Robert Fisk: A gripping diary of one week in the life and death of Beirut
A gripping diary of one week in the life and death of Beirut
By Robert Fisk
07/23/06 "The Independent" -- --
It is the first time I have actually seen a missile in this war. They fly too fast - or you are too busy trying to run away to look for them - but this morning, Abed and I actually see one pierce the smoke above us. "Habibi (my friend)!" he cries, and I start screaming "Turn the car round, turn it round" and we drive away for our lives from the southern suburbs. As we turn the corner there is a shattering explosion and a mountain of grey smoke blossoming from the road we have just left. What happened to the men and women we saw running for their lives from that Israeli rocket? We do not know. In air raids, all you see is the few square yards around you. You get out and you survive and that is enough.
I go home to my apartment on the Corniche and find that the electricity is cut. Soon, no doubt, the water will be cut. But I sit on my balcony and reflect that I am not crammed into a filthy hotel in Kandahar or Basra but living in my own home and waking each morning in my own bed. Power cuts and fear and the lack of petrol now that Israel is bombing gas stations mean that the canyon of traffic which honks and roars outside my home until two in the morning has gone. When I wake in the night, I hear the birds and the wash of the Mediterranean and the gentle brushing of palm leaves.
I went to buy groceries this evening. There is no more milk but plenty of water and bread and cheese and fish. When Abed pulls up to let me out of the car, the man in the 4x4 behind us puts his hand permanently on the horn, and when I get out of Abed's car, he mouths the words "Kess uchtak" at me. "Fuck your sister." It is the first time I have been cursed in this war. The Lebanese do not normally swear at foreigners. They are a polite people. I hold my hand out, palm down and twist it palm upwards in the Lebanese manner, meaning "what's the problem?". But he drives away. Anyway, I don't have a sister.
The phones are still working and my mobile chirrups like a budgerigar. Too many of the calls are from friends who want to know if they should flee Beirut or flee Lebanon or from Lebanese who are outside Lebanon and want to know if they should return. I can hear the bombs rumbling across Hizbollah's area of the southern suburbs but I cannot answer these questions. If I advise friends to stay and they are killed, I am responsible. If I tell them to leave and they are killed in their cars, I am responsible. If I tell them to come back and they die, I am responsible. So I tell them how dangerous Lebanon has become and tell them it is their decision. But I feel great sorrow for them. Many have been refugees four times in 24 years. Today I am called by a Lebanese woman with Lebanese and Iranian citizenship and one child with a US passport and another with only a Lebanese passport. Her situation is hopeless. I suggest she travels to the Christian mountains around Faraya and try to find a chalet. It will be safe there. I hope.
I come back from Kfar Chim where part of an Israeli missile or an aircraft wing has just partially decapitated the driver of a car. He looked so tragic, his head lolling forward in the driver's seat, just looking at all the blood splashing down his body on to the floor. Abed was getting spooked because I spent too long at the scene. The Israelis always come back. "Habibi, you took too long. Never stay that long again!" He is right. The Israelis did come back and bombed the Lebanese army.
Now my housemaid Fidele is spooked. She thinks it is too dangerous to travel from the Christian district of Beirut to my home since the Israelis blew the top off the local lighthouse 400 metres from my front door. Fidele is from Togo and makes fantastic pizzas (I recommend her Pizza Togolaisi to anyone) so I send Abed off to pick up her up and bring her to my home for one hour. She puts my dirty clothes in the washing machine, and after five minutes the power goes off and we have to take them all out and try again tomorrow.
At 3.45am, I wake to the sound of tank tracks and a big military motor heaving away in the darkness. I go downstairs to find that the Lebanese army has positioned an American-made armoured personnel carrier in the car park opposite my home. It has been placed strategically under some palm trees, as if this will stop Israeli aircraft from spotting it. I don't like this at all and nor does my landlord, Mustafa, who lives downstairs. The Lebanese army is now an occasional target for the Israelis and this little behemoth looks like a palm tree disguised as a tank. Later in the morning, I call a general in the army who is a friend of mine and army operations calls me back to check the location. It takes an hour before they find the car park on their maps. Then I receive another call telling me that the APC is next to my home to prevent the Hizbollah from using the car park to launch another missile at an Israeli ship. The empty American Community School is just up my road. The Lebanese army is defending us.
The first French warship arrives to pick up French citizens fleeing Lebanon. It steams proudly past my balcony. Many French naval vessels are named after great military leaders, and this particular anti-submarine frigate is called the Jean-de-Vienne. I pad off to consult my little library of French history books. Jean de Vienne, it turns out, was a 14th-century French admiral who raided the Sussex town of Rye and the Isle of Wight and who was killed - oh lordy, lordy - fighting in the Crusades against the Muslim Turks. A suitable ship to start France's evacuation of the ancient Crusader port of Beirut.
