REAPING A WHIRLWIND: The Struggle for Lebanon

REAPING A WHIRLWIND: The Struggle for Lebanon

View from a rooftop

IT WAS A STUPID IDEA. Given the current mood in Lebanon, the last thing you wanted to do was head down to Bir Abed, in the Southern suburbs of Beirut, with a car full of foreigners, cameras and video gear to document the devastation left by the summer’s war. But having been away from Lebanon for nearly five years, I admit there was a safety-in-numbers factor involved.

When told by photographers and freelancers at the Talal Hotel near Gemayze that “security was tight” in the Hezbollah-controlled suburb, I decided to tag along when some of them asked whether I wanted to go with them and photograph the damage. “Hide your cameras or they’ll stop you,” I was warned. A far cry from the days when you could get press clearance directly from the Hezbollah Press Office; or if you lost your way, you were simply led to Hezbollah’s doorstep by neighbors and shopkeepers.

We got to the area hardest hit by the shelling. An Irish photographer who had been there the day before led us to a building that had been damaged but was still standing. It was still occupied by residents, though surrounded by piles of rubble, flooded back streets and the charred remnants of a neighborhood. He said we could photograph the damage to the area if we could get to the rooftop. He suggested he go up first and the Belgian and I follow. The British woman had gone her own way and planned to meet us back at the hotel.

I didn’t pay much attention to the black tent near the building, which could have been a rough shanty set up by construction workers.

After an arduous seven-story climb, we were on the roof. We shot film and video in the dying light till a young man in a black t-shirt and pants appeared on the roof. He did not look pleased. When he realized we were foreigners with no particular permission or reason to be there, he demanded our cameras. Not our film, the cameras themselves.
We offered the film. He wanted the cameras. We admitted to each other later that the thought of making a run for it or tossing him off the roof had crossed our minds. Then came the thought: He may have come up alone, but surely there was someone waiting downstairs.

That and the fact that though he looked all of 21 years old and was shorter than the three of us, it was a stocky, muscled build poured into a black t-shirt scowling at us. I suppose we also thought that it might be rude when trespassing on private property to throw locals from rooftops.

We finally – after trying every argument and dropping every name we could think of – got him to just take the film and videocassette. We left. Minus two days of photos taken throughout Beirut but with cameras intact. Back at the hotel, I asked the Irish photographer if he had any shots to sell of the shelled out neighborhood. He offered me photos similar to the ones we had taken but had been confiscated. “Don’t put my name in the photo credit though,” he said. “I may want to travel to Palestine and Israel some day . . . Just caption it: Photos by . . . Guerilla Boy.”

There is a rampant but justified paranoia in the Southern suburbs about Israeli and American agents wandering the streets, marking important buildings with some sort of high tech paint that could be picked up by sensors on Israeli fighter jets. And there were confirmed sightings of small Israeli MKs – twin-engine, unmanned reconnaissance planes commonly utilized by the Israeli Defense Forces to seout out areas where “terrorists” hid. Such remote control planes had often been seen in South Lebanon as early as 1996, including the one that showed up on footage of the infamous massacre at the U.N. refugee barracks at Qana that year. The devices were so common that locals called them Umm Kamel – Mother of the Camel – a play on the letters MK.

And, a couple of months after the savage attacks on South Beirut to root out Hezbollah leaders and infrastructure, we were caught on a roof taking photos and video of the entire area. Without official press passes. In hindsight, we were lucky to get away losing only rolls of film.

I knew it was a stupid idea.

On earlier visits, photographers were barely noticed. Now, they were suspects. Agents of an enemy who could rain fire from the skies with little or no provocation. And, as news reports of the war would point out, with notoriously bad aim and a total disregard for civilian lives. Beirut had been one of the least restrictive press zones in the Middle East. Twenty years of civil war with militias, armies and roving photographers ducking between barricades and running cross enemy lines to document the horrific drama had seen to that. Not these days.

News reports back at the hotel pointed out that the “March 8” opposition – made up mostly of Hezbollah, Amai and other Shi’a Lebanese – were planning a massive march in the city to camp out in front of the Seraglio, the parliament building, to demand that the current government make concessions, step down and allow the opposition’s Shi’a majority more say in a government that has successfully marginalized them for more than a decade. Five ministers resigned Nov. 1 1 . The defection of three more ministers would in effect make the present government null and void.

