facing a major brain drain. Many Lebanese with dual citizenship may opt to work and live elsewhere, and are increasingly likely to do if the conflict continues. As it was many young Lebanese left if they could to study and work abroad; that attraction will only increase in a country struggling to get back on its feet.

And to end on some different “industry” news:
A friend of mine asked a hash dealer how business was in the current climate.
“Great, I am selling a lot. You always sell more in war.”
“Just hash?”
“No, everything. Heroin, cocaine, tranquilisers…kulshi! (everything). Look, I have just bought a new Mercedes!”
I hear it’s the same story on the other side of the border - some might call it a form of ‘war profiteering.’

Abass, a friend of mine from the south, volunteered to act as a guide for humanitarian vehicles heading to the villages in the war-scarred south, knowing the relevant back roads and alternative routes through banana plantations needed to avoid craters and destroyed bridges. After several runs in the past ten days, he says he is no longer going to do it. Yesterday a bomb landed 18 meters in front of his vehicle, the lead vehicle.
“Then my family here saw me on TV, they were not happy I was there, especially as they didn’t know [about the volunteer work].”

Thursday, August 03, 2006

All quiet...for now

Beirut is calm this evening and the electricity has, remarkably, been on all day in my neighbourhood. Two tankers have been permitted to dock in the next couple of days, so hopefully some degree of normalcy will be retained.
Speaking to my friend Hassan in the southern suburbs on the phone, he told me they were getting 12 hours of electricity a day despite the bombing of the night before. However, some people who had returned to Hassan's near-empty neighbourhood after the 48-hour aerial ceasefire had left following the bombings in nearby Haret Hreik.
We also discussed the fact that 10,000 Israeli troops are now in southern Lebanon, ready for the big push. "Maybe in two or three days there will be 30,000," said Hassan. "I hope not, inshallah."
His refusenik father and loyal sister are still in a village in the south, not far from Tibnin.

Move the teddy just a bit to the left...

Another media classic. A journalist friend who went down to the southern suburbs a week or so ago on one of Hizbullah’s guided tours to see the damage Israel’s one tonne bombs cause, said he saw CNN cameramen moving around items, such as a dusty teddy bear, to get better footage. Mmm...”CNN-Your Watching” – in more ways than they realize.

Bombs, journos and invasive microphones

I could hear the bombs that hit the southern suburbs last night – sounded close but in fact miles away. A tad unnerving to go to sleep to.
The other night had two friends of mine over for drinks who had just returned from two weeks in Tyre. They had a lot to say. They described the danger of leaving Tyre to go and report and get video footage, what with Israel’s indiscriminate targeting of any vehicle that moves. Both showed surprise that only one journalist had been killed so far.
It was the descriptions of visiting villages hit by shells, hospitals visits and the Qana massacre that struck the most.
C. was furious about the insensitivity of many journalists, saying a veteran camera team was idly talking and joking while the corpses of children were being removed from the debris in Qana.
He also slated the cut-throat competition and the asking anyone-that-moved-not-in-the-press-corps their opinion, even sole survivors of a bombing raid that were clearly traumatized. He said their desensitized coldness was disgusting– just my job, pal, don’t pay attention to the mike shoved up your schnoz while you hold back the tears, just give me a few quotes…
The other friend related a story of a bar manager in Beirut that had been so pestered by journos looking for a ‘there is a nightspot that never shuts shop’ type of story’ – to the point of pen poised above notebook thrust across the bar - that he told journos to cordially f-off.
Indeed, the real story is elsewhere and about more important issues, such as the use of uranium tipped rockets (See Depleted Uranium Situation Worsens Requiring Immediate Action By President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and Prime Minister Olmert states by Dr. Doug Rokke, PhD., former Director, U.S. Army Depleted Uranium project and the deliberate targeting of civilians.
C. described being in a hospital next to a bed-bound lad of 10, that repeatedly called out for his father. The nurse wasn’t sure how to react as the father was killed in the same shelling the son barely survived.
C. said some of the ‘elite’ journos asked him how he managed to get such good quotes – perhaps because I was weeping alongside the victims, he replied.
When I was at the border between Syria and Lebanon distributing food and water with Red Crescent over 10 days ago, the CNN came to film. As Hala, the correspondent, wanted to interview me we got chatting, and she asked me why one Red Crescent volunteer, a trained paramedic, was giving her bad looks. I had to suppress myself from saying the obvious – probably because you are sitting around while we are scurrying around like headless chickens distributing drinks etc. and you are sponging off the organization’s power source, meaning the RC had to turn off the air-con in the caravan (needed to keep medicine cool). But then CNN doesn’t do charity…
For my other friend reporting from Tyre, the most moving moment for him was when a Lebanese-German woman was not allowed to be evacuated along with other Germans as her passport had expired and she was forced to stay behind in beleaguered Tyre with her children. ‘The dead are dead, it’s the ones left behind I feel for.’

