Photo by Martin Armstrong
At a checkpoint along the Hadi Nasrallah road in Beirut’s southern suburb of Dahiyeh a group of plain-clothed men inspected the flow of traffic and intermittently ordered cars to the side of the road. In the background a plume of thick smoke snaked into the air from the neighborhood of Ruwaiss, the remnants of a car bomb that rocked the area an hour earlier. Sirens rung out among the melee of traffic. The checkpoint was manned not by the Lebanese Army but by the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah. As we made our way toward the checkpoint the air became more acrid. Some residents appeared relatively calm; others moved with more urgency.
Thursday’s explosion in the Dahiyeh—an almost autonomous state-within-a-state controlled by the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah—was the second of such attacks to hit the area in the last couple of months. Local and international media report that 24 people died and over 250 were injured. It was the latest in a series of events that are dragging Lebanon towards Syria's Civil War.
Since irrefutable evidence of Hezbollah’s military participation on behalf of the Assad regime across the Syrian border surfaced in May such attacks have become increasingly inevitable. Salafist groups within the Syrian opposition have threatened retributive action for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. While the Iran-backed Shia party are far from enemy-free on the home front, particularly among elements of Lebanon’s Sunni polity who support the Syrian opposition.
In June in the port city of Sidon, 20 miles south of Beirut, supporters of Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir clashed with the Lebanese Army and according to some sources members of Hezbollah, leaving over 40 dead. In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, skirmishes between groups on either side of the dividing line in Syria have become routine over the course of 2013. Kidnappings, a particular forte of Lebanese militias during Lebanon’s own civil war (1975-1990), are also becoming increasingly common.
After the checkpoint my colleague parked the car and we headed towards the blast site.
Photo by Hasan Shaaban, who made it to the blast site, unlike the author.
On the street-corners we passed young people conversing frantically and relaying messages on mobiles and walkie-talkies. A few wore black vests with the distinctive symbol of the Amal movement—Lebanon’s second Shia party, accustomed to playing second fiddle to Hezbollah—printed on the back but most of these kids just wore jeans and knock off designer T-shirts. Closer to the scene of the blast a couple of women stood inside a mausoleum dedicated to Hezbollah members killed in the 2006 July war with Israel.
Some local residents pointed us towards the scene of the blast, still a quarter of a mile away, but others were less certain of our presence. It is far from uncommon for press to have difficulties in the Dahiyeh, particularly at a time when Hezbollah is under attack.
A dude wearing fluorescent yellow sneakers and an Armani T-shirt noticed us as we turned a corner.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked. I passed it to him, and he pulled out my camera and reached for his walkie-talkie.
“You can’t go further. The situation is very bad,” he said. We tried to assert our journalistic right to be there, but he was having none of it.
A couple of minutes later a more authoritative figure wearing a baseball cap appeared. First on a scooter and then minutes later behind the wheel of a plateless, blacked out, ebony Mercedez S Class. He beckoned me and my colleague towards the back of the car. We didn’t really have a choice to refuse.
The car drove away from the scene of the blast, and the man in the baseball cap explained that the situation is worse than last month’s bombing in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood of Beirut when 53 people were wounded. Nonetheless, Hezbollah have the situation under control and the wounded are being transported to hospitals, he assured. He stopped talking to us and faced the road, providing the driver with directions.
I had been in cars with Hezbollah in the past, but this was different. In May during a trip to Hermel in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley I’d been accompanied first by a courteous French speaking woman named Zeinab dressed in an Iranian style black chador and later to the Lebanese-Syrian border by a bespectacled man in camo who cranked the gear stick with a prosthetic plastic hand. At that time, Hezbollah were using Hermel as a launch pad for their attacks