Friday, 23 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: The City of Saida

After waiting for five days for our MOD paperwork to visit the south of the country, we finally get a call from Col. Debian at 1pm, while we’re already on our way to Beit Eddin having given up on the paperwork for today, announcing it’s ready. We race back to the hulking housing estate that is the Hazmiyyah military compound, sign our permission paper in front of the colonel, quickly pack our things in the Beirut hotel and head south.

On the drive, we pass the beaches of Jieh and Ramliyah, with resort names like Pangea, Hawaii and Bondi Beach in a strip of coast just south of Beirut. Last summer, thoss resorts should have hosted tourists from around Lebanon and the surrounding countries, but that tourist season was hastily cancelled, and this year, the oil spill threatened to kill off another season. All the bridges in this area, every single bridge leaving Beirut, has been bombed. Sometimes, you just see a massive hole through the bridge, other times, the bridge is completely gone. Some bridges have temporary bridges over them that slow traffic to a one-lane crawl, others are still under construction forcing us on completely unexpected detours, often down into the gully beside the bridge and up steeply on the other side. “It’s disgusting” Federico mumbles to himself, seeing the extent of the destruction. We follow a blue sign on the highway which simply says, in Arabic only, The South.

Our destination, for now, is the military intelligence building in Saida we’ve heard so much about. The city itself is grim. Grey, dark, largely industrial, it’s depressing and almost lifeless. At the first checkpoint we arrive at, no one seems interested in our paperwork (the paperwork we just waited five days for) We’re given directions to the intelligence building, though the soldier seems confused as to why we want to go there, assuring us “You don’t need any more paperwork…”

The military intelligence building here is no better than the sprawling complex of Hazmiyyah. It’s slightly more run down, but otherwise the same rules apply. No one seems the least bit interested in us, as far as I’m concerned I could just drive on without the permission and no one would even notice. Most surprisingly (or perhaps least surprisingly) they don’t even have a photocopy machine here. This is, I repeat, the building in which is coordinated MILITARY INTELLIGENCE for the ENTIRE SOUTHERN HALF OF LEBANON. That is, the half that borders on Israel. The country with which Lebanon has been in a state of war for the past 60 years. No photocopy machine.

The clerk inside is watching Top Gun on tv, and tells us that we can’t get our permission number (it’s not even a physical piece of paper) until we’re actually heading further south than Tyre.
“We’re going south tomorrow.”
“oh, you’re going to have to call tomorrow.” Apparently, they don’t think more than 24 hours ahead in this building.
“I’m still not convinced there’s any intelligence there,” Federico comments later.

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