64% of Lebanese say no to disarming Hizbullah

Ipsos-Stat tried hard to ask questions in a way as to determine the results. For example, the first question was about whether this war's timing was "appropriate." Now when you phrase it like that, you mix the attitude to Hizbullah with the attitude to Israel. So 62% said that the timing of the war was not appropriate. And when the Lebanese were asked whether they support the US demand for disarming Hizbullah, 64% of Lebanese said no. (63% of Sunnis, interestingly). As for whether you blame Hizbullah or Israel for the war, 84% of Lebanese blamed Israel for the war. (84% of Sunnis, for those who think that Lebanese Sunnis are now supporters of Israel). And 67% of Lebanese supported the capture of the two Israeli soldiers.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Links and oil slicks...

Here are links to a few interesting articles:

An article on Hizbullah

An article in The San Francisco Chronicle that claims that Israel was planning this invasion over a year ago:

A friend's description of visiting Qana on her blog:


NICOSIA, July 31 (Reuters) - An oil slick caused by Israeli bombing and covering a third of Lebanon's coast could cause long-term damage to the east Mediterranean if it is not tackled soon, a senior U.N. official said on Monday.

Achim Steiner, executive director for the U.N. Environment Programme, said the hostilities in Lebanon made it impossible to begin clearing up the slick, caused when warplanes stuck storage tanks at a power plant south of Beirut on July 13 and 15.

Initial reports indicate 10,000-35,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil spilled into the Mediterranean and the spill has covered up to 80 km of Lebanon's 225 km coastline, he said.

"Every day that passes will increase the potential damage of this tragic incident," Steiner told Reuters by telephone.

"The physical areas are expanding. The ability to minimise damage on the shoreline will also be reduced."

Lebanon's Environment Ministry has called it the worst environmental disaster to hit the Arab state and says another tank containing some 25,000 tonnes of fuel is still on fire and in danger of leaking or exploding.

Unable to deal with the spill -- the Mediterranean's largest since the tanker Haven dumped 144,000 tonnes of crude near Italy and France in 1991 -- Beirut has asked Syria and Jordan for help in a cleanup it says will cost up to $50 million.

On its Web site, the ministry showed pictures of beaches and rocks caked in black sludge and said it had reached popular tourist areas north of Beirut.

Steiner, also U.N. under secretary-general, said he was urgently trying to coordinate with EU states to secure satellite images and land-based reports of the spill to get a clearer picture of its impact.

"Certainly any oil slick like this in the Mediterranean will have serious ramifications for the environment, including marine life," he said.

Psych Ops Israeli style

Israel Hacks Into Manar TV, Accuses Nasrallah of Being Liar
Agence France Press, 1 Aug, 2006

Israel on Tuesday hacked into the television station of Hizbullah, emblazoning images on the screen showing pictures of corpses and claiming the group's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was a liar.
One of the images shown on Al-Manar TV portrayed the body of a fighter lying face-down, wearing khaki trousers with a text beneath in Arabic reading: "This is the photograph of a body of a member of Hizbullah's special forces."

"Nasrallah lies: it is not us that is hiding our losses," continued the text, which appeared during the evening news and stayed on the screen for several minutes.

A photograph of Nasrallah himself also appeared with the legend: "member of Hizbullah: watch out."

Another photograph of corpses was framed by the words: "there are a large number of corpses like this on the ground and Nasrallah is hiding this truth."

Israel also hacked into FM radio stations and instead of normal programs a two-minute recording was repeatedly broadcast.

"Hassan sent men to fight the Israeli army, an army of steel, without preparing them. Stop listening to patriotic hymns for a moment, reflect and bring your feet back to the ground," said the Arabic message.

