Tuesday, April 19, 2005

How I Got Kidnapped. By Hezbollah.


A Hezbollah dude. A man like this kidnapped me and a friend, for an evening, in the mid 90s. I'm serious. Read on for more details...


As I haven't properly blogged for a few days, and as there is a chance I won't be blogging much over the next week or two (I'm off to the Shetlands to continue my islands odyssey) I thought I'd post a big piece that I've been hanging on to for a while: so as to give you all something to read while I'm away. But first I'd better explain something.

My life, to put it simply, has been totally bizarre and extremely wild. I say this, I confess, with a hint of smugness - I'm glad I've had enough adventures to fill three lifetimes. However this packed life I've enjoyed also gives me some problems. For instance, when people start telling me about their "crazy stories" - How they got pulled over by the French police for speeding, How they once stole a pencil - I try to look interested and stuff, but it's sometimes hard. Cause compared to the usual suburban soap opera, my life is a frigging epic movie. Directed by Ridley Scott. This discrepancy can make it tricky for people to relate to me. Put it another way, when I hear someone recounting their tale, I often hesitate to reply, because what I want to say is, Well, that's fascinating, and you really sprained your ankle in Tescos? Now, do you want me to tell you about the time I was in a knife fight in Marseilles, or the months I lived in a hotel with heroin on room service....

Before you all flame me, I am aware I sound like an arrogant tosser. Sorry about that. I'm just saying it like it is. And while we're on that subject - saying it like it is - the other trouble with my wild life is that sometimes, when I do divulge some of my escapades, it looks like I am just making it up. The stories are just too outlandish. If that's the case, I can only apologise for the surreality of the truth. But it is the truth. The story you are about to read is the total and complete truth of something that happened to me about ten years ago. And if you don't believe me you can go and ask Florian Denk, the other guy in the tale. I'm fairly sure he won't have forgotten.



An Evening With Hezbollah

Sean Thomas



The Lebanon, 1995



I am sitting in one of the noble but dusty bedrooms of the Hotel Palmyra, in Baalbek. Outside the window the warm October sun is going down behind the enormous columns of the great Roman Temple of Jupiter and Venus.

'Fuck.'

Says Florian. He is cleaning his camera lenses, all sanded up from the long tough drive down the Bekaa Valley. I have a painfully crick neck so I can’t be bothered to respond. Instead I look out of the window at the famous Roman temple. It really is big; and gross; almost Stalinistic. Even the shadows of its amazing columns have a numbingly huge quality. No wonder the place, this place, Baalbek, was such a draw all those years ago, before the Lebanese war. Before the country became a religious cockpit and a gruesome bloodfest. Before tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were brutalised, and the centre of Beirut was turned into an Effects of Shrapnel Exhibition.

'Dinner?'

Says Florian, giving up on his complicated, boxy, Hasselblad camera.

'Yeah.' I say.

We rise. Straightening out things, dusting off our jeans, we walk down the grand and creaky wooden stairs of the hotel. Unsure where the restaurant is we poke around the complex ground floor: sticking our heads into different empty rooms; rooms full of stacked chairs, rolled carpets, rooms with an air of sad, self-contained melancholy. Obviously not many tourists come to Baalbek or the Hotel Palmyra any more: not since the war, not since the war which has only recently ended.

As we poke around it occurs to me that these frightened tourists might have a point. Baalbek, is after all the city where the Beirut hostages were kept; where Brian Keenan, Terry Waite and John McCarthy were chained to radiators for three or more years by the guerrillas of Hezbollah. When we were in Beirut this last week some people actually warned us about coming here even now. Jesus! You’re going to Baalbek? Don’t be so fucking stupid!

Setting these thoughts and memories aside I go over to Florian, who has opened the two biggest doors. Florian:

'I guess... this is the restaurant?'

I peer over his shoulder. He’s found an even bigger room than the rest. Vast. With dozens of tables actually in rows, some of the tables also have tablecloths. Even more encouragingly, three of four waiters are wandering around the place; turning the lights on as the sun goes down. Unnervingly, however, there are no other diners. Standing at the great restaurant door, Florian and I shuffle, and cough. The coughs echo. The waiters turn and look at us with that sad, half-angry look you get from the proprietors of a hopelessly failing enterprise. I wonder:

'Do you think they can squeeze us in?'

