Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Radar slip

Having now safely returned home, my mind can't fail but turn back to Lebanon. I miss Beirut. Depressingly, the Israeli assault on Lebanon appears to be dropping off the news radar here in the UK. The Guardian is admirably keeping up its 3-4 daily coverage, but The Independent has only devoted one page on each of the last two days to the crisis - while soft news stories and fashion features remain a staple.

My impression is that the British media have had a high time indulging in the evacuation of UK nationals, and now the party is over, it's time to return to endless clucking over the personality of Tony Blair. While it could be argued that the mere presence of foreign nationals in Lebanon has brought the excesses of the Israeli military to attention in the first instance, that counts for nought if a sustained focus is not maintained once those foreigners have left Lebanon.

What is encouraging, however, is the willingness for ordinary people in the UK to make a difference. I spoke at a Stop the War coalition meeting yesterday, and the diversity of the audience suggested that while the mainstream media may let Lebanon slip away, there is a real hunger for information on Lebanon's current plight. Members of the audience were, crucially, keen to ask questions and get greater insight on the historical background, rather than automatically swallow the line that Hizbullah 'started' the current crisis.

On another note, there is a great article on the Middle East Research and Information Project. Written by Jim Quilty, a Beirut based journalist, it is a worthwhile reminder of who the Israelis are really targeting - Lebanon's Shi'ite population. You can read the article here.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The US' impeccable customer relationship with Israel... surprise

My apologies for not updating my blog over the last two days - I am still extremely tired. I'm trying my best to catch up on sleep, while also visiting all my friends and family, who lent their support to me during my time in Beirut.

The New York Times has reported on Israel's purchase of weapons and munitions from the US, ahead of the Lebanon strikes. It makes for fascinating reading, and gives pointers as to the tardy US diplomatic response to the crisis in Lebanon.

You can find the article here

Next - an important event for those of you who are in Cardiff. I urge you to come along to Riverside Community Centre on Tuesday 25th July to show your support for Lebanon. The meeting is being organised by Stop the War Coalition and will feature a speech by Zahera Harb, a Lebanese academic and journalist. This is a fantastic opportunity to get information from someone with considerable knowledge of Lebanon and its political landscape. Please make the effort and come along. Doors at 7pm!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Slight Pause

My apologies, everyone - I did not update this blog yesterday as I was being evacuated. I have sent an evacuation blog to BBC Radio 4's Today programme team. I've only just got home, and literally haven't had the time to write separate blog entries for the same experience.

You can see my Radio 4 blog on:

A brand new blog entry, this time UK based, will be up very soon. Thanks to everyone who has sent messages of support - it's very much appreciated.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ferry watching

I’m exhausted! More shells hit Southern Beirut at around 1.30am this morning. The force with which they hit is pretty staggering. With each strike, I can feel my chest shake – a strange thought considering they’re landing a couple of miles away. I’m sad to say I’m getting used to the hotel shudder.

The Daily Star photo gallery gets more graphic as the death toll in Southern Lebanon mounts up. Images of the destitute, the injured and the dead. Some of the burns sustained by Lebanese civilians are horrific.

Many Lebanese with dual nationality are being evacuated. I was picked up by a driver this morning and taken to the BBC’s Beirut bureau, after I had received a phone call last night asking me to talk to the Today programme. It turned out to be a busy morning – Radio 4 was the first channel I spoke to, followed by other radio interviews and two TV interviews.

I joined the BBC’s Ian Panell at Beirut’s port, where we witnessed one of the first large scale evacuations. Panell and his team wanted to shoot an evacuation feature for BBC One o’Clock News, and I was the ‘Brit’. “We’re sorry to bring you here,” said Ian, as the BBC cameraman took shots of the evacuation routine. “Maybe you should have brought your suitcase!”

We stood in the flies and heat as a steady line of Scandinavians formed at the entrance to the ferry. There were only around three hundred people in the queue. Kids buzzed around, and people waited patiently to pass the security check.

Despite the relatively small number of people, the operation was taking an interminably long time. Bags had to be examined, sharp objects were confiscated and passports scrutinised. Curiously, I was asked to be filmed watching people board the ferry. A bit of an odd feeling - so close yet so far! It was only later I realised I forgot to take photos. Fool!

‘So close yet so far’ – this also goes for my role as a journalist at the moment. It’s an immensely frustrating feeling to be in a country where so much is happening, yet be under-resourced to cover it as a professional. I feel like I should see what is happening, but freelance heroics are not an option here.

At present, I don’t dare leave Hamra – my mobile phone is only receiving some of the calls made to it, meaning I spend most of the time in the hotel as I wait for evacuation news. I often see news teams in Hamra, making use of the web café to edit video and send despatches to their editors. I feel jealous and, to be honest, a bit useless.

I feel perversely distanced from events, despite being in Lebanon. Unimaginable things are happening in parts of the country, but in Hamra the web café stays open, Smith’s market has enough Arabic bread on the shelves, and young guys buzz around on scooters. Hamra is a vacuum, an odd little space where time is elastic.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Getting on with it?

As of today, I have spent a straight week in Lebanon. In that week, the country has been set back by several years. Last Tuesday, Beirutis were confident and looking to the future. Now the Lebanese are nervous, seeing their recent sad history replayed before them.