Israel has used a variety of technological weapons to wage a psychological war in Lebanon, also sending text messages to mobile phones and voice messages saying its war was against Hizbullah and not the Lebanese people.(AFP)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The nonexistent ceasefire

Despite the Israelis announcing a 48 hour ceasefire a few days ago, it only took the Israeli Air Force one hour to violate it by flying over Beirut, and continuing its attacks on the south this morning.
Today, Israeli PM Olmert decided to widen the ground offensive in Lebanon, possibly up to the Litani River, and resume air strikes with full force.
Israel Radio, Israel Army Radio and a senior Israeli government official said ground forces would reach the Litani River, about 30 kilometers north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.
When Ephraim Sneh, a senior Israeli Labor Party lawmaker was asked by Israel Radio how long troops would hold on to that territory, up to the Litani, Sneh said: "We are not talking about days we are talking about longer, but not about months."
What does that imply? Weeks or that the Israelis will indefinitely hold on to the south of Lebanon if they are able to defeat Hizbullah?
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a senior Cabinet minister, said Israel wants to establish a Hizbullah-free zone in south Lebanon. "This is the same area where we want a multinational force to be deployed," he told Army Radio. He said he expected the ground offensive to take "between 10 days to two weeks."
Sneh said the goal of the offensive is "not to occupy south Lebanon" but to hold onto the territory until a multinational force can be deployed to the Israel-Lebanon border.
The big question is whether the Lebanese political community will accept multinational forces - which they have not. Indeed, there is some talk of asking for a multinational force in northern Israel. If an agreement is ever worked out, there should be such a zone. Since 2000, Hizbullah violated the Blue Line on the Israeli-Lebanese border 100 times, while Israeli violated that line 11,782 times. (These numbers are based on UN observers and were cited by Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabi Berri in his interview with Al-Arabiya TV).
Israel would of course never stand for this unless strong-armed into doing so by the US, but with Washington backing Israel under the mantle of the so-called 'war on terror' and the strong pro-Israel lobby, this seems highly improbable. International pressure will have minimal effect, unless serious i.e. sanctions of various forms, as applied to South Africa to end apartheid (oh, but one forgets, the US is the only country to vote against 12 UN resolutions condemning various aspects of and/or calling of an end to apartheid in South Africa between 1981 and 1993 (145-1, 124-1, 136-1 etc.), a period when VP Dick Cheney was in Reagan's administration.) This is as much America's war as it is Israel's, and as for Iraq and Afghanistan, will only be 'resolved' or 'mission accomplished' when Washington decides.

The Karaba Conundrum

Karaba is Arabic for electricity, and there is not a great deal around in besieged Lebanon. The Syrians are providing electricity, but with two, if not more, power stations destroyed here, rationing is underway. It is very strange driving through downtown between East and West Beirut - all the lights are out, like a blackout during the London blitz. The reason, explained a driver, was that municipalities are turning off all essential lights etc. for residential areas.
In my area electricity is intermittent, on for maybe 10 hours a day here and there. Went off last night – why I was not able to blog – and came on at 4am. Then off again at 9am, back on at 2.30pm. Will see how long I get it now. Murphy’s law of course that my laptop battery only last 30 minutes now…
Petrol is also being severely rationed, with queues for petrol all down the street and people only allowed 10,000LL worth of fuel ($6.66). Unless the Syrians open the pipeline to Lebanon shut last year after Syria withdrew, petrol will rise in price and only the most necessary journeys will be made.
I have been walking around different areas, speaking to people and getting an idea of the situation the last few days. As I am in the middle of conveying these thoughts for a few publications, will blog more in detail later…probably to the sound of generators humming away in the darkness.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Like An Apocalypse Movie