We go to a table smack-bang in the middle of the cavernous, vaulted, chandeliered room, and we wait. Then the waiters come up to our solitary occupied table and we order some food and then we wait some more. Red wine arrives; good Chateau Musar. Florian and I drink. We chat and de-stress. We talk about our trip. Florian and I are on assignment for the lad’s magazine Maxim in the UK. We are here to cover the New Lebanon, how the country is recovering from the war; how the fleshpots of Beirut are being refleshed, repotted.

So far we’ve done OK. Beirut is, as we journalistically hoped, bouncing back. In fact people are literally dancing in the ruins. In the last week we’ve been to nightclubs on the old Green Line where Muslim and Christian girls disco-dance on the precise spot where their brothers recently shot at each other; we’ve been to other night-clubs in shrapnel-acne’d buildings where they play video footage of the civil war - assassination, explosions, sectarian garottings - while people mill about underneath ordering expensive whiskies with tan, Rolex-watched arms.

'I liked Byblos as well.'

Says Florian, chewing a stale breadstick .Then he laughs a lot. Florian is German, a friend, a good photographer, a onetime war photographer (in Bosnia). I nod, and snap off a bit of Florian’s breadstick - it’s the only breadstick - and also chew. Then I agree with him about Byblos being good. Byblos is a city just north of Beirut which we visited after Beirut. We went to a supposedly famous restaurant called Pepe’s with a wall on which were stuck lots of pictures of Vaclav Havel and a series of increasingly horny Mrs Havels. Pictures of Jacques Chirac too - very faded. Brigitte Bardot. De Gaulle.

After a night in Byblos we got our driver to take us north, to Syracuse. Very Arab, very dusty. Very different from Christian, Maronite Byblos. Then we headed north up over the mountain backbone of central north Lebanon, taking time to look at the famous Cedars of Lebanon. All six of them. During our brief visit to this pathetic copse, our driver told us how the cedars of Lebanon used to stretch from Syria to Israel, a vast scented legendary canopy of a dozen million acres. But then the Romans chopped ‘em all down for saunas.

It seemed somehow symbolic; of what I had no idea. Once over the mountains, we headed south, down the poppied fields of the golden and notorious Bekaa Valley. It was a longish, eerie drive. Past parked Syrian army tanks, past big roadside posters of Ayatollah Khomeini, past a lot of suspiciously rich houses: opium dealers. And now we are in Baalbek, our job basically done; with a couple of days to spare.

'Mouton, Monsieur..'

Says the waiter, plopping a plate of rich brown oily stew on the table. I sit back and inhale deeply: I’m very hungry. Famished. All morning on the road, and all afternoon wandering around the Hezbollah-bullet-peppered columns of the Jupiter Temple, has had an effect. I pick up a fork and knife and..

Blackness. The room goes BLACK. I stare at Florian, where Flo should be. The lights have banged out. It is totally pitch black. Can’t see a thing. What’s happening? Why is it so dark? We hear a shout. Someone shouting outside. Tensed, I scrape my chair back. From being very relaxed I am now suddenly panicked. I’m thinking suddenly of those warnings about Baalbek. My mind is racing away. Is this how it happens? Is this how you are kidnapped by Hezbollah? Was John McCarthy sitting in a Pizza Hut in Beirut and then the lights went out and then some unshaven guys rushed in with ropes and a hood and the next things he woke up chained to the central heating?

I hiss an urgent question at Florian. He starts to answer, but then we hear someone say the words power cut in English. Power cut!? Florian and I whisper - half relieved - wondering if we heard right. Then another waiter shouts something in French about electricite. Florian sighs and I hear him sit down again. I copy him. Then Florian tells me he can’t find his fork in the dark. We start laughing at ourselves. Then we start drinking blindly from nearly spilled wine-glasses. Then the head waiter rushes up with a candle. Light. Again. The real lights are flicking back on.