More Israeli strikes took place overnight. Half-a-dozen loud explosions rocked Beirut, further targeting the southern suburbs and the port. Two lorry drivers were killed as the port car park was shelled.

But Hamra is busier today. Most of the shops remain closed, but a few have lifted their shutters, perhaps realising that they cannot stay locked forever. There were more people on Rue Hamra, and considerably more cars. Life goes on, to the whirring of the generators. The generators are perhaps the one positive legacy from the civil war at this moment – despite the power stations being knocked out, the lights stay on.

While the practicalities of life are possible in Hamra - an area that has not been directly targeted by the strikes - people here have relatives and friends in the southern suburbs. They are trying their best, but one can see that the emotional weight is heavy.

Some of the residents here are leaving. A yellow VW Camper van was being loaded with suitcases, holdalls and plastic shopping bags of personal effects as I walked through Hamra this morning. It’s not only foreign nationals that are anxious to escape.

I went to Royal Jordanian’s office this morning to get advice on my return flight this Thursday. The office was, unsurprisingly, closed. When I called Royal Jordanian’s offices they said they would put me up in a hotel for the night if I got to Amman one day before my flight.

However, getting to Amman is impossible. The airline understandably has no contingency plan in place for such unusual circumstances. A taxi ride to Amman would involve a circuitous route through northern Syria, as the main road to Damascus has been shelled. It’s too much of a risk.

So, all I can do is wait for the UK evacuation. I have heard nothing from the embassy thus far. The waiting is difficult, particularly when I think of how much of a burden it’s placing on family and friends at home.

It’s also an odd feeling to have the hotel staff show such concern at a time when they are the ones most at risk. “The French are taking people back! Go to their embassy, demand you be sent home. It’s dangerous here. You must go!” said the man at the check-in desk. “When’s your flight home? Go to Tripoli, and then across to Syria!” To get such advice while the Lebanese sit it out is pretty overwhelming at times.

Meanwhile, the images of Lebanon’s destruction mount up. It’s turning out to be one grisly photo album. When Israel’s army stated that Lebanon’s clock would be “turned back 20 years”, they weren’t joking. The Daily Star, Lebanon’s English language paper, today reports that Israel has used internationally banned weapons in its airstrikes in the south, such as cluster and phosphorous bombs. It’s not out of the question - such shells have been used by Israel before in Lebanon.

It’s certain that Hizbullah will continue to retaliate, hurling rockets into Israel and killing the innocent. Meaning there will be reciprocal bombings from Israel, more injuries, more deaths, and the widening of a humanitarian crisis. It’s difficult to think of a way out.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Siniora, Tightrope Walker

It’s been a slow day here, punctuated by odd salvos of rocket fire in the distance. Some louder than others, succeeding in keeping the people on Hamra on edge. The rhythm of normal life has been totally disrupted.

After waking to a surprise phone call from a good friend, I’ve spent the day in my hotel, waiting for a call from the British Embassy. Evacuation information is thin on the ground. CNN reports that a US evacuation advisory team has landed in Beirut, and that some US nationals have been evacuated (for example, those with serious medical conditions). Things could begin to move in the next 48 hours.

I received a phone call from Salam, brother of my dissertation supervisor, Zahera. He offered to get me to Syria if necessary. It’s an amazing offer, but at this stage I will not even consider accepting it – the road to Syria is extremely dangerous, and I don’t wish to expose Salam to any danger on my behalf.

This morning, eight civilians were killed in Haifa by Hizbullah rockets. Israel responded by hitting more targets in Lebanon, predominantly south Lebanon and the Dahiyeh in Beirut. The tit-for-tat strikes show no sign of abating, and only serve to escalate the crisis further.

Israel has advised Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to mobilise the Lebanese Army, in order to forcibly disarm Hizbullah in the south of Lebanon. Easier said than done. Hizbullah has popular support, particularly in the south of Lebanon, and the Lebanese Army is ill-resourced to commit to such operations against the effective Hizbullah militia.

Siniora is in a very tough position. If the army is despatched to deal with Hizbullah militia, he will effectively target the political wing of Hizbullah – and by extension that party’s constituents, who are overwhelmingly Shi’ite. The Shi’ites of southern Lebanon have endured the most torment from Israel in recent history, and state military operations against the resistance will not be greeted kindly by the Shi’ite population.

Yet if Siniora does not exert at least some control over Hizbullah, it could be a sign to other sectarian communities (such as Lebanon’s Maronite Christians) that the government has given carte-blanche for Hizbullah to engage Israel unilaterally. This is a disastrous notion for those ranged against the Party of God, and will undermine their confidence in the government.

Such differences need to be negotiated with care and precision by Siniora. Any mistake could derail the Lebanese national dialogue and re-open the country’s sectarian divisions. The civil war in Lebanon only ended 16 years ago, and now the government faces a test of its mettle to prevent internal strife of that magnitude arising again.