I went down to Beirut’s southern suburbs this afternoon. The roads were deserted and drove past shop after shop that had the shutters pulled down, and bridges that had been destroyed. The southern suburbs is usually a beehive of activity, what with an estimated 750,000 people living there. Not now.
At the Mreyjeh square junction I got out and met a friend, Ali, who runs a fruit shop. He had a poor selection of fruit and veg. 'No one here to buy anything.'
While talking to Ali a guy on a mo-ped stopped and asked him who I was and why I was there. He told the man, from Hizbullah, that I was a friend and used to live in the neighbourhood. Ali said they were also checking Lebanese not from that particular area.
I walked down the empty road that used to be teeming with traffic, children and people going about their business at a fair clip, eager to get to my friend Hassan's before running into another guy on a mo-ped.
I then bumped into two other chebab (guys) I know, down from the mountains for the day 'for mum to do the washing.' I told him how surprised I was about the lack of people. 'Yeah, you could film a horror movie here. It is like an apocalypse movie it’s so deserted.'
The street where I lived was equally deserted. In Hassan's building, only two out of 16 apartment buildings are occupied. Out of around 500 people that living in the surrounding buildings, there are perhaps 40.
Osama, my old concierge, had left via Syria to his family in Sudan.
In Hassan's house everyone was watching the news - the massacre in Qana by the Israelis that left 55 dead, an eerie deja vu for many Lebanese; a massacre occurred there exactly 10 years ago when the Israelis shelled a UN compounded that housed 800 civilians. 106 were killed and 116 injured during.
All the men looked tired, not from a lack of sleep but the continuous stress of not knowing what was going to happen, and nothing to do other than watch the news.
'It's boring this waiting and nothing to do, I tried to read but couldn't get past a few pages,' said Abass, Hassan's brother, who works with the UN.
'This is totally counterproductive,' Abass added, referring to Israel's invasion. 'What is he going to think of all this? You think he will forget these images?' he added, pointing at his 10 year old nephew seeing the Al Jazeera tv images of children being pulled out of the rubble in Qana.
‘If the international community wants a secure border zone on the Lebanese side, then they should also put a zone on the Israeli side,’ added Abbass.
Indeed, since 2000, the Israelis have violated Lebanese sovereignty over 11,782 times, Hizbullah 100 (based on UN observers).
Hassan and family know that staying in the southern suburbs, a mere 15 minutes walk from Haret Hreik (a residential area that also used to include Hizbullah's former political HQ before being destroyed), is not safe, but they lack the funds to go elsewhere and between their two apartments in the neighbourhood, sleep 12.
Around 50,000 apartments have reportedly been destroyed in the southern suburbs.
Abass said he was in Mreyjeh when 23 one-tonne bombs were dropped on Haret Hreik. 'Your ears ring, and you feel real fear.'
Due to the upped security, after lunch and tea, Hassan drove me home. We drove along the airport road. Jisr al Matar's (Airport Bridge) central section had been destroyed, and I caught glimpses of the levelling of Haret Hreik from the road.
This is what I have seen so far. Expect more updates from this land that is like a never-ending early Sunday morning...


Arrived in Beirut on Saturday uneventfully. At the border hardly anyone was crossing into Lebanon, and the road through the town of Masnaa was strangely empty. In a time of peace, the road would be chockablock with vehicles.
Just where the town ends the road had been destroyed by an Israeli bomb, so we took an alternative route that went through Zahle and the mountains another way. We passed several vehicles, including a UAE humanitarian truck, that had been destroyed by rockets.
We - Ben Gilbert, a US radio journalist, and myself, along with Syrian driver Bassam - took the road down through Antelias through Jounieh. The road through Jounieh is usually a log-jam, especially on a Saturday afternoon, crawling along meter by perspiring meter. We drove through as if it was Sunday morning. Some restaurants were open, but what was very noticeable was that all car show rooms were shut through the Jounieh, ad-strewn strip.
My apartment is fine and my neighbours, an elderly couple, had been keeping an eye on it. They told me their son along with his family had left to France, but due to her disability - she has to use a zimmer frame, and finds travel difficult, she has decided to stay. The son’s Filipino maid had be re-assigned to look after her.
Curiously, speaking to my friend Abass, who left the south last week, he said his father, also in his late 70s, had decided to stay in their village, as had all elderly people - too attached to their homes, land and the transition potentially too traumatic. Abass' sister stayed behind to look after him.
The whole of Beirut is like a ghost town, or to use another example, like the city at 4am with a few shops open here and there and the odd car driving around. Except it is like this in the daytime. Everyone it seems is staying at home and not really leaving their neighbourhoods.
The supermarkets are open, fruit and meat available, but no fresh milk. Talking to a friend yesterday he said that many food/drink manufacturers are struggling because of the lack of trucks, and the fact that the Israelis have destroyed over 450 trucks. Such industries can probably weather a few months of this, but if it continues they will go bankrupt.
It is good to be back after three weeks away – an initial 10 day trip in Syria and Jordan – but equally very strange to see this once-beating city turn into a ghost town.