I am, somewhere deep inside, almost disappointed.



Later we lounge about our hotel bedroom in the lamplight. Bats wheel about the temple across the way. I hear a donkey coughing. Distant carhorns. Muezzin.

Florian is sprawled across the bed half-reading a newspaper. A local newspaper in French. He says:

'The Israelis are bombing the South again..'

With that he tosses the paper across, and goes back to his camera lenses and his camera lens cloth. I pick up the paper: rubbing my crick neck. I know just enough French to glean the meaning of the news-item. The Israelis are still occupying a tranche of south Lebanon, and they have recently been pounding and bombing, from the zone, a suspected Hezbollah stronghold: a town called ‘Machgarah’. The paper says that several Lebanese people have died in the Israeli bombardment in the last couple of days.

I look up. Florian looks up. He can see the expression on my face. He says sharply:

'No.'

'Yes!'

'No, Sean! Nein!'

I am unabashed.

'Come on Flor, come on... we’ve done out bit, we’ve got the job done, what else are we going to do?'

Florian looks at me.

Florian is a proper German war photographer; he’s done war photography in Bosnia in the last couple of years. He knows about war; he’s seen it; he’s got the marvellous, enviable stories. And now, as he’s told me, he doesn’t really want to do it any more. No more war. But... but I still do. A war! A real war! And just a hundred miles away!

Florian has not stopped looking at me. His face is a glaring question. A good question. Why am I like this? I suppose.... I think about it.... I suppose I’ve always had this thing about war. Ever since I was a kid. As a kid I was crazy for war. I used to spend whole mornings as a kid in our family house in Hereford, carefully lining up thousands of toy soldiers on the dining room carpet, then I would use my flattened hand as a Stuka plane to mow down the endless regiments. Then I would kick the whole process off again, re-enact the battles. And when I wasn’t doing that I was reading books about war; or reading magazines about war; or memorising the dates of wars; or making toy tanks to go with my war day-dreams; or being a Phantom jet in the schoolyard; or arguing the merits of the T34 and the Sherman, or watching lots and lots war programmes on TV. From a very early age I even and simply loved the wonderful words that go with war: Kalashnikovs. Firefox. Oerlikon. Stuka Stuka Stuka.

Florian has a slightly more... mature attitude. As he’s recently seen real dead bodies, smelt the hot smell of real spilled intestines, he now has a true and balanced and mature war-weariness. Which I respect. And also envy. I envy Florian this, too. I don’t just envy Florian his experiences of war, I envy - perhaps more - Florian’s ability to be war weary. How I would love to have Florian’s right and ability to look at people and shake his young but battle-scarred head and say - War? I’ll tell you about fucking war.

I want to be able to say stuff like that. I want to be able to sit in sunlit terraces in central Europe sipping expensive Pilsener beer while looking distantly and hauntedly into the middle-distance - making my friends and girl admirers think: look, he’s thinking about the war, better leave him be, don’t you know what he went through?

Right now, across this Baalbek table, Florian can see all this on my face. My envy. My pathetic and juvenile lust to be a cool war journo, as compared to what I actually am at the moment: just a lad mag hack writing about tits and arses in Beirut brothels. Gimme a war! Validate me! Make me cool and tough! Please?

'OK,' Says Florian, reluctantly smiling, 'OK. Let’s do it. Maybe we’ll get a story...'



The next day we get up early, pack our bags, and go down to the city’s main taxi rank. One of the glories about the Lebanon, as we have discovered, is that you can get a taxi anywhere - as the country is so small and cheap. Now we are going to get a taxi to the war. A taxi to a war. I am suppressing a happy and infantile desire to go up to the nearest cab, leap in the back, and say ‘the war, please!’

Florian, laden with camera kit, and I, carrying my normal bags, approach the first taxi driver. He is propped against his battered milky-coffee-coloured Merc in the dusty sunlit plaza outside the hotel. He looks at us quizzically: two white guys, two westerners in this very very unwestern town. He is thickly bearded, oldish, eyes creased by sunlight. We ask him to take us to... Machgarah. He looks back at us. He looks across to his friends in the other cabs. Then he laughs. A laugh of derisory bitterness.