It is at this precise point that Israel must cease its punitive strikes against Lebanese infrastructure. Hitting power stations, airports and roads only heaps more pressure on Siniora – pressure he surely does not need right now. He needs space and international support.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

More 'Wrath'

With little else to do than sit in my hotel and wait for a call from the embassy, I thought I’d organise my thoughts on all of this. It beats zoning out to MTV and CNN. Apologies in advance if my writing is a bit slack at times – I’m typing this quickly!

There is real trepidation here, no doubt. Every so often, I step onto my balcony and look down on Rue Hamra. This area, as I’ve said before, is a tourist haven. It’s lined with shops and fast food outlets, and is not far from the picture-postcard scenery of the Corniche.

That's changed. The streets are virtually empty. People in Hamra are taking no chances. They are wisely staying indoors, with only the TV news channels for company. Hamra was no stranger to the bullet during the civil war, and with Israel indulging in punitive strikes against civilian infrastructure, residents are erring very much on the side of caution. They know the drill.

Around two hours ago, four loud explosions thundered up from south Beirut. That was followed by the shelling of a lighthouse not far from here. Despite the Lebanese familiarity with airstrikes, everyone looks worried. Hizbullah’s vow to engage in open warfare is, however, galvanising some civilians here.

Israeli shells hit a minibus in the very south of Lebanon today, close to the UN base in Naqoura. At least 15 civilians have been killed. It will be interesting to see Israel says when confronted with the facts of the massacre they have perpetrated there.

Such operations are not without precedent. In 1996, Israel’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ operation targeted a UN base in the town of Qana, which was sheltering Lebanese refugees. Proximity shells – which explode above the ground in order to rip people to shreds through shrapnel – were used. Over a hundred innocent civilians were killed.

Israel argued that Hizbullah had stationed missiles close to the UN centre. The UN charged that the Israelis deliberately targeted the base, which drew the Israeli response that they had simply made an unfotunate error in their targeting. Only later did an amateur video recording show that an unmanned Israeli drone flew over the area shortly before the strike – suggesting that the Israelis knew for certain that civilians were there.

I use this example to illustrate that, when Israel talks of ‘unfortunate’ civilian casualties, the real fact is that innocents in Lebanon are a price worth paying to them. Look at the infrastructure they are destroying. Look at the power terminals they have targeted. Look at the air and sea ports, reduced to rubble.

And look at the roads. The airstrikes have succeeded in making escape from Lebanese hotspots impossible. When I went to Haret Hreik on Tuesday, the first thing that struck me was how densely populated it was. An area that is being targeted by Israeli warplanes has had its evacuation routes destroyed. Civilians cannot leave easily. It’s a turkey shoot. If the rate of hits on essential infrastructure continues, a humanitarian crisis is certain.

Let it be said - Hizbullah was reckless and inflammatory in its capture of Israeli soldiers. Many Lebanese feel this. With Hamas already holding an Israeli soldier, surely Hizbullah knew what to expect. Yet even by Israel’s standards in Gaza, their current strikes on the Cedar state are unprecendented. It is a blitzkrieg operation against the Lebanese people.

Such strikes surely aim to undermine Lebanon’s shaky government as well as target Hizbullah. Arguments, recriminations and backbiting have been a sad feature on the Lebanese political scene since Syria left Lebanon in April 2005. The March 14 parliamentary bloc – of which Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Hariri’s son Saad and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt are committed members – are just some of the political actors ranged against the pro-Syrian President of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud.

In an attempt to hammer out a stable future beneficial to all Lebanese, a national dialogue has been rumbling on for the last few months now. It aimed to take Lebanon forward after the death of Hariri. Sadly, it has achieved little. Each dialogue meeting ends only in a promise to respect mutual concerns. Nothing else happens. Politicians in Lebanon have appealed to Hizbullah to disarm, or dissolve its armed wing into the Lebanese army, but the impotence of politicians in Lebanon means such bids are proving futile.

It must be remembered that Hizbullah is a legitimate party in Lebanon, democratically elected, with seats in the parliament. Other politicians cannot merely demand that Hizbullah disarm. The accommodation of all elected parties wishes in Lebanon is part of the landscape here. Therein lies the challenge in taking Lebanon forward as a unified state.

So what are Hizbullah’s true demands? The release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails for one. Another is the exit of Israeli troops from the Shebaa Farms region – a little area of land on the north Israel border. Shebaa has not been covered by CNN, the only English language broadcaster I currently have access to here, yet it is of crucial importance in understanding why Hizbullah still holds arms.

The Shebaa is seen by Lebanon and Syria as Lebanese land, while the UN and Israel view it as Syrian. For Israel, it sees Shebaa’s occupation as necessary security against Syria. Yet those living on the land – predominantly farmers – agree the land is Lebanese.

With Hizbullah viewing the land as Lebanese, it gives them a political mandate for keeping its arms. Such analysis is absent on news networks – instead the popular networks' presentation becomes one of who ‘started’ it, like a scrap in the playground.

Meanwhile, the ones who did not start anything over the last week – the Lebanese public and Israeli public – cower. Caught between an inflammatory action by Hizbullah and the state terrorism of Israel, they will continue to lock their doors.

In for the long haul

That was the Corniche last night after the Dahiyeh (southern suburbs of Beirut) were bombed. I didn't have the time to add the picture in last night's post as the web cafe shut down after we heard gunfire. Even shots of celebration are testing the nerve of people in Hamra.

