Feet in both camps (1)

In the July war in Lebanon we could never see the danger coming from the Israeli warplanes or know when they might suddenly strike. It made for apprehension, moments of  terror and lots of black humour.

There was the constant roar overhead day and night. Then there was the constant buzz of the drones. Like malevolent model airplanes controlled by a Damian devil child, you could hear them diving down, the buzz growing louder and louder as if they had to be close enough to attack. But you could never see them. You knew someone in Tel Aviv was watching from the camera aboard. Waiting for a missile to strike could drive you crazy. Or to prayer.

The source of the fear was the Israeli announcement that anything moving on the roads would be considered hostile and a target. We saw they meant what they said. Roads were cut in half by huge bomb craters. One outside Srifa had a truck in the centre, a family’s suitcases still jumbled in the back. Burned wrecks of cars littered the roadside.

I thought it would be safer to follow ambulances who braved the roads to try to reach wounded civilians. That was until two ambulances, one from Tibnin and one from Tyre, were both hit by missiles while their medics were transferring victims from one to another. I saw the ambulances the next day; both had been hit by missiles, dead in the centre of the Red Cross on top of their roofs. Three medics were injured; one of their patients, who had been lightly wounded, lost a leg in the second bombing. There was no doubt the pilot knew what he was hitting; they had their blue lights on, their flags flying, and huge Red Crosses on their roofs. I talked to the three injured medics the next day; they were back on the job.

You can’t cover a war from your hotel room. In any war, both sides lie and you have to go out on those roads to find out what the Israelis were bombing, who were the victims, and what Hezbollah was doing. We all put big tape “TV” signs on top of our cars – we were very envious of someone who had brought special tape from Baghdad that was supposed to reflect on radar at night – but it seemed a protection more psychological than real. A young Lebanese journalist was killed when her car was hit from the air.

I decided to go south to Tyre, the southern Mediterranean port, and stay in the old quarter on the harbour. I found a small family hotel in the Christian quarter which I thought would be a relatively safe because there was no Hezbollah presence. TV journalists set up in a resort on the beach because they needed to do live shots in open air and the quarter is cramped and crowded with narrow streets laid long before cars existed.

The walk from the hotel to the only restaurant open for food became increasingly comical. The fishermen were banned from going out by the Israeli naval warships off the coast and so drank all day at a bar on the waterside, their eyes on their painted boats. By nightfall, they were completely drunk and would shout increasingly rude greetings. One of them beat up the Sun reporter. I don’t know why.

The dangers were both real and imagined. I was in one of the first three cars to drive down to Tyre. Journalists had been bottled up in Beirut since the opening salvo of the war that destroyed the Beirut airport and bridges across Lebanon. We decided to go south because that was where the fighting was. Three cars seemed safer. Surely the Israelis in the sky would see it was a journalist convoy? We had no information, but the story was in the south.

The road was packed with refugee cars streaming north to Beirut. We were the only car going the other way. Then the roads were completely empty for an hour. It was unnerving. We could hear the planes overhead. In Nabatiyeh, there was real worry; we met a crew from al-Manar, the Hezbollah station, in full gear; helmets and flak jackets. They said Nabitiyeh had just been bombed, there was a huge unexploded bomb just ahead, and they weren’t going further south. Hezbollah is not going further south? I thought. There was one of those journalist conclaves where there is a lot of talk, no decisions, and we decided it was way too dangerous to be standing on a road, in a convoy of three cars, no decision having been made, we continued south anyway. A good friend in my car, Hassan al-Fitah of the New York Times, mumbled prayers from the Koran the entire way, turning once in a while to joke, “Import-Export,” meaning let’s go into some safe profession.

There were many moments of black humour as we made our forays from the hotel to the villages that were being bombed. The extraordinary Hassan provided comic relief. Every night after a near death experience on the road, he would vow that was the last time, he had a wife and a newborn, and he was not taking any risks. And every day he would go out again. Once I looked out the window of my hotel at the sound of a blast and saw geysers erupting from the sea about 30 yards from the hotel. I ran to say we were under attack. On closer inspection, it was fishermen dynamiting for that night’s meal.

I kept losing drivers and translators. The two who came down from Beirut with me, Adnan the translator and Hussein the driver, burst into the room at 6am and said the Israelis had ordered everyone south of the Litani out. They were leaving; we had to leave or die. It was very dramatic, but if the Israelis were invading, it was my duty as a journalist to report. Didn’t they care? Absolutely not. They left.

The New York Times and I hired another driver, Imad, who turned into an amazing King Rat figure. Imad drove us once, but then decided it was too dangerous. He took over the cooking at the hotel, he reorganized the accounts and helped the manager

Raymond sortet out who was living in what room, thus keeping him sane and the hotel open, and got into black market fuel, which meant we had petrol for our cars. Imad did everything but what we were paying him for: to drive. Could some of the Israeli jets flying overhead have been using scare tactics rather than really trying to kill? It’s possible.

On a drive to Tibnin, where I had heard refugees were streaming into the hospital from outlying villages under siege, warplanes dive-bombed the car. They came so low we jumped out and took refuge under the verandas of buildings, scant refuge it must be said because we’d seen what their bombs could do to buildings. Then they left. We got to Tibnin, and they started shelling the slope that led down from the hospital, setting fields on fire.

There was a reason for journalists to be there. We were not taking risks for bylines. When the Israelis announced they had taken Bint Jubail, I drove there. There was another mad moment; I was driving with an American radio reporter who had served in the military. She got out of the car and waved her sunhat at what appeared to be a drone descending on us. We couldn’t see it. Did he see us or just go away? Who knows.

Getting to Bint Jubail, we could say the Israelis had not captured it. There was clearly a gun battle and they had pulverized the main street from the air. We dragged several old women and an old man from the rubble. That was all that was left.

When Qana was hit, we arrived within hours. Israel had not hit a Hezbollah headquarters as they claimed. Instead they had hit a large family house. Civilians had been sheltering in the basement. We watched them being carried out of the cellar – fat women in their nightclothes, little kids with dirt in their mouths. That’s what we were there for.