Nobody wants to take us to Machgarah. We move up and down the cab rank doing our best. No dice. One cab driver has enough English to look at us, and wave his cigaretted hand and say ‘No, Machgarah dangerous. No.’ Then he actually speeds off, as if scared.

Finally, after a few sugary teas, and a few dozen dollars, and a good few hours, we find a driver. He is jolly, fun, in his twenties. A lad. We pile in his car with some Lebanese mothers in scarves. Squeezed. The drive is fun: fast and brakeless. Goats, old buses, and more parked Syrian tanks shoot past on either side. After fifty miles in the trafficy Autumn sun we reach a crossroads in a small town. Another square full of beaten-up mercedes taxis. The driver stops. We tap him on the shoulder.

'Is this Machgarah?'

The driver turns around in his driver seat and shakes his head. He points with two fingers up a busy road going right.

'Beirut.'

He says. Then he turns and points to the road heading straight on, the almost trafficless road heading towards some blue distant hills.

'Machgarah.'

And with that we are turfed out of the car. Ordered out, and into the square. Despite our protestations the cab simply reloads with lots more fat Lebanese women, and scoots off in the apparent direction of Beirut. Defeated, Florian and I retreat with our bags to a windswept cafe, where we have more sugary tea alongside men in black and white Druze caps who stare at us in an odd, blank, silent way. Then, refreshed, we start the schlep around the taxi drivers again. This time we are lucky. The first driver says Yes, he’ll do it - for fifty dollars. Fifty dollars for fifty miles? Not a good deal in the Lebanon. Then again we are driving into a war.

Our bags in the boot, we climb in the car. Two Arab guys climb in beside us, one in the back on my left, one in the passenger seat. With a virile wheel spin we head off; as soon as we start we are stopped about a hundred metres down the road. A Syrian solder with a submachine gun slung around his shoulder is leaning into the car, peering in the back: right at Flo and I. The squaddie barks something when he sees us. We don’t understand. Nor does the solider it seems. The soldier is looking very disbelieving; he is barking again. The taxi driver turns and shrugs and says to us: passport.

Florian and I find our passports, and hand them over. The soldier takes them and disappears. Perhaps, I think, we aren’t going to get any further to Machgarah. Perhaps it was just a boyish dream to go to war. Perhaps this is a good thing anyway. Diconsolate, annoyed, subdued, Florian and I wait; as we wait the taxi driver turns on the radio and it blares some discordant, ululating, quarter-toned Arab music. Music so loud it makes the worry beads hanging from the rear-view mirror slightly tremble.

The soldier is back. He leans down to the window and looks at me and Florian again. He shakes his head disbelievingly - then he hands our passports back. He then steps away - and waves us on. Good to go!

It’s a strange drive. At first the driver and his Arab passengers chat affably enough, chatting loudly over the blaring radio. But then the sun starts to go down; the car starts to climb higher into the hills; and a cold breeze whips in through the windows. Now the driver turns the radio off and turns on the headlights - occasionally showing the reflecty eyes of cats skidding off the kerb to escape the car. Black shadows dance by the car. Cold rainy night air surrounds us.

The taxi is totally silent. My ears pop. Florian is fumbling with his small camera in his lap, nervously. The big Arab guy on my left winds the window up to keep out the damp mountain chill. We can hear the car-tyres rumbling and popping over the rocky, half-busted road surface. We drive on. Then the car skids to a halt in some shadowy, half-street-lit village. The two Arab guys get out and pace into the gloom, their flapping jellabiyas somewhat sinister in the dark. The car doors slam shut again. Now it’s just Florian and me and the driver. The driver turns and looks at us, as if to check we want to go on. We nod. He sighs... and wordlessly shrugs, and turns and guns the engine. Onwards.

But not for long. After a mile or two the car does another complicated series of turns.... and then thrusts abruptly into a square surrounded by crumbling concrete buildings with one solitary streetlamp giving off a somehow gloomy light.

'Machgarah.'