This morning, Rue Hamra is reasonably busy, although 95% of the shops are closed. After the Israelis hit the power stations, it would seem that generators are keeping the lights on and the air-con whirring.

The mood here appears to be one of stoic resignation. Hamra residents are out in the sunshine, trying to maintain a sense of normality. Yet with the shops closed, this normality is but a thin veneer. Shelves at the grocery stores are being emptied as people stock up on gas, tinned food and batteries. The expectation is of a protracted conflict.

Overnight was calm. I slept right through until 8am this morning. In fact, the noise in the hotel was the biggest problem, with doors being slammed continuously!

With nothing else to do in Hamra, all I can do is sit tight and wait for the British Embassy to contact me in the event of an evacuation. I'm aware that I'm in a lucky position here. The Lebanese don't have the same options open to them. Israel has bombed most of the arterial roads in Lebanon. In essence, they are slicing the country into pieces. It's not an exaggeration to say that the entire state of Lebanon (and not just Hizbullah) is under siege.

The Daily Star, Lebanon's english language paper, has a double page spread of the devastation. It's not pretty. The Star normally accompanies a copy of the International Herald Tribune. Yet this morning, the Star was only being sold on its own - a boxout just under the masthead reads: "The International Herald Tribune will not be distributed with The Daily Star today as it contains material that violates Lebanese law." I'm not sure what the violation is, but it surely pertains to the Herald Tribune's editorial stance on the current crisis.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Empty Corniche

It just keeps changing here. With all the shops in Hamra closed, I wandered around until I found a place to eat. I headed back to the hotel and tried to read, but gave up in favour of a walk along the Corniche. I wanted to gauge the Beirutis’ mood.

I managed to cross the Corniche road to the edge of the coast with ease – a sign of how quiet it was. Quite a contrast to Tuesday night, when I walked with Salam. That evening, we negotiated roller skaters, moped riders, kids on bikes, joggers, nargileh smokers and couples arm-in-arm.

Tonight it was subdued. Only a hundred or so people were scattered along the full length of the Corniche. Most looked melancholy and thoughtful. I took a few photos and ambled around.

Then came a loud explosion. This sounded close. Everyone stopped and looked towards Beirut. Mobile phones were pressed to ears, with everyone looking tense.

I was tense. A guy resting on the metal rail saw my dawdling. “You’re worried!” he laughed. “You never heard bombs before? You’re lucky.” We had a brief talk about Wales, after I told him where I was from. His friend came back, looking preoccupied. The friend mentioned the name of the district that had been hit, but I didn’t catch it.

Saying goodbye, I turned around and looked along the Corniche. A place bustling with life two days ago was now virtually empty.

I headed along the coast path back to the hotel. There was no traffic. One more large explosion punched the evening air as I strode back, trying to enjoy the sunset at the same time.

I’m now back at the hotel. It turns out that Haret Hreik has been hit once again. This time the Hizbullah HQ has been flattened. But Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has come out fighting. In a statement just released, Nasrallah pledged to take war to Haifa and beyond.

Immediately afterward, shots and cheers of celebration could be heard close to my hotel. With that, I had a text message from my dissertation tutor Zahera, advising me not to leave my room.

I’ve had messages from home, saying the UK is planning to get 4000 nationals out of Lebanon, while my Norwegian friend Jon Martin messaged to say that Norway is planning evacuation of its nationals. All I can do is keep my head down, like most Beirutis. There’s no room for heroics at the moment – I’m not resourced for news hunting. This was meant to be a pleasant research trip!

The next 24 hours are going to be critical – especially as a rocket has just hit an Israeli ship off the coast of Lebanon.

Right, back to the hotel... I was just about to add a picture when gunfire rang out. The net cafe is closing. I'm going where it's safe!


The music started at 3.30 this morning. Having only got three hours sleep, I turned over in bed, grumbling at the noise outside.

I could hear jets flying overhead in the distance, which set me on edge. Then, at 4.38am, a dull thump stung the night air. Israel had surely hit the southern suburbs of Beirut again, in a bid to hit Hizbullah positions. Never mind that the suburbs are also densely populated civilian areas.

At 4.50am a second, much louder, explosion rang out. I couldn’t sleep. I lay there for an hour or so, wondering if I should turn on CNN to hear the grisly latest. I decided not to, and thankfully fell asleep to the whirring of the air-con.

Waking again at about 8am, I turned on the TV with trepidation. The latest? More strikes on southern Beirut’s suburbs, more strikes on Beirut International Airport, and - most crucially – the destruction of the Beirut-Damascus highway. The ports of Saida, Tyre and Tripoli have also been hit.

Having only access to CNN, I was nonetheless surprised that the bombing of the highway was not analysed in real detail. It’s the main route out of Lebanon for those seeking refuge from the bombing, or foreign nationals hoping to transfer out of Lebanon following the destruction of the airport.

In short, Israel is locking the Lebanese in. If this doesn’t constitute an act of terrorism, I don’t know what terrorism is. The Israelis see this as a strategic necessity, when in effect it condemns Lebanese civilians to devastating air attacks.

