Photos by Bryan Denton
Hezbollah members getting in position right before a match starts. It's almost like they've done this before or something.
We figured they'd cheat; they were Hezbollah, after all. But none of us—a team of four Western journalists—thought we'd be dodging military-grade flash bangs when we initiated this "friendly" paintball match.
The battle takes place underground in a grungy, bunker-like basement underneath a Beirut strip mall. When the grenades go off it's like being caught out in a ferocious thunderstorm: blinding flashes of hot white light, blasts of sound that reverberate deep inside my ears.
As my eyesight returns and readjusts to the dim arena light, I poke out from my position behind a low cinder-block wall. Two large men in green jumpsuits are bearing down on me. I have them right in my sights, but they seem unfazed—even as I open fire from close range, peppering each with several clear, obvious hits. I expect them to freeze, maybe even acknowledge that this softie American journalist handily overcame their flash-bang trickery and knocked them out of the game. Perhaps they'll even smile and pat me on the back as they walk off the playing field in a display of good sportsmanship (after cheating, of course).
Instead, they shoot me three times, point-blank, right in the groin.
From this distance (well within the 15-foot "safety zone"), paintballs feel like bee stings. I raise my hands in pain and confusion, signaling to the referee that I'm leaving the game. But the bigger one—a tall, muscular farm boy from the deep south of Lebanon who tonight is going by the name Khodor—isn't finished with me yet: He wraps his giant hands around my body and tries to throw me over his shoulder with the kind of deftness that only comes from practice. I'm quick enough to break free and flee, but my teammate Ben isn't so lucky. Khodor and his partner move past me in perfect military formation, plunging deeper into our defenses. Soon they apprehend Ben, pushing him ahead of them, human shield-style.
Just before hostilities begin, Team Sahafi lines up for a group shot. From left: Andrew Exum, Mitch Prothero, Nicolas Blanford, Ben Gilbert. Bryan Denton, who also played, is not pictured because he was behind the camera.
Yes, I remind myself, this is really happening: Four Western journalists (two of whom alternated in and out of our rounds of four-on-four), plus one former Army Ranger-turned-counterinsurgency expert, are playing paintball with members of the Shiite militant group frequently described by US national security experts as the "A-Team of terrorism." It took nearly a full year to pull together this game, and all along I'd been convinced that things would fall apart at the last minute. Fraternizing with Westerners is not the sort of thing Hezbollah top brass allows, so to arrange the match I'd relied on a man we'll call Ali, one of my lower-level contacts within the group.
Ali had sworn that he'd deliver honest-to-God trained fighters for an evening of paintball, but when the four-man Hezbollah team first walked into the building, I was dubious. In the Dahiyah, the southern suburbs of Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, every macho teenager and his little brother consider themselves essential members of "the Resistance." And one of the fighters—a tall, lanky, 20-something with a scruffy beard and the spiked-and-gelled hairdo favored by secular Beirut kids—seems like a wannabe. Especially after he introduces himself as Coco.
"Ali, what the fuck?" I ask out of earshot of the men he brought. "This guy is named Coco?"
"No, of course not," he answers. "Nobody is giving their real names, man."
"Is he, umm, in the Resistance? If he's not, that's fine; the other guys look legit. But I need to know if he's real for the story."
"Oh, they're all real, bro," Ali says in a high-pitched voice he uses whenever I challenge the veracity of his information. "Wait and see."
Then he leans in as if sharing a closely guarded secret: "Since the 2006 war [with Israel], Hezbollah has relaxed on their dress code. The new guys can keep their hair the way they want it."
Now, after the flash-banging during our second match of the night (the first began and ended in a flurry of paintballs; everyone was instantly either out of ammo or eliminated), I've little doubt that all of the fighters are the genuine article. As one Israeli counterterrorism official once remarked to me over coffee and a bagel, things would be easier if Hezbollah were crazy like Al-Qaeda—it would make his job significantly less stressful. "They're not," he'd sighed. "They're just ruthless professionals." They are proving this tonight: The quick but precise movements, the way they support one another with covering fire when shifting positions, the leaps from eight-foot walls that effortlessly segue into perfect tuck-and-rolls (as Coco did during game 4).