Then, Yacoub Sarraf, the Christian Minister of Environment also resigned, bringing the number closer to the eight needed to invalidate the government. It also made it harder to claim that the government crisis was a purely sectarian affair. Yet Prime Minister Fouad Siniora refused to recognize the resignations.

As if to mirror the chaos in parliament, there were two days of protests at the University of Beirut, where the student union was breaking apart along political and factional lines – a microcosm of the government. For two days, troops held swayaround the idyllic campus in West Beirut to ensure that things didn’t get out of hand. We watched and waited.

We didn’t have long to wait.

Views of a kill

After being in Beirut for several days, I felt that I had my bearings. Tourists and journalists came and went from the Talal Hotel. Nights saw us gathered round the television in the lobby and wondering whether complete anarchy would break out, whether Hezbollah and allies would march and bring the capital to a standstill, whether the country would fracture along party lines.

Then, there was stunned silence when the news flash came through that the Christian Minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel, was assassinated Nov. 21 by gunmen who ambushed his car in East Beirut and riddled the car and its occupants with bullets.

Time stopped. News reports were insistent that the ?March 8 coalition would not march as promised. Many feared they would. My seven- to 10-day trip to report on the reconstruction of Lebanon required a re-think. Frantic e-mails to and from magazines in Jordan confirmed what I already knew: I would be here more than 10 days.

It’s the moment every journalist waits for, the crack of jackboots kicking in your door in some Third World country on the brink of revolution. I had gotten up early and was photographing from the window as hundreds of protesters made their way from the Christian enclaves of Ashrifeyeh, across the bridge toward the Phalangist offices and St. George’s Cathedral, where GemayeFs funeral was to be held. Then?

The door swung open, and someone I was fairly sure didn’t work at the hotel – most hotel employees didn’t walk around with their heads wrapped in Phalange do-rags – came in. His agitation seemed to lessen when he saw that the thing I was pointing out the window was a camera and not a rifle. Yet, it didn’t stop him and his henchman from rounding up the people in the hotel, checking the rooms and lobbies, and bringing us outside to check our papers. He muttered that I might want to change clothes in this neighborhood, and I realized I was wearing a Hezbollah t-shirt in the event the proposed march on Martyr’s Square would go on as planned. The demonstration could lead to a full-scale clash between opponents of a sorely divided government.

He had a point.

Then Hezbollah made an announcement that let the city breathe a little easier. Out of respect for the latest tragedy in the Gemayel family the march would be postponed.

These days, if I hung out with anyone at the hotel, it was either with a wannabe journalist Andreas from Sweden or Doyon, the South Korean tourist. If I were a tourist, I’d want to be like Doyon. He went most places with us, had a decent digital Canon camera and was seldom shaken by the growing chaos in the country. We headed, along with tens of thousands of Lebanese, toward St. George’s on the west side of Martyr’s Square – called the green line in the days of the civil war. What started as a massive surge ended up a dizzying, jam-packed excess of lamentation, protest, security and paparazzi.
A stampede was a distinct possibility. If someone, anyone, blew something up in this crush, another civil war could flare up within an hour. Bells tolled, litanies were intoned over loudspeaker, and the crowds swayed, pushed and chanted. In the bizarre twisted logic of the Middle East, foreigners were being allowed in the church as the ceremony – packed with the who’s who of Lebanese politics – ended and the brokers of power and their security began to leave the church. Lebanese couldn’t buy their way in but a foreign passport got you waved into the funeral. Unfortunately, I presented my passport just as the crowds tried to rush forward, chanting anti-March 8 slogans while a Shi’a Amai representative left the church. The police moved in, batons raised, riot shields at the ready, and pushed the crowds back. By the time the police officer gave me my passport back, I wondered whether it wasn’t better to stay outside. Doyon had already gotten in and things outside could spiral out of control.

Unlike former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005, there was little talk about who was behind Gemayel’s killing. People assumed it was either a Hezbollah/Syria/Iran conspiracy or a U. S. /Israeli conspiracy, depending upon which side of the ideological divide they fell on. The media said a pro-Syria group claimed responsibility for the killing. It seemed odd that no one became caught up in the “who” and “why” of this political assassination. Any inquiry into Hariri’s death was still a hotly contested issue and another stumbling block on the road to any form of governmental unity.