Over and above all this, Israel is hitting power stations and fuel reserves. Israel is deliberately aiming to set Lebanon’s infrastructure back to civil war levels.

Unsurprisingly, my morning interview with Ziad Abs of the Free Patriotic Movement fell through. So it was off to the British Embassy. On hailing a beeping service cab outside my hotel, the Palestinian driver immediately offered his hand.

“You from Germany?” he asked. “Wales,” I said. “Ah, beautiful country. I’m Nabil. You?”

“Andy,” I replied. The cab wound its wound along the Corniche and onto the flyovers of the Beirut Central District, talking about the latest events. “You shouldn’t leave. It’s fine here. We are used to it.”

I asked him about the Beirut-Damascus highway. Surely Lebanon was locked up now? “Ach, there are plenty of ways into Syria. You can go north of Tripoli and cross over there. From north Syria, you can get down to Syria International Airport in around an hour.”

Nabil abruptly stopped the car just after the Corniche. “You want some coffee?” he asked. Before I had a chance to respond, he wound down his window and yelled at a boy standing in the doorway of a café at the side of the road. An espresso was passed to me.

“Lebanon – there is everything here. Every colour of person, every religion. Every temperature and season. Dust next to grass. Some women look like they come from Paris. Some look like they are in Mecca. Politics of all kinds. But we are all Lebanese.” He honked his ageing Mercedes’ horn at a woman on the side of the road. “She is beautiful. I beep.” The beep-ee didn’t look too impressed.

He looked over his shoulder as I mixed my coffee. “Right, we go on to the Embassy now.”

Nabil was born in Lebanon, but had Palestinian parents who had settled in Lebanon after the Israelis took Palestine in 1948. “You know that?” he asked. “Yes – nakba,” I replied. ‘Nakba’ is the Palestinian term for the events of 1948 – ‘the disaster’. “Yes! That’s it!” he yelled, shaking my hand again.

I eventually got dropped outside the Embassy, where Nabil took a vastly inflated fare. Let’s just say it cost me one-twentieth of his fare to get back to Hamra after registering at the Embassy! But he was a good storyteller, and a bit of a character.

Stopping off for a falafel, I came back to the hotel. Hamra is very quiet, with most of the shops closed. CNN is still showing footage of last night’s attacks, some of which is sourced from al-Manar, Hizbullah’s TV channel.

Suffice it to say that I’m not going into a full political analysis here. But one particular story on CNN made me laugh out loud. A Beirut-based CNN correspondent said at 1pm: “I understand that a deal was struck a short time ago, which allowed five Middle East Airlines passenger flights to leave Beirut International Airport after the runways were repaired.”

Then the killer line. “The Israelis then bombed the runway again after those MEA planes took off.”

You have to laugh, or you’d go mad.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Temperature Rising

The situation in Lebanon changes hourly. Except, oddly, in Hamra. It’s pretty steady here. The streets are much quieter, though.

Since this morning, I have bustled around Hamra, trying to find out what to do in order to get a flight home. This is as much for my family’s sake as mine. Its rather dispiriting to get so many messages of concern – I feel pretty guilty for subjecting everyone to it.

It’s likely that I’ll have to stay here until 20th July, the date of my return ticket. In any case, if I tried to make it over the border to Jordan on my own, it could get very messy. And there are no guaranteed flights out of Amman.

My airline has told me that if Beirut airport is out of action come the 20th, they will ferry me to Amman for my scheduled connecting flight to Heathrow. All I can do now is make the most of North Beirut – the safest place to be.

Yet at the same time, it’s important not to lose sight of what is really happening. At least 45 civilians have been killed in south Lebanon, as Israel pushes up the temperature.

The European Union has castigated Israel’s excessive use of force, yet this appears to count for little when the US swings its support behind Israel’s prosecution. Bush has already referred to Israel being threatened by ‘terrorists’ – a thinly disguised reference to Hizbullah.

Let’s get some perspective here. Around 1500 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners are being held in Israeli jails. Many have been detained for over 25 years without trial. Yet the capture of two Israeli soldiers – and hence military targets - has given Israel an excuse to launch a ferocious attack on Lebanese infrastructure and civilians – a campaign unprecedented since Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000.

There is no rhyme or reason to Israel’s tactic. All that counts is rhetoric. Israel called the Hizbullah kidnap an “act of war” – before launching punitive strikes against the sovereign state of Lebanon. Hizbullah is not the only force in Lebanese politics – far from it. There are a wide range of anti-Syrian political forces in the country who are arraigned against Hizbullah’s wider program, if only covertly.

Thus, for Israel to declare the Hizbullah operation as one that had the consent of all Lebanese political parties is nonsense. This is particularly apposite when one considers the fact that 18 religious sects are in Lebanon. Not everyone is a Shi’ite – and of those Shi’ites, not all support the Hizbullah action.

Far be it from me to declare myself an expert on the latest happenings – I’m essentially confined to comfortable Hamra at present, with only CNN available for updates (which is bloody awful).

So, other minutiae of the day… I went to interview Diana Mulkalled of Future TV. I arrived at Café du Paris at 4pm. And waited. You know what’s coming next.

