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Robert Fisk : Under fire

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  • Robert Fisk : Under fire

    Under fire
    The Independent - United Kingdom; Jul 30, 2006
    Robert Fisk IN BEIRUT
    Sunday 23 July

    To Sidon. Ed Cody has found a cool, 120-mile-an-hour driver called
    Hassan - he has a black Mercedes which I nickname "Death Car" (because
    that will be the fate of anyone who gets in our way) and we zip down
    the coast road and turn east into the hills at Naameh, where the
    Israelis have just blown the bridge.

    Thirty years ago, Cody was an Associated Press correspondent in Beirut
    and taught me how to cover wars. "Get in the car, drive to the battle
    and find out what the arseholes are doing," he used to say. Cody is
    from Oregon, a slim, brilliant, highly subversive journalist who is
    now Beijing correspondent for the Washington Post. A great guy to
    travel with, eyes sharp for F-16s, brave without being a poseur,
    fluent in Arabic, he understands the dirty war we are watching and
    thrives on cynicism.

    "Look," he says, pointing to a blown-up highway interchange. "It's a
    terrorist bridge! And if you take the road to Zahle, you'll find a
    burned out terrorist flour and grain lorry!" If the world became a
    better place, I fear Cody would contemplate suicide.

    Sidon is full of Shia refugees, and I hunt down Ghena Hariri, daughter
    of Sidon's MP and niece of murdered ex-prime minister Rafiq
    Hariri. She is a Georgetown graduate and reckons three more Hiz-bollah
    buildings will be bombed in her city. The Israelis have just bombed a
    Hizbollah mosque. Cody and I mosey over to take a look at the crushed
    cupola, and the local Lebanese "Squad 112" - a kind of paramilitary
    police - arrive to shoo us away.

    We race back to Beirut, joining the coastal highway south of the
    city. It is a bleak, desolate, empty road and we watch the sky,
    detouring round the airport, the air filled with smoke from burning
    oil tanks and the vibration of another massive Israeli bomb on the
    southern suburbs just as we pass.

    Monday 24 July

    To southern Lebanon on a humanitarian convoy. No problems as far as
    Zahle in the Beka'a - though we pass Cody's "terrorist" flour truck, a
    missile hole through the cab door - and then turn south towards Lake
    Qar-aaoun. A bright, wonderful day of sun and fluffy clouds, and then
    the scream of highflying jets.

    We watch the skies again. I'm becoming an expert on light and cumulus

    In the middle of a field of tomatoes, I see a London bus. I turn to
    the driver. "Isn't that a London bus?" I ask, like the man who sees
    the sheep in atree in Monty Python. "Yes, that's a London bus." It
    is. It's a bloody great bright red Routemaster double decker. In the
    Beka'a Valley. In Lebanon. During the war.

    Seventeen miles south and the road is blown up, craters in the middle
    and narrow tracks on the edge for our vehicles to pass. One Israeli
    bomb has blown away most of the road above a 60ft chasm and it reminds
    me of that scene in North West Frontier where Kenneth More has to
    manoeuvre a steam locomotive over a blown-up railway bridge, on which
    the tracks are still connected but there's nothing underneath. More
    turns to Lauren Bacall and says: "Of course, it's one of my hobbies,
    driving trains over broken railway bridges."

    We inch forward along the narrow section of road and the stones spit
    out beneath our wheels. The vehicle starts to lean to the right and I
    lean to the left. So does the driver. Then we are across and turn our
    heads like wolves to see how the second driver copes. North of Khiam,
    I can see fires burning in the forests of northern Israel and smoke
    drifting from Metullah, and hear the thump of shells into
    Lebanon. Great weather. Pity about the war.

    Tuesday 25 July

    I prowl around Marjayoun, the Christian town wedged between two slices
    of Hizbollah territory. This was the headquarters of Israel's brutal
    "South Lebanese Army" proxy militia, and there are still a lot of
    ex-SLA men here, all with Lebanese mobile phones, but a few of them, I
    suspect, with Israeli ones. No shells fall on Marjayoun - not yet - so
    the locals gather at Rashed's Restaurant (yes, there is a restaurant
    open in southern Lebanon, serving kebabs and cold beer) and watch the
    war. You can sit on the ridge and hear tank fire, Katyusha fire, bombs
    from jets and bombs from helicopters. Far across the valley, beside
    the old fort at Khiam, there is a UN post where four unarmed UN
    observers are watching the battle at first hand, reporting each shell

    Wednesday 26 July

    Indian UN soldiers bring what is left of the four observers to the
    run-down hospital in Marjayoun. All day they had been reporting
    Israeli shellfire creeping closer to their clearly marked position. An
    officer in the UN's headquarters at Naqoura phoned the Israelis 10
    times to warn them of their fall of shot, and 10 times he had been
    promised that no more shells would fall close to the Khiam post.

    But the four soldiers did not run away - as the Israelis presumably
    hoped they would - and so yesterday evening an Israeli aircraft flew
    down and fired a missile directly into their UN position, tearing the
    four brave men to pieces and flattening their building. I notice that
    they are brought to the hospital in unwieldy black plastic bags,
    apparently decapitated. One of the Indian soldiers is wearing a
    turban, painted the same pale blue as the UN flag.

    The schools of the region are now crammed with refugees, white flags
    on the roofs. I go to a classroom where 15 Shia families are squatting
    on the floor.

    The lavatories are blocked, the place stinks of urine. "What are you
    doing to us?" a dark-haired man with a heavily lined face asks me
    quietly. How should I reply? Well, my Prime Minister doesn't think
    it's time for a ceasefire just yet, but he promises to give you acres
    of freedom and lots and lots of democracy and a new dawn later
    on. But no truce right now, I'm afraid. In other words, you've had
    it, chum. No. I just remain silent and say "Haram" in Arabic. It
    means shame or pity, depending on the context, which I am happy to
    leave vague.

    Thursday 27 July

    I sit with a French friend on a small hill, looking across southern
    Lebanon at dusk, watching aircraft swooping like eagles on to patches
    of scrub and blasting rocks and trees into the air. To our left,
    Israeli artillery is ranged on to a house this side of Khiam. Te first
    shell bursts in a bubble of flame and there is a double report, then a
    barrage - a pillonage, as my friend calls it in his more powerful
    French - of fire consumes the house and we can see bits of it high in
    the air, then more bubbles and eventually a grey cloud of smoke covers
    the wreckage.

    "My God, I hope there was no one in there," my friend says. We may
    never know. All over southern Lebanon, the dead are sandwiched between
    the floors of bombed houses. We discuss the language of war, and
    discover that most of the French words for battle and death are

    To Nabatea at lunchtime, a few shops bravely open amid the rubble of
    houses on the main road, a market blasted across the fields (a
    terrorist market, I hear Cody's spirit announcing) and then, just by
    Arab Selim, a plane puts a bomb on the bridge in front of our vehicle
    and we beat a hasty retreat from this unpleasant ambuscade and return
    to the sanctuaire of our little house on the hill. Mosquitoes at
    night, a bare mattress on the marble floor, a dirty pillowcase to
    sleep on.

    Friday 28 July

    At 3am, a huge bombardment starts across the valley over Beaufort
    Castle, the massive Crusader keep to the west. Captured by Saladin in
    1190, handed over to the Knights Templar - the neo-conservatives of
    their age - in 1260, besieged on one occasion by a Muslim army which
    asked to negotiate with Beaufort's commander and then tortured him in
    front of its defenders, it looms over us as 46 shells ripple across
    the next-door village of Arnoun.

    My mobile phone rings. An American journalist is walking south of
    Tibnin towards the Hizbollah-Israeli battle at Bint Jbail - a wise
    precaution because all cars are now prey to Israel's eagles - and has
    found two wounded Druze men lying by the road. One of them cannot
    stand. She has no car. Can I help? I am 15 miles away. "Can I tell
    them they will be rescued?" Don't lie to them, I say. Tell them you
    will try to get help. I promise to call the Red Cross.

    I phone Hisham Hassan at the ICRC in Beirut and tell him the precise
    location. Both men are lying by a smashed roadside stall with an
    orange flag in the ground, a kilometre past a road sign which says
    "Welcome to Beit Yahoun" and next to a huge bomb crater. Hisham
    promises to call the Tibnin Red Cross ambulance centre. Ten minutes
    later, I get a text message: "Red Cross on the way." Angels from

    I start my way back to Beirut on another convoy, grinding back over
    the same dangerous roads and past the same bomb craters. There are new
    ones, and a man shouts that we must detour down a dirt track. "Big
    rocket on road," he says, and that's good enough for me. We trail past
    an old, tree-shrouded cemetery.

    Three hours later, we stop for sandwiches in a Christian town, among
    people who traditionally despise Hizbollah. I find that they are all
    watching Hizbollah's station, and when I talk to them, an old man says
    he believes Hizbollah tells the truth.

    Saturday 29 July

    Home. I shower and sleep in my own bed and hear the wash of the
    Mediterranean on the rocks below my window. Fidele has recovered her
    courage and has returned to clean and cook. I receive a call from a
    Turkish journalist to talk about the 1915 Armenian genocide - a lot
    grimmer than this little war - and do an interview with a New Zealand
    television crew who are about to set off for southern Lebanon with
    "TV" written in giant silver letters on the roof of the car. I don't
    think it will help them.

    A call from DHL. Proofs of the paperback edition of my book have
    arrived from London. Someone drove them and DHL's other parcels from
    Amman to Damascus and then - beneath the jets - across the Beka'a to
    Beirut. I get a bill for $30 for the extra risks involved in the
    freight transit. Then go through my notes of the week for this
    diary. I find that my handwriting briefly collapsed after the air
    attack on Thursday. I was so frightened that I could hardly write.

    I sit on the balcony and read Siegfried Sassoon. Cody also reads to
    calm himself in war. But Cody reads Verlaine.