Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Ain Alaq

I had a dream last night. A strange dream, of the kind I often have, in which I’m watching or somehow involved in a movie, unfolding in front of me where I’m half audience and half participant. This time, it was a futuristic thriller in which a chosen group of people could shift matter and time in order to prevent crimes from happening. They could walk through walls, change their own shape, and step out of real time into a sustained time and look at the 3 dimensional world from the side, as if looking at thousands of paper-thin walls from the side.

I wake up to the sound of a text message from Gareth in Doha, telling me to be careful there in Beirut, because it seemed the second anniversary of Hariri’s assassination could be a flashpoint for more violence. Slightly confused, I send a reply that everything is fine, dress quickly and go downstairs to check the news online. On the stairs, I innocently attempted a chirpy “good morning” to the hotel staff, but they look back at me straight-faced, asking if I’ve heard about the explosions. I haven’t heard about the explosions. I check the news online, my heart racing with anxious energy, half-confusion and half impatience, and read that two buses exploded on the road into Beirut on their way through the mountain village of Ain Alaq.

I rush upstairs to wake up Federico and turn on the television in the room, looking for a news channel. For a few agonising minutes, he doesn’t believe me when I explain news of the bombings. I am the boy who cried wolf - since we arrived in Beirut, every morning, I’ve invented a joke news headline to make light of the situation. The first morning, I read aloud that Israeli troops had entered Beirut (not true). The next morning, I declared Prime Minister Siniora had been assassinated (also not true). This morning, Federico laughs, and as I flick through the channels, finding only unrelated news and the broadcast of a horse shows, it almost seems like maybe I was joking. Maybe I was still bending space and time in my dream…

At the site of the bombing, rain beats down in cold sheets. The buses are lined up in the middle of the street, one torn in half around 200 meters from the police cordon, and another with its roof blown off and insides mangled. The roof sits by the side of the road ten metres away. In the valley below the street, soldiers search for evidence amongst the pieces of twisted metal strewn amongst the forests that surround these small mountain roads. Various news stations take turns filming their live broadcasts from prime positions in front of the destroyed bus. Estimates roll in about the number killed – we first hear twelve, then six, and finally three. “Only three” I find myself saying, unaware at first of the cruelty of the sentence.

The scene is strangely sterile. There is no ash covering the street, no blood pooling around the bus - the rain seems to have washed everything away, leaving a white skeleton, brittle and bare as though picked clean by scavenging birds. Soldiers mill around the buses casually, mobile phones chirping, journalists pushing each other out of the way to get the best shot. I see BBC’s Kim Ghattas rehearsing her lines. As I film the wreckage and the surrounding soldiers, I hear through my headphones the surreal repetitions of her script:
“Amidst the continuing violence…amidst the continuing violence…On this day before the anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri…the day before the planned demonstration marking the anniversary of former Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination…amidst rising sectarian tensions…in an atmosphere of rising tensions…”

It’s an unnerving feeling, knowing that these scenes are crucial to the documentary – and to the future of Lebanon - but despising the coldness needed to document them accurately. The press hordes always make me uncomfortable. I try to convince myself we’re all performing an important duty, but it doesn’t always work. Scenes make “good visuals,” interviews make “good copy.” All the while, I’m trying to hold Federico’s waterproof jacket over the camera which, by now, is soaking wet. The sound of rain lashing against the jacket and the street is loud in my headphones.

Occasionally, I catch journalists and – at one point even the deputy mayor of the town – smiling and laughing. At first it seems wrong, but it’s enough to let everyone else know that perhaps it’s alright to laugh (maybe it’s a nervous laughter, or maybe no one can think of a more appropriate reaction)

Before long, the full meaning of the bombings becomes clear. Being in the hills above Beirut, and an attack on a public bus, it seems somehow isolated, far from the usual political assassinations in the centre of Beirut. But it soon becomes clear this is, in fact, worse that the usual political assassinations. The attack takes sectarian violence to a new level of brutality, sending a message (to whom and from whom is still not clear) that things will not go smoothly. That tomorrow’s march -intended to unite the country in grief – will not succeed.

After around an hour, Federico and I are wondering around the scene slightly lost. There seems to be little to be done here, aside from filming the scene and recording our initial reactions. There is very little that can be said that isn’t clear from the stark images of the incinerated buses. We don’t need any voiceover or careful thoughts to camera. We don’t need interviews with local politicians and by-standers and villagers. We walk into a café less than 50 metres from the blast site, but find an old woman, presumably the owner, close to tears while an English-speaking waiter furnishes journalists with his own grim description of the explosions and his opinions on who might be responsible.

Deciding to return to the centre of town, we hitch a ride with Fady, a local television stringer. Fady seems to believe the bombings are an attempt to drag Lebanon into an Iraqi-style cycle of random sectarian killings. He explains there’s a feeling amongst local journalists that the bombings may be linked to the minister of defence Elias Murr – the last we heard of him he was refusing to hand a truck load of seized weapons back to Hezbullah three days ago. All his colleagues share the same opinion, he explains, but he’s careful to point out that there’s no way to be sure. To illustrate, he draws with his fingers a diagram of the truth (a circle in the centre) and everyone’s attempts to get to it (a series of rays emanating from the circle, trying to go straight there, but somehow helplessly dancing around it)

I send a text to my family informing them, as is always the case when I find myself in situations like these, “In case you’re watching the news, I’m fine.” My sister writes back “I get the feeling it won’t be the last ‘I’m fine’ text you’ll have to send.”

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