The anti-Syria, mostly Christian “March 14” coalition made it through the day, minus a scion of one of its most powerful families. Despite a bit of unrest, the funeral and protests were carried out peacefully, and there were no immediate plans publicized by March 8 to hold its intended rally. March 14 marked what Washington dubbed a “Cedar Revolution” – the day when hundreds of thousands of anti-Syria protesters took to the streets in the wake of Hariri’s February 2005 assassination and demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Syria, after 29 years of deployment in Lebanon, withdrew that April. The March 14 rallies one month after Hariri’s slaying were also a response to growing resistance to a Syrian military presence in Lebanon, which many blamed directly for Hariri’s assassination. It followed on the heels of a vast – and once again Hezbollah/Amal-led – protest showing support for Syria. The March 8 supporters saw Hariri’s death as part of a U.S./Israeli power play to gain influence in Lebanon. Although most commentators like to call the current state of affairs a Shi’a/Christian issue, the reality is that the divide is far more political than denominational. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement was warring with other Christian factions and he placed his support with the Hezbollah (read Shi’a) March 8 faction. Common sense indicates it is safer to say that the split in Lebanon fell along much more Marxist lines. Most of the poor and disenfranchised in Lebanon, namely the Shi’a and the poorer Christian communities, fell under the March 8 banner, while the ruling Sunni and Christian classes comprised the March 14 coalition currently dominating the government. Numerous smaller parties and movements generally subscribe to one of the two umbrella movements whether they are communist, nationalist, religious or ethnic.

Andreas, Doyon and I thought it was time to hit the South and see exactly how badly the IDF’s destruction had been.

South Lebanon

It was in our second trip south, this time in a car rented for the day, that we finally made it to what used to be occupied territory. Bint Jbeil, the border and, of course, Qana.

This would be my second visit to Qana, scene of the Israeli shelling of a U.N. compound for refugees in the 1996 “Grapes of Wrath” operation. More than 100 civilians and U.N. workers were killed in the first attack. Qana was hit again during the Summer war, and now there was a second memorial site.

We stopped at both memorial sites. It was Andreas who walked up nearly in tears at the second shelling site, livid with anger. “Look at the graves. Look at the birth and death dates.”

I did.

There were mostly children, many of them infants.

The rest of the South was in shambles, whole villages leveled. What wasn’t leveled looked ready to fall apart with the next breeze. Somewhere between Qana and the border, the taxi began experiencing problems. We had gotten a driver at the last minute and were regretting the decision. The driver tended to be impatient even though he was being paid for the day. His car was supposed to be in “top condition” and we were sitting outside a garage while it underwent repair. Someone in a gray uniform saw us snapping photos of the border wire and guard posts on either side of the Lebanon-Israeli border and waved us over.

Hassan was an officer with the Shi’a Amai movement. He invited us in for tea, where we talked about our taxi from hell and the planned March 8 coalition rally. Hassan, unlike others, was certain about the march on the capital and told us the day and time. He was deferential and soft spoken; we talked about the current situation, the thousands displaced. I asked what he thought the march would accomplish.

“Change,” he said with a smile. “The government has to change. If it’s going to be a democracy, it will have to start acting like one.”

From camp to camp

The word camp seems to carry extra weight in Lebanon. Many of the country’s poor and dispossessed live in refugee camps. Many of the massacres that stain Lebanon’s history took place in Sabra and Shatila, Karantina, Tel al-Za’tar.

Now, another kind of camp would be making room on local maps. Two weeks into my 10-day stay, the promised Hezbollah-sponsored march finally took place. On Friday, Dec. 1, one-million March 8 supporters descended on Martyr’s Square in central Beirut. People came from across the small country, and tents and portable sanitation facilitates were set up. By the afternoon, the center of the city looked like a Shi’a version of Woodstock. Once again, everyone knew – but no one said – what havoc a single well-placed sniper or suicide bomber could wreak.

By now, the city was dizzy from holding its breath for so long. I was dizzy, and I had only been there a couple of weeks.

I’m not sure why, but the idea of political protest usually implies angry mobs. No one, it seems, told this to the Lebanese. As the square filled to far beyond capacity, it seemed more of a festival than a demand for the present government to resign. Impromptu stages and sound systems were set up, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the central district waving flags, singing, chanting anti-government slogans. If only they would all stop smiling so much while they were doing it.

Given the proximity of thousands of so far peaceful protesters to the odd sandwich shop, which happened to also have shelves upon shelves of booze lining the walls, many of the local Lebanese police and armed forces took to hanging out at Makhlouf ‘s, our standby food supply near the hotel. When the March 14 sit-in began, the usually quiet local shop became an improvised military command post and mess tent. Suddenly our meals were taken sitting in the thick of officers, soldiers and policemen whose unenviable task it was to maintain order. It wasn’t long before we got to know them on a first-name basis. Suddenly the constantly shifting security checkpoints became easier to pass, and nights were usually spent bouncing between the Hezbollah camps up the street, military command posts, Makhlouf ‘s or the campfires of the Lebanese military tucked away in parking lots or backyards of burnt out buildings.

That kind ofthing can give you the bends. Though very few people I’ve met can resist using the word “surreal” when discussing Beirut, I didn’t fully realize how bent this particular case of the bends was making me, and I suppose, Andreas and Doyon as well. And this was barely the beginning of the third week.

Lebanon’s mix of 17 denominations and even more political and ideological groundings has often been blamed for the country’s travails. To be sure, there were tense moments, no doubt on a daily basis, but this time, the differences served to keep things from spilling into complete anarchy once again.

The unofficial figures point out that 70 percent of the military is Shi’a. But being in the military often subverts one’s civilian life; it’s designed to make your country and your platoon a social circle, family, employer and authority. It wouldn’t be easy, however, to incite troops to fire on crowds, and hasn’t been in the days since the standoff began. They were, not so long ago, part of those crowds; after fulfilling their service, they would return to the same streets they were patrolling.

The people who have something to lose these days stand behind the government for the most part, while those with little or nothing to lose look for the masses camped out downtown to reset the system and level the playing field. This goes to show how little has changed over the centuries despite media and analysts claiming that an Islamist/fundamentalist revolution is brewing in Lebanon, or finger pointers blaming foreign influence (take your pick: the U.S./Israeli axis or the Syrian/Iranian/Hezbollah) for using Lebanon as their chessboard.

The rush of being in Lebanon these days was partly due to the scent of an unbridled sense of democracy. Not the prepackaged made-for-export version, but the kind that rose from the ashes of anarchy and war and didn’t know quite what to make of itself. Which, naturally, made it a very dangerous time as well. There was no rulebook to refer to. The country had leveled itself to the ground so often that any real sense of precedence or political protocol had to be reinvented on a monthly and sometimes daily basis.

This worried countries that had invested in Lebanon for various and often self-serving reasons over the past century.

Naturally the euphoria of the first days of protests couldn’t last. In the first nights of the sit-in at Martyr’s Square, there were well-mannered Hezbollah security plainclothes walking around making sure order was kept. Half-hearted brawls, young kids trying to smuggle alcohol in on their first-ever camping trip, and other unruly elements were kept in check. That Utopian edge soon gave way to a diminishing number of campers, more often than not from the Palestinian camps and poorer villages; street kids with little else to do but congregate and be angry over the appalling dish their lives had served up. I should have realized things were turning odd when I saw fewer adults and more shebab (youth).

It sank in on a deeper lever when I could no longer keep track of how many of these kids asked me, the adult foreigner, if I could go to the liquor store and get them vodka, or if I were interested in buying some cocaine or hash.

Back at Makhlouf ‘s, there was a sense of nervous systems stretched to the snapping point. We watched from a street corner one night as an endless parade of U.N. tanks and trucks sped south. The exuberance and promises to keep in touch and get documents proving that depleted uranium and quite possibly phosphorous bombs had been used by the Israeli bombardment, degenerated into the whole lot of us becoming more sullen and suspicious and high strung.

Everyone waited in Beirut in those days after the initial marches to see what would break first and when. A day or so after the first marches, Shi’a demonstrators were fired upon by rooftop snipers, killing three in the QasQas district. News reports said the three snipers were Syrians. The next day, Shi’a vandals went on a rampage in a Sunni neighborhood, terrifying residents and trashing cars. News from Ashrifeyeh reported firefights between pro-Phalange March 14 Christian militias and the March 8 Aounist faction. Things weren’t getting better, but they weren’t exactly falling apart. The waiting for something, anything became interminable. And at some point, I had to leave.


It’s March now, and Lebanon still waits. Talks are held, new stalemates reached. In February, street battles rocked the capital. The sanest in the fray turned out to be the Lebanese military that also appeared the hardest hit in the standoff. Leaving Beirut in the final days of 2006, I had that familiar guilty feeling of popping into a delivery room for a peep of gore while something in Lebanon was being birthed. Guilt and lots of desperate questions whether the Beast that would slouch toward Parliament would be rough or beautiful.

We’re still waiting.

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