September 6, 2006
IT WAS during my second photo shoot in al-Daahieh – the sprawling Shiite neighbourhoods that cover several square kilometres along Beirut’s southern belt and which received the greatest share of Israel’s aerial wrath during the recent 34-day conflict against Israel – that I was detained.
Essentially a closed military zone during the war and the target of repeated Israeli bombardments, since the August 14 ceasefire the area has been opened to the foreign press and to the waves of refugees flooding back to visit their ruined houses.
It is hard to comprehend the scale of destruction meted out to al-Daahieh without walking its shattered streets. I had seen the images on television, but the reality was far more tragic. Costas Barkas, a Greek doctor on his first visit to the area, marvelled at the stunning effect that actually being there has on one – far stronger than any photograph or television report can convey.
Eight days after the end of hostilities, a pungent smell rises from the ruins and collapsed apartments – which locals say is a mixture of decomposing garbage, bodies buried under the concrete, as well as the tang of the depleted uranium-coated bombs used by warplanes to target the Hizbullah leadership’s underground bunkers. My taxi driver told me that the thriving market for scrap metal from al-Daahieh stopped immediately after the ceasefire after rumours emerged that it is contaminated with depleted uranium.
For a photographer, the best way to show the huge scale of destruction is from above. So I climbed up an empty ten-storey apartment block abandoned by its inhabitants. Emerging onto the roof, gasping for air after the climb in Beirut’s stifling humidity, I stood awe-struck at the devastation stretching out before me. Canyons of crushed concrete extended for a square kilometre, surrounded by the hulks of wounded buildings. Mountains of rubble were sprayed on the ground, crushing cars and blocking the roads.
The area I was photographing from my tenth-storey perch is known as al-murab’a al-amani (the security quadrangle). It housed the offices for Hizbullah’s vast bureaucracy, the party’s al-Manar TV station and the house of party secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah. All that remains of the hose today is a crisp Lebanese flag lodged in the rubble.
It was a sensitive area, and
I had been asked several times
already for my identification. While photographing from the roof, I’d noticed neighbours looking at me in a funny way. With my fluent but not native Arabic and foreign looks, the supposition that I might be an Israeli spy was not too exotic. In ten years of working and living in the Middle East, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been suspected of this.
Now, two bearded Hizbullah men emerged onto the roof, both holding walkie-talkies. Approaching me, they asked me politely what I was doing. They looked at my identification and asked where I learned to speak Arabic. “You are free to photograph everything and anything from the ground level,” the Hizbullah man told me. “But you can’t photograph from the top of buildings.”
After a short chat, they radioed in to “unit 103” that they had made contact with me and would be bringing me down. Descending down the unlit stairs, they walked in front and behind me. At the bottom of the stairs, a third man was waiting, also with a walkie-talkie, who was positioned to block any heroic dash on my part.
“You’ll be interviewed very briefly by one of our colleagues,” one of them said to me, as unfailingly polite as always. “Would you like a mango juice?” he asked me, fishing a bottle out of a nearby shop’s freezer. Unlike some macho members of neighbourhood militias, he paid for it.
We stood for a while, chatting about how far less humid the weather had been during the Israeli bombardments than it was now. He answered my questions about his whereabouts during the war with generalities. Some neighbourhood kids teased him for his khaki trousers. “Surt askari? (You’ve become a soldier?)” they asked him.
The first time I began worrying that the situation could rapidly deteriorate was when a dark car pulled up and a young man no older than 18 came out. He opened the back door and invited me to get in. I got an intense flashback to the Lebanese civil war in the eighties and the kidnapping of foreigners, which were partly orchestrated by Hizbullah.
But I sat down with him beside me, leaving the front seat next to the driver empty. That worried me more, because it showed that after all these pleasantries, they still thought I might make a dash for it. Passing through two checkpoints where they presented themselves as belonging to ma’lumat (information) and said a password, we arrived at a secondary school that Hizbullah has taken over.
Passing a number of refugees registering themselves for handouts, we climbed two storeys of rubble-strewn steps and entered a classroom that was bare except for a desk and some chairs. I was invited to take a seat and a stocky man, bearded and with unflinchingly intense eyes, entered.
Introducing himself as Issa, he sat opposite me and asked me my nationality. “Greek,” I answered. “Is that also your origin?” he persisted, the large eyes seemingly boring into my soul. “Yes,” I replied uncomfortably, thanking God that my non-circumcision could ultimately convince where my answers might be found lacking.
But that was it. He told me I was free to go, offered me a Marlboro red and water to drink. But sitting opposite a Hizbullah intelligence agent, I was not about to let go of the opportunity to have a little chat.
“You know, I’m surprised by how polite and professional you have been with me,” I said. “Given that you have a reputation for being terrorists.” A ripple of laughter passed over the five men in the room at the mention of the word terrorist.
“This is the real Islam,” one answered. “To respect the person opposite you.”
I seemed to have won their trust. They let me find my way out of the building without an escort and Issa gave me his mobile number in case I ever needed help. Two hours later, I was in a bar in the trendy Christian neighbourhood of Gemayzeh, Beirut’s answer to Psirri, in a particularly ebullient mood with friends.
“I could be sitting in a dank cell in al-Daahieh awaiting someone higher up to see me in the morning or I could be sitting in Gemayzeh with my friends having a beer” was all I had to say. But my short and painless brush with Hizbullah intelligence had proven once more that, aside from battlefield prowess, the party may also have the political savvy to win the peace.