Barks the driver. He immediately leaps out of the car. We follow, a bit bemused. The driver yanks opens the boot and helps us to take out our bags; he is hurrying, looking anxious. His eyes dart from side to side and then he gets back in the car; keys the engine; the wheels spin; in a second he is gone too. Florian and I stand there, wondering quite why we came here. What did we expect to find? What do we do...
before we have time to express this, in the dark we head an enormous CRUMP. Like a Roman god’s fist has slammed onto the table of the Lebanon. For a second the ground shakes, actually shakes.

In the gloom, Florian says:

'Shells. That’s shellfire. Incoming...'

I don’t know whether to be delighted or appalled. I am both. So it is really happening! We are really in a warzone; this is really what it is like! I can see in the barely streetlit darkness that Florian’s eyes are now quite white, and wide; I feel, ridiculously, like I should grasp his upper arm and say something reassuring. But then we both hear voices. Doors are opening around us, people are appearing. A garage door lifts. Another huge man has appeared from absolutely nowhere. He is waving something at us. Is it a gun? It’s hard to see in the dark. More hands grab our arms, jostle us. We feel ourselves being pushed by three of four men, they are pushing us down the road. We resist, we go to pick up our bags but more hands slap us away, furious hands. More voices are babbling. Our bags are then snatched and dragged away, into the garage. The garage door cranks shut. What?

I sense another man on my left. A friendlier face. A kind intelligent young Arab face. Speaking very quickly to me.

'Who are you? Who are you? Who you are? They want to know who you are?'

'We... we.. '

I say, too shocked to explain. Florian says, more commandingly:

'We are journalists. From Beirut.'

The larger darker figures are still moving us, they are still brusquely pushing us down the road. As we go we pass a streetlamp. In its light I turn and look: yes the really tall man has a gun. A big gun. He is pointing the gun at us. Quickly we move on into the dark. The friendly Arab:

'They are Hizbollah, they are going to...' He shrugs, 'To question you..'

Then he goes quiet. We are near the end of the dark narrow street. We feel the weird loud whisper of another shell, crashing into a hillside somewher near. Not far away some woman in a house laughs, a mad cackle of a laugh. The friendly Arab grasps my arm again and says:

'Do not worry, they will not shoot you... they.. just want to question you...'

The larger Arabs grab us again, and push us roughly through an open gateway. We step into a courtyard. Rain is coming down. I can hear more gunfire somewhere. Then I realise I really am now being taken prisoner. Then the ground shakes VERY VIOLENTLY as another shell impacts: much closer. At once we are shoved through a bright doorway and into a bright room. The door slaps shut behind us.

There are Turkish carpets and chairs. Some cushioned benches. A few Koran-y books on shelves. A picture of a bearded imam on the wall. Otherwise it is bare and white. We are angrily gestured to sit on a bench. The huge Hezbollah guerrilla with the gun looks at us, and then sits in a chair opposite. I notice for some reason that he looks sad, yet still aggressive. He has cold hard eyes; he is slumped in the chair, staring at us wearily, dully, malevolently.

I am pretty fucking scared now. The adrenaline is really pumping. On my right Florian is pale. The huge Hezbollah guy beckons the friendly Arab over and whispers to him. The man turns and attempts a smile. He says to us, thickly:

'They think maybe you are agents. They think you are come here to kill them...?'

I stare at Florian, who stares at me. I am uncomprehending. Then it hits; I remember: a news report a few weeks ago. Two Israeli agents were caught masquerading as Canadian tourists - so as to assassinate a Hezbollah agent in Jordan.

So that’s it! They think we are Israelis! My stomach gurgles. As it gurgles, my stooped mind churns it all: what the Hezbollah are thinking. Presumably... they can’t believe we are this stupid, just this stupid, that I am as stupid as this: just to wander into a warzone in a what-the-hell way. And so they think we are agents, MOSSAD agents.

I sit up. Appalled. Because. Because... if they do think we are Israelis then.. why shouldn’t they just kill us straight away? Why take the risk? Why not just take us out, shoot us in the temple, dump the bodies, say the Israelis killed us? That an Israeli shell got us? Why not just do that? That would be good publicity for them? Why take the risk we are who we say we are? What the fuck? What the fuck is going to happen? What the fuck is stopping them killing us?