Now that the Israelis are destroying whole apartment blocks in the Shia southern suburbs - there is a permanent umbrella of smoke over the seafront, stretching far out into the Mediterranean - tens of thousands of Shia Muslims have come to seek sanctuary in the undamaged part of Beirut, in the parks and schools and beside the sea. They walk back and forth outside my home, the women in chadors, their bearded husbands and brothers silently looking at the sea, their children playing happily around the palm trees. They speak to me with anger about Israel but choose not to discuss the depth of cynicism of the Shia Hizbollah who provoked Israel's brutality by capturing two of its soldiers. As well as the Hizbollah, the Israelis are now targeting food factories and trucks and buses - not to mention 46 bridges - and the bin men are now reluctant to pick up the rubbish skips each night for fear their innocent rubbish truck is mistaken for a missile launcher. So no rubbish collection this morning.
The local Beirut papers are filled with photographs that would never be seen in the pages of a British paper: of decapitated babies and women with no legs or arms or of old men in bits. Israel's air raids are promiscuous and - when you see the results as we now do with our own eyes - obscene. No doubt Hizbollah's equally innocent civilian victims in Israel look like this but the slaughter in Lebanon is on an infinitely more terrible scale. The Lebanese look at these pictures and see them on television - as does the rest of the Arab world - and I wonder how many of them are provoked to think of another 9/11 or 7/7 or whatever the next date will be.
What does war do to people? Later, I am talking to an Austrian journalist and idly ask what her father does. "He drinks," she says. Why? "Because his father was killed at Stalingrad."
I walk across with tea for the soldiers on the APC in the car park. They are all from Baalbek, Shia Muslims. They would never open fire on a Hizbollah missile crew. Then I return home from another visit to the southern suburbs and find they have gone, along with their behemoth. The first good news of the day.
The minister of finance holds a press conference to talk of the billions of dollars of damage being done to Lebanon by Israel's air raids. "We have had pledges of aid from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar," he proudly announces. "And from Syria and Iran?" the man from Irish radio asks, naming Hizbollah's two principal supporters in the Muslim world. "Nothing," the minister replies dismissively.
A bad day for messages. Phone calls from the States to tell me I am an anti-Semite for criticising Israel. Here we go again. To call decent folk anti-Semites is soon going to make anti-Semitism respectable, I tell the callers before asking them to tell the Israeli air force to stop killing civilians. Then a fax from a Jewish friend in California to tell me that a man called Lee Kaplan - "a columnist for the Israel National News", whatever that is - has condemned me in print for developing a "high-paid speaking career among anti-Semites". Unlike Benjamin Netanyahu and many others I can think of, I never take money for lecturing - ever - but to smear the thousands of ordinary Americans who listen to me as anti-Semites is outrageous.
Another fax from the editor of the forthcoming paperback edition of my book, apologising for bothering me at a "very difficult (sic) time" but promising to send me page proofs by DHL which is still operating to Beirut. I go downtown to check this with DHL. Yes, the man says, parcels for Lebanon are sent to Jordan and then in a truck via Damascus to Beirut. A truck, I say to myself. Ouch.
The Israelis have just bombed Khiam prison. An interesting target since this was the jail in which Israel's former proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, used to torture male prisoners by attaching electrodes to their penises and female prisoners by electrocuting their breasts. When the Israeli army retreated in 2000, the Hizbollah turned the prison into a museum. Now the evidence of the SLA's cruelty has been erased. Another "terrorist" target.
The power comes back at home at 11pm and I watch Israel's consul general, Arye Mekel, telling the BBC that Israel is "doing the Lebanese a favour" by bombing Hizbollah, insisting that "most Lebanese appreciate what we are doing". So now I understand. The Lebanese must thank the Israelis for destroying their lives and infrastructure. They must be grateful for all the air strikes and the dead children. It's as if the Hizbollah claimed that Israelis should be grateful to them for attacking Zionism. How far can self-delusion reach?
I have coffee in my landlord's garden and he climbs an old wooden ladder into his fig tree and brings me a plate of fruit. "Every day it gives us our figs," he tells me. "We sit under our tree in the afternoon and with the breeze off the sea, it is like air conditioning." I look at his little paradise of pot plants and sip my Arabic coffee from a little blue mug. We watch the warships sliding into Beirut port. "What will happen when all the foreigners have gone?" he asks. That's what we are all asking. We shall find out this week.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited