Hezbollah invited us to come see them again; it’s the second time in as many days. Yesterday, Anderson, photographer Neil Hallsworth and I drove to the southern suburbs of Beirut and waited at a predetermined meeting spot.
A few minutes passed, then an old, American-made sedan pulled up behind us. Two men jumped out of the car. Our fixer approached them and after an animated conversation, one of the Hezbollah men stuck his head in our car window and said in passable English, “We’re very sorry to inconvenience you but there will be no tour today. There are Israeli drones overhead and it’s not safe to be here. Please leave now.” Those were easy orders to follow. Today, we were told Hezbollah was again willing to take our team into their neighborhood. Meet them at the same spot, they said, at 11 a.m. and don’t be late. We weren’t. We waited. Then waited some more, and what follows is a log of a very strange day with Hezbollah.
10:40 a.m.: Our team of Anderson, Neil, producer Tommy Evans and I arrive at the site of a bridge that’s been blown to pieces by Israeli bombs. It’s the same spot we met our Hezbollah men yesterday. Next to the bridge there are two high-rise apartment buildings under construction. This is a poor neighborhood and new construction clearly doesn’t come here often. The buildings are heavily damaged, though, and it seems unlikely they’ll ever be completed.
10:50 a.m.: Our translator, Mira, is making a call to Hezbollah’s office, making sure they know we’ve arrived. You don’t have to spend much time in these neighborhoods to realize that you’re an outsider … and you’re being watched. They tell us they know we’re here.
11:05 a.m.: Hezbollah is late for our meeting. We’re sitting still for 25 minutes in an area recently hit hard by Israeli jets, so it’s no surprise the mood is tense. We’re not talking much. A young couple passes by — the boy is wearing jeans and short sleeves, the girl a head-scarf and a dress covering her body ankle to wrist. They nod politely and continue past us. They’re holding hands. We’re still waiting.
11:22 a.m.: A crowd of journalists is passing 200 yards behind us and we quickly realize we’ve been given bad information and that Hezbollah’s tour has started without us. We turn our car around and try to catch up.
11:26 a.m.: It’s not hard to spot 40 western journalists walking through a bombed-out area, and we’ve just now found the group. We also find out we missed some ground rules. We’re pulling into a side street and two men dressed in black step out of a doorway with AK-47s. Neil has the camera on his shoulder and they immediately assume he’s rolling. He’s not, but they want to check the tape anyway. We show it to them and they let us pass. Hezbollah tour ground rule #1: Don’t show the faces of anyone we don’t want you to see or pictures of places you’re not supposed to be. Now we know. We catch up to the group.
11:35 a.m.: We’re standing on what used to be a residential street. It’s now a mess of wires and rubble. Smoke is still rising off the debris. Bombs have smashed nearly a quarter mile of this area and there’s virtually nothing left. There’s a twisted tire from a children’s bike here, some compact disks from someone’s collection there. Anderson is doing a few stand-ups, but the Hezbollah representative leading the tour is telling us it’s time to move on. We tell him we want to talk to some people who lived here, who witnessed what happened. “Not here,” he says. “Maybe at our next stop.”
12:05 p.m.: Our car is being led through back streets to a broken-down building with five ambulances parked in front. “These are the emergency workers who respond to casualty calls when Israel drops their bombs,” the Hezbollah man says. “Take your pictures and talk to some of them if you’d like.” We’re growing tired of what is now obviously a dog-and-pony show, but we decide to play along, and approach one driver with a few questions. Anderson asks him what kind of casualties he’s seeing, but before he can answer, the ambulance beside us turns on his siren and screeches out, followed by the next ambulance, then the next. It’s a well coordinated and not-so-subtle piece of propaganda that might as well come with a soundtrack titled “Hezbollah Cares.”
12:16 p.m.: We again ask the Hezbollah guy (he won’t give us his name) when we can talk to some residents, but he brushes us off and tells us maybe at our next stop. He’s now on his cell phone and it’s not hard to imagine he’s making sure all the props are in place before we move on. I wish I spoke Arabic. He opens our car door, slides in, and says he’s riding with us. We’re fine with it and offer him a bottle of water. “No thank you,” he says in English. While we have his attention, Anderson asks him if we can talk to someone in Hezbollah’s leadership. His answer is short: “Not while we’re at war.” He gets out of our car and onto the back of someone’s motor scooter.
12:30 p.m.: We’re now driving through a neighborhood that hasn’t seen any bombing, but it’s here we’re told we can talk to some residents. Hezbollah guy takes us down to what amounts to a crude bomb shelter and tells us the people here live on this street but are afraid to sleep in their apartment. The concrete room is dimly lit and dank. Two people on plastic chairs are watching an Arabic news channel. One sits in the corner yelling angry epithets about Israel for the reporters. We wait for the media gaggle to leave, then introduce ourselves. They tell us they’re a mother, her son and his wife. There’s no way to know if it’s true. The conversation follows a familiar pattern:
“Are you scared?”
“Will you fight?”
“To the death!”
“Do you hate Israel?”
“Of course, and its mother America!”
We thank them for their insights and move back up to the street.
12:44 p.m.: We’re back on the street and on cue, a Hezbollah resistance song is now blaring from an apartment. A young man on the porch dressed in black is giving us the victory sign. I look behind me and there’s our Hezbollah guide encouraging the young man to lift his hands higher so our camera can see.
12:50 p.m.: Anderson is doing a few more stand-ups about our story that’s quickly become less about Hezbollah and more about their crude propaganda machine when the “family” emerges from the bunker behind us and joins their friends in the street. They’re laughing, talking loudly, and gesturing with their hands, mocking anger. I really should learn Arabic. Anderson does another stand-up about the group now standing behind us.
12:55 p.m.: We pile into our van and are now driving out of the Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood. It feels like we’ve just left a haunted house: Slightly frightening at first, but ridiculous by the end.