Under fire in Beirut

In his second weekly dispatch from the front line, our veteran war reporter confesses he was so scared after one attack that he could not put pen to paper

By Robert Fisk

07/30/06 "The Independent" -- -- 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 Hizbollah 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 Qaraaoun. A bright, wonderful day of sun and fluffy clouds, and then the scream of high-flying jets. We watch the skies again. I'm becoming an expert on light and cumulus clouds.

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 a tree 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 burst.

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. The 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 feminine.

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 heaven.

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.

2006 Independent News and Media Limited

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