“Andy, I’m really sorry. With everything that’s happening, I can’t leave the office.” She was very friendly and apologetic. I offered to email questions to her, so she could answer them in her own time. She agreed, and suggested I call her tomorrow to see if she could fit me in for a while on Saturday. Despite the goings-on, it was good of her to offer that. She was genuinely apologetic.

I have an interview tomorrow with Ziad Abs of the secular Free Patriotic Movement. I’m not expecting that to go ahead, so this time I’ll check for availability before I leave the hotel! After that, I’m going down to the British embassy for advice. My folks called my travel insurer earlier to see if they would cover a quick flight back.

As if! “Sorry, we can’t cover a flight back in the event of famine, war, pestilence, nuclear disaster, volcanic eruptions, banana skins, traffic jams, hailstorms, or other such events,” they said. Or something like that, anyway. Should have guessed, really.

Ok, let’s finish with frivolous stuff, eh? I went to Pigeon Rock. It took a while to walk there, following the coastal road as taxis and buses thundered past. Just when I thought I was going to faint due to the heat, BAM! There it was...

I couldn't resist doing the touristy stuff around Pigeon Rock. So I got a passerby to take a photo of me by the Rock. Apologies for the terrible shirt, by the way.

I sat in a café carved into the cliff, with Pigeon Rock right in front of me. The waiter brought four bottles of beer in an ice bucket, and while I was tempted to down the lot to escape the worries of the day, I’m glad I stuck at two. I had to walk uphill to get back to my hotel, and the dehydration was a killer!

Getting nearer

Amazing how things can change overnight. Dozing off to CNN last night, Israel’s incursion into Lebanon was confined to the very south of the country. The UK Foreign Office website advised visitors not to go south of Tyre, a town about 50 miles south of Beirut. The capital seemed ok.

This morning, the TV was telling quite a different story. Beirut International Airport has been shelled by Israeli jets, with all three runways ‘severely damaged.’ There are no fights into, or out of, Lebanon. Israeli troops have massed on the southern border, and a naval blockade has been imposed. The southern suburbs of Beirut have also been targeted.

Al-Manar, the Hizbullah TV news channel where I was stood only two days earlier, has been hit, although not badly enough to be taken off-air. Given the tightly woven layout of Haret Hreik, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Lebanese Shi’ite civilians were caught in the attack.

Consequently, I’ve had several text messages from worried friends and family. It’s tricky to know what to say in response. I’ve contacted the British Embassy (no response yet), and I’m just about to walk down to Royal Jordanian’s offices to see what options are available. I’m not expecting much in terms of results.

I think the best I can hope for is for the runways to be quickly repaired (which, given Lebanon’s talent for reconstruction, should not take too long). I honestly can’t see myself leaving Lebanon before my scheduled flight. But obviously I’m trying my best to get out. I was arrogant enough to assume yesterday that the Israelis would not ramp up their aggression too much. The airport bombing changes a lot.

Consequently, research interviews are proving very difficult to get, what with everything else going on. Ibrahim Moussawi, an editor at al-Manar TV who I have tried to interview, is at this moment talking on CNN. My little interview is small beans in the scheme of things.

Rather than stew in my hotel room, I caught a cab down to Gemayzieh, a street not far from Martyr’s Square. I had an interview scheduled with Nicholas Blanford, a journalist of considerable renown. After sitting in a French café for 15 minutes, I called him. Apologies followed. “Andy, I’m really sorry… I totally forgot. So much is happening here. I hope you understand.”

I did. I’m in no position to make demands of anybody here. So, at the moment all I can do is sit it out in the touristy (ie most Westernised) parts of Beirut. All will be fine, I’m sure. Compared to the villagers in the south of Lebanon, my experience is a cakewalk.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bombs, martyrs and beers

At 9am this morning, I called Robert Fisk to schedule an interview (as yesterday fell through, again). A pretty curt “Listen, I can’t do it now, call me later” was barked down the line, and he hung up. I had nothing else doing, so went back to sleep, feeling slightly put out.

On waking again at 10.30am, I checked my mobile. It was then I found out that Hizbullah had captured two Israeli soldiers in border skirmishes. Israel had started bombing areas of southern Lebanon. Fisk undoubtedly had bigger fish to fry than my interview.

On returning to my hotel last night, I had heard gunshots. I remember thinking it was pretty odd, but having no previous frame of reference for ‘normal’ behaviour in Beirut, I wasn’t sure of how to assess it. Yet the following morning, Anthony Mills reported to CNN that ‘shots of celebration’ were fired in Beirut’s southern suburbs. That would explain it.

Only yesterday I had submitted an interview request to Hizbullah in Haret Hreik (see previous post). This request looks considerably more shaky after today’s events. I’m not expecting to get a positive response back from them. One area of Haret Hreik already has security protection - Hizbullah’s Secretary-General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah lives there, and is subject to targeted assassination attempts by Israeli agents. With today developments, the entire area of Haret Hreik may have a ring of steel around it.

The Israelis, for their part, are combative. They are keen to stress that they hold Beirut responsible for what is effectively a unilateral decision made by Hizbullah (who have seats in parliament, but are by no means the leading force in Lebanese politics).

