A month of living dangerously in south Lebanon
Thinking he would stay just a few days, our reporter rented a car and headed south of the Litani River.
"I need the biggest car you have left – I'll need it for two days, three days at most," I told the rental agency.
All they had was a $150-a-day, leather-upholstered BMW 318i – not the best vehicle for traveling around a war zone. But at least the ride would be comfortable.
It was July 17, the fifth day of the Israeli-Hizbullah war, when I joined a four-vehicle convoy of journalists. Our plan was to reach Nabatieh, a market town in south Lebanon a few miles north of the Litani River. The bridges over the Litani had been destroyed, effectively sealing off much of south Lebanon and preventing us from reaching the port town of Tyre.
But a Lebanese reporter claimed to know of a way across that would take us to Tyre. With no other traffic on the roads and the ominous rumble of Israeli jets overhead, we followed his car down the steep flanks of the Litani Valley to reach a recently built earthen causeway. Minutes later we were in Tyre, the first foreign reporters to arrive since the war began.
I came down unprepared for a long stay. But Israel and Hizbullah had been anticipating this showdown since Israel withdrew from its occupation zone in south Lebanon in May 2000. Having covered the conflict for more than 10 years, it was possible to see the makings of a tragedy as both sides postured and needled each other for six tense years. I often drove through the border district, noting telling changes in the landscape as Hizbullah secretly built up a complex military infrastructure of tunnels, bunkers, and ammunition dumps. Mutual fears of Hizbullah's rocket arsenal and of Israel's military might created a "balance of terror" – one perilously vulnerable to miscalculation.
That came July 12, when Hizbullah fighters burst through the border fence and abducted two Israeli soldiers.
I saw the news flash and put a call in to Hizbullah's foreign press spokesman. "Are you guys up to something?" I asked, expecting a denial.
Instead, for the first time, Hizbullah confirmed involvement in a military operation outside the Shebaa Farms, a remote Israeli-occupied area along Lebanon's southeast border.
"Hussein, have you kidnapped an Israeli soldier?" I asked. Confirmation came a half-hour later. Two soldiers had been snatched and dragged into Lebanon.
Most of the reporters who flooded into Lebanon to cover the war were veterans of Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, Kosovo. But the risks facing reporters in south Lebanon were quite different. We rarely saw actual combatants. Our chief threat was either being targeted by missile-firing drones, helicopters, or jets, or becoming caught up in an artillery bombardment. An AFP photographer was killed by Israeli shellfire in Siddiqine as we passed through. Our cars were covered in bold "TV" stickers and we wore flak jackets and helmets, despite sweltering heat.
UN peacekeepers took to describing the limestone hills and swooping valleys of south Lebanon as a free-fire zone. Vehicles packed with fleeing civilians were attacked by Israeli jets and drones. Cluster bombs were fired into villages. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch told me that he had been in many war zones, "but this is one of the most dangerous I have ever seen."
After the first few days, we cautiously began heading out of Tyre in convoys, initially following Red Cross ambulances that we hoped would offer some protection. But at least four ambulances were attacked by missiles fired from drones or jets during the war, wounding several workers.
Though I knew the area well, the geography of the south with which I had grown familiar had changed. The gaping bomb craters that rendered roads impassable forced us to take meandering detours. Every few hundred yards, we would arrive at another scene of destruction – the tires of our vehicles crunching hesitantly over a carpet of shattered glass and fragments of concrete as we passed flattened houses.
Burnt vehicles littered the roads, some having slammed into phone poles. Others had been struck by missiles. Two weeks into the conflict, the car rental agency called. "Mr. Nicholas, I am just calling to see if it you are OK." I could picture their unease, though they didn't ask about their car.
As the war unfolded, the days turned into a collage of frantic and tense action. There was the déjà vu of racing along the winding road southeast of Tyre to investigate reports of a massacre at Qana. Ten years earlier, I had followed the same route to witness an earlier massacre. More than 100 civilians were killed when Israel shelled a UN base in 1996, making Qana, for Lebanese, forever synonymous with violent mass death. It had been my first experience of large-scale carnage, and it seemed inconceivable that Qana had been struck again.
Yet we watched as the dusty bodies of children were extracted from a half-collapsed house struck hours earlier by aerial bombs. The fatalities in this new tragedy did not compare to the earlier one – 27 dead – but they seemed to symbolize the grim cycle of invasion and resistance, retribution, and forgiveness that has mired south Lebanon for more than three decades.
Home base during the conflict for most photographers and my fellow print journalists was the Al-Fanar Hotel, a small traditional building in the Christian quarter on the tip of Tyre's promontory. In the afternoons, I could write and watch through the porthole-style window as the sun sank below the Mediterranean. Listening to the sea lap against the toppled ancient stone columns on the beach below, it was easy to forget briefly that a war raged nearby.
The Al-Fanar was being run by Raymond, the somewhat disgruntled father of the proprietor, who had fled. He sat at a table each day writing receipts, counting money, and handing out bills at "wartime" rates. With Tyre under siege, black-market gasoline ran $100 for 5 gallons.
Now and then, the hotel would reverberate to an underwater explosion as children blew up a batch of fish with a hand grenade. We would eat their catch in the evening. The town's fishermen, unable to put out to sea, idled each day at quay-side cafes.
For reporters at work in the upstairs dining room, there was a strong sense of camaraderie, work pressures and danger eroding the normally competitive nature of the job. Some careened off into the hinterland, making perilous journeys far from Tyre that sometimes, as one American ruefully put it after such a trip, "make a great dinner story but not a newspaper story."
On Aug. 7, the Israelis slapped a curfew on all traffic south of the Litani. Jets bombed the causeway we had crossed three weeks earlier and destroyed a makeshift alternative of steel girders and rocks. The airstrikes effectively grounded the press crowd in Tyre.
On Aug. 14, a shaky cease-fire took hold as the UN finally reached a deal on a resolution. In border villages like Aitta Shaab, Hizbullah fighters emerged from the rubble, hugging, perhaps scarcely believing they had defended against the mightiest force in the Middle East. But victory had come at a price. More than 1,000 Lebanese died and damage is estimated at about $6 billion. The heady optimism expressed in last year's "independence uprising," when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest Syrian domination, seems further away than ever.
When I arrived here 12 years ago, Beirut was just embarking upon a multibillion dollar post-civil war reconstruction. But this war destroyed in days what it had taken more than a decade to build.
Two days after the cease-fire, I left Tyre, crossing the newly rebuilt causeway at 2 a.m. In a few hours, I would be reunited with my family. And my dusty but unscathed BMW, with an extra 923 miles on it, would be reunited with its very relieved owners.