The cold horror seeps like mercury into my heart. I am now very likely to die. There is no logical reason why I should not die in the next hour. This is it.

The horror is evidently sinking in with Florian, too. As the Hezbollah hardnut barks question after question at us, thorough the ‘friendly’ Arab interpreter, Florian tells lie after lie. He starts to make us sound important, not two stupid overgrown lads writing about titty bars in Beirut. Florian tells the Hezbollah people how we are attached to the German Embassy, how the German ambassador knows where we are, how we are on assignment for a big magazine writing about the goodness of the Hezbollah cause.

Florian has thought quickly; Florian is the war correspondent; Florian is lying to save our skins. As Florian makes his effort, I sit back, sweating, pale, clammy. Watching the hard cold eyes of the Hezbollah captain; the squinting, warfucked eyes of his lieutenants. Then it occurs to me it is probably a bad thing to stare at these guys. So I look to the side. At the glinting gold-toothed Korans on the shelf. The old cup of tea on another shelf. Normality of sorts. Tangentially, I wonder what it must be like to live here, in a town on the front line; a town being shelled and bombed every day. Every day. No wonder people are laughing hysterically in their houses.

And as I speak the shells start marching nearer. Nearer, further, nearer. I can sense the town cowering around me; cowering down, like a dog with an abusive master. Israel. What’s that line in the Larkin poem?

Man hands on misery to man... it deepens like a coastal shelf...

CRASH. Another shell. Then a rattle of machine gun fire. Then what sounds like a jet. Jesus. As the shells keep landing it occurs to my half-detached brain that what I can hear is the Israeli gunners hard at work, hard at work seeking out this very house. The Hezbollah headquarters! Of course. This is probably the very place they are aiming for. This house and its occupants. Me!

I am 32. I am sittig on a bench in a small town on the southern mountains of Lebanon. I am probably going to die.

The questioning is done. The Hezbollah guy looks at the friendly Arab. The friendly Arab stares at us, and weakly smiles, and says:

'Now they are searching your bags. If they do not find...anything... if your air tickets are what you say... they will let you go....'

He reaches out and goes to shake our hands, one by one, holding them firmly with two hands the way politicians shake hands. Way too sincerely. I find this the opposite of reassuring. Nor do I find the guy’s smile much comfort: he does not believe it. He is not hopeful. He looks sad and scared. And now he is gone.

The room falls silent, apart from the distant crumps of the big Israeli guns. Florian and I look at each other. Florian leans, and says very quietly to me:

'Those agents... In Jordan..'

'I know.'

I say. And I do. I know. Then we both say nothing. Then we sit back and wait. As we wait we find we are both throwing our heads back and yawning, strangely, though we are not remotely tired. Must be the adrenaline.

Minutes pass, more minutes. I find myself wondering how, if the Hezbollah captain is going to kill us, how he will actually kill us. The simple mechanics of it intrigue me. Will he just stand back and shoot us, here, in this room? Or would that be too messy? Will they take us out into the yard and make us kneel on the filthy wet concrete? Or might they be seen? Then might they drag us into a car and drive out into the dirty mountains and do it in a ditch? In the mud? The shit? The blood?

How?

The door opens. The man from the garage is there. The man who has been searching our bags. He looks at the Hezbollah captain and says something. The Hezbollah captain nods. Florian and I look at each other. What has happened? What are they doing? What?

Then another Hezbollah. He steps forward. And points to me in particular:

'Your bags...... OK.'

OK? My bags.... OK?? I feel my shoulders untense; I had not realised they were so tense. I am slightly relaxing. Then I wonder if I am really meant to find the man’s words encouraging; so I glance around the room, nervous... but Yes. Since the man came in the atmosphere in the room has slightly changed. Some of the air-curdling anxiety has disappeared. The Hezbollah people are chatting more warmly to each other, even half-smiling. So maybe it is going to be alright. Maybe they aren’t going to kill us!