Quick phone calls to family followed. This is probably the toughest bit to do – I can understand why my parents worry, but all I can do is reassure them that all’s ok. Obviously they are worried about my contacts with Hizbullah. I must wait and see what response I get back first from Hizbullah, and then play it from there. I will be extremely surprised if my application is accepted.

I tripped up to as-Safir newspaper offices to interview the managing director, Sateh Noureddine. That also fell through. A journalism student’s magnum opus counts for little when so much else is happening in Lebanon! I arranged another meeting for next week, and headed off in the direction of Beirut’s Central District, where most of the post-war redevelopment has taken place.

And how it has been done! One can still see bombed out ruins, and Ottoman period buildings scarred with bullet holes, but then you’ll turn a corner and be knocked out by the biggest buildings you’ve ever seen. Built up to the stratosphere, just because the Lebanese can do it. Quite a contrast to the bombed-out Holiday Inn (below).

This is Lebanon proudly reclaiming its status as the Paris of the Middle East, a place where business deals can be cut, and Armani suits worn with braggadocio. I’ve never seen a Lamborghini being driven down a street before – but I saw one in the Central District. Money lines the street here.

And the guy behind it all? Rafiq Hariri, Sunni billionaire and twice Lebanon's Prime Minister – killed on 14th February 2005 in a massive bomb blast on the Corniche. Hariri’s face stares beatifically from billboards, posters and windows. One large display had a giant LCD counter, reading ‘514’ – the number of days since he was martyred.

‘Martyred’ being the operative word. I caught a taxi down to Martyr’s Square, and was advised by the driver, a greasy haired rocker: “Don’t talk politics here! 2000 Lebanese pounds. You're welcome.” Ok, then.

Martyr’s Square, on first glance, is underwhelming. A huge car park, with the beautiful bullet-ridden Martyr's statue standing rather apologetically to the side. Yet looking up, you get knocked off your feet by the new mosque, built by Hariri and completed only a few weeks before his death. Now it’s his resting place.

A tarpaulin covered memorial sits next to the mosque. Pictures of Hariri line the walls. In every one he is smiling. I refrained from getting photos here – it would have been distasteful, but suffice to say that the memorial serves as an uncomfortable reminder of how fragile Lebanon is. On the right hand side of the memorial tent are a series of photos of the intifdat-al-istiqlal - the Lebanese independence protests in Martyr's Square that followed Hariri's assassination. Up to a million people filled the square to demand an end to Syria's overlordship of Lebanon. I looked around the tent again. A steady stream of tourists and Lebanese families crept over the astroturfed floor, looking thoughtfully at each picture of Hariri, some crying.

Catching a service taxi back to Hamra, I was called into the hotel manager’s office. I thought I’d done something wrong. Instead I was told that my internet booking had ripped me off, and that if I stayed again at the Napoli I should contact them direct, for a much cheaper price. With that, the manager instructed the guy at the front desk to bring me a beer. This beer was followed by another. Not bad!

We chatted about the day’s events, but tried not to get too political. Families in the south will manage fine, he said. “It’s not unusual for them. But things could get much worse here over the next few weeks, It is a worry. But we are used to it. The main problem is that this all happens during the busy tourist season. We have about 60-90 days to make our money. That’s all going to be lost if things get worse. No-one will go near Lebanon.”

A lot more stands to be lost in the south if Israel decides to ramp up its aggression. The next few days are critical.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

You're Welcome

After getting up reasonably early and conducting a roach hunt (none, thankfully), I caught a cab to Haret Hreik, one of Beirut’s southern suburbs. The plan was to make it to Hizbullah’s information centre and to meet the party’s media director, Hussein Rahal. I had been told that I would need to apply for an interview.

The journey to the centre showed the differences in Beirut's appearance. Virtually every apartment block appears to be in a different state of repair (or disrepair, I should say). Some are brand new. Some are refurbished. Most are pockmarked by artillery fire. And a fair few are skeletal remnants, standing proud from a bed of rubble. The Corniche seafront road took me past several luxury hotels before I wound up in dusty, claustrophobic Haret Hreik.

The first job was to find al-Manar TV, Hizbullah’s television channel. Hussein had told me the Hizbullah information office was nearby. The guy at the al-Manar desk gave me directions to the information centre, but after 10 minutes of searching, I was no nearer to finding it. I blundered into a supermarket, and bought a Coke to cool down. I was getting flustered at being so lost, and the blaring car horns didn't help my mood. After calling Hussein again, he eventually sent someone out to find me. I could imagine him saying to his assistant: “There’s a confused Brit in a green T-shirt waiting outside al-Manar. He should brush up on his Arabic.”

Even when I was rescued, I was confused by the amount of twists and turns we made to get to the press office. On my own, I would never have found it. The information centre was inside a dilapidated office block. Up to the second floor, and through some double doors – where everything looked much shinier. I was ushered into a waiting room, where bearded Imams looked down from the wall.

A kind looking woman walked in, and handed me an application form to fill out over a cup of coffee. She took a photocopy of my passport, and I submitted my questions. I should hear back from them in a couple of days, all being well.

Finding my way back was easier. I finally got a taxi after three attempts - this one was a ‘servicee’. These cabs carry up to four passengers, usually all going to different destinations along the same route. A pretty good way to observe Beirutis, and only 5000 Lebanese pounds to get back to my base - a quarter of what it cost to get to Haret Hraik. Forget private taxi runs in future! “Rue Hamra where?” said the driver as we sped along the Corniche. “Hotel Napoli, please.” He looked confused. Think, Andy… what’s on Rue Hamra? “Starbucks?” I asked.

“Ah, Starbucks, yes! No problem. You’re welcome.” Beirutis like making people feel welcome. Now I’m just typing this up over another coffee. I’ve just called Robert Fisk again, and it’s likely that the interview will go ahead this afternoon, either at his favourite restaurant Spaghetteria, or his house. Fingers crossed.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Settling In

After a marathon one-hour search for something to clean the bathroom, I traipsed back to the hotel. Just before falling asleep, I called Robert Fisk, who agreed to do an interview, and to call him back later to discuss a fixed time.

I then called Hizbullah, and immediately got tangled up when he gave the meeting place name. Not being well versed in Arabic, I was completely caught out. But after texting Zahera I appear to have it all sorted. I'm sure the taxi driver will know where it is.

Called Nicholas Blanford, another journalist. He writes for the Christian Science Monitor. Friendly guy - he agreed to be interviewed, and asked if I could meet him in a cafe in Gemayzieh, a suburb of Beirut.

After a brief sleep, I hunched under a dribbling shower before noticing a dead cockroach on the floor. Great. Haven't spotted any more, after a fingertip search. In fairness to the hotel, I reckon it must have got in from outside. I'm making the room sound terrible - it's not that bad, really. The bed linen is clean and the air con works - the two main things.

Decided to do the touristy thing and take a walk along the Corniche. It took me a while to wander down to it, but it was worth it. Really amazing - cars bombing up and down coastal road, and what most of Beirut wandering along the seafront, cooling down by the Med. It's all a bit incongruous - turn to your left, and you catch the sight of bombed out buildings next to a Hard Rock Cafe and McDonalds. On the right, the Med stretching out like a yawn.

I nearly got run over about eight times by kids on skates and bikes, but I didn't care. I decided to call it a night after walking about half the length of the Corniche - the Pigeon Rocks can wait until another day.

Tomorrow then, it's an early start at the Hizbullah media offices (if I get the right address!). I might wander down to Martyr's Square after that. All day I have seen posters of Rafiq Hariri, the assassinated former Sunni Prime Minister who rebuilt swathes of Beirut after the war and earned the nickname 'Mr Lebanon'. I'm expecting that I'll see considerably more posters of him at the Square, where he is buried.


Well, after a pleasant air journey (not too much turbulence, thankfully), I’ve finally wound up in Beirut. Yet I very nearly did not get out of Heathrow, after briefly losing my passport. When I was on the phone to my friend Katie, I must have dropped it. Luckily, the eagle-eyed staff at the American Express foreign exchange shop spotted it on the floor, and waved it at me when I retraced my steps.
Following an hour or so at Amman (not the most comfortable airport), my second plane hit the runway at Beirut at 8am. An interminably long wait at the visa desk followed before I met Salam, brother of my dissertation tutor, Zahera. He hailed a rickety brown Mercedes with a window sticker featuring the Ayatollah Khomeini, and we took off for the hotel.

The first thing that hit me about Beirut was the heat. Damn, it’s hot. You know when you get in a black car with leather seats on the hottest day of the year? It was like that, but even more intense and humid. And at this point it was only 8.30am. The second immediate observation was the Lebanese way of driving – it’s terrifying. The taxi ride was like being trapped in a demolition derby, albeit one you pay to experience.

Back to the Hotel Napoli then, where I was escorted to a room on the sixth floor. My first impression was to take a bottle of bleach to the bathroom. In fact, that’s my mission so far – clean the shower before I use it. So I’m typing this in a coffee shop on Hamra Main Street, before I look in earnest for Lebanon’s answer to Cilit Bang. I must stand out a mile – three people have asked where I’m from, and they nod sagely when I say Wales. They’re thinking “He can’t take the heat. He’s an amateur. Wait until it hits 3 o’clock this afternoon… he’ll catch the next plane home.”

After the bathroom mission, I’ll get a few hours sleep. I’m meeting Salam at six, so after a snooze I’ll start ringing my interview contacts to hammer out dates and times. Hopefully, everyone will remember who I am…

Thursday, July 06, 2006


Ok - this is my second attempt at a blog. I'm pretty sure that most bloggers have a few abortive online diaries - here's hoping I can make this one stick.

I'm due to visit Beirut in a few days, to collect interview material for a dissertation I'm writing on the Syrian-Lebanese relationship. Bearing in mind that I've never been much of a traveller, it should be a great experience (if slightly worrisome).

At the moment, I'm frantically finalising interviews, writing questions for those interviewees, and buying lightweight hippy clothes in anticipation of the sweltering heat of Lebanon.

On my return, I have a month or so before I move to Doha as a journalist at al-Jazeera. Hotter, and even more worrisome. In short, this blog will focus on my own personal experiences and musings as I trot my merry way around the Middle East. Hope it's interesting, at least to some of you...