Another guy in a Palestinian head-dress comes in. He is holding some stuff some cylindrical kebabs in paper, and a couple of Cokes. This is for us. As we take the food I realise we have not eaten in hours; I am hungry again. I wonder what time it is.

Grateful, Florian and I munch hungrily on the odd, cucumbery kebabs; when we are done we rub our faces and sip our Cokes and we talk, very quietly. We are both trying not to seem too relieved, and yet not too scared at the same time. We are confused and frithtened, but hopeful.

But now I need to pee. I say this to the Hezbollah kebab-guy. He looks at me, and seems to understand. Then he smiles. The smile is still more encouraging. So it really is going to be OK! As I step forward the Hezbollah guy opens the door and points outside; obedient, I nod and go outside into the chill mountain air and I start to take a leak against the courtyard wall. As I do I hear the crumps again: but this time there are lights as well. From the courtyard I can see what’s going on: the ‘battle’. I can see what must be explosions across the valley. Dark and distant gold puffs. Fireballs. At the end of the valley I can also see high red tracer fire: rows of soaring red minus signs in the black starry sky. It is all... oddly pretty. Very pretty. Thrillingly pretty. I am seeing war. For the first time: I am seeing war. Fireworks with a purpose. The real thing. I’ve done it!

My heart is racing, and lifting. I am happily zipping my flies, thinking about the story I will have to tell when we finally get back to London. Elated, excited, I turn and duck back inside the Hezbollah safe house.... to see Florian siting cross legged on the carpet looking even more frightened than before. Totally white-faced. I can instantly sense something is wronger.

I sit down next to him. ‘Nonchalant’. He hoarsely whispers:

'They are searching my last bag now, my last camera bag.'

I swallow:

'So...?'

'Remember that ring I showed you?'

I look at my good friend and colleague, perplexed. Then I remember. In Beirut Florian showed me a silver ring; given him a few years ago by an Israeli friend. On the inside of the ring was an inscription, in Hebrew. In Hebrew. In Hebrew.

'... Where...?'

Florian shakes his head.

'In Baalbek I hid it... '

'You...'

'In a film canister...'

'Oh Christ..'

'It’s in the bag they are searching now.'

I sit back. I swallow very very very very dryly. This, I think, is IT.

Florian shrugs at me, apologetically. I strongly feel he does not need to apologise. It was my dumb fucking idea to come here; my stupid juvenile need to see a real war. I almost feel like hugging Florian while saying a loud and emotional sorry.

But I don’t. Instead we sit there, and wait. Listening to the distant shells come and go, come and go. Each time a shell falls the house shakes a little.

The Hezbollah guy is standing up, conferring with his lieutenants, occasionally glancing at us. The goldtoothed Korans are glinting in the trembling white lamplight.

Then the bag-searching man comes back. The door is open, framing him. I smell cold wind from the mountains; chill dark wind beyond. The bag-searching man shrugs at the captain, and then turns.

'OK.'

He says again.

'OK. The bags are OK.'

We look at him. We look at him. He shrugs and nods.

The big Hezbollah guy also nods at us, disdainful and vigorous. He babbles some sudden harsh Arabic. The bag-searching man nods again and says:

'Yes... He say to me... now you must go back to Beirut now.. and...' A wan smile. 'And you must never come back!'

No argument. We jump up, head to the door. We find our bags stacked outside. We go to take our bags, but then the Hezbollah guys hoist our bags for us, and drag them quickly across the street to a waiting taxi. We follow. I have never been so keen to get away from somewhere in my whole life. Florian is totally silent. We are climbing in the taxi. The taxi doors are being slammed shut, the bags are loaded. We are turning in a small circle now, we are heading out of town, past the empty shuttered shops, past the dim little streetlamps, past the house where the woman screamed and laughed.

Moments later we are in the mountains, heading back thru the darkened country to Beirut. Florian exhales, and winds down the window. Fresh mountain air floods in, sweet and cold and damp.

In the back of the taxi I slap Florian’s thigh. Then I grin and shout and punch the air:

'YES!!!'


 Posted by Hello

1 comment:

Mal said...

That's one hell of a story. I take it you've slaked your thirst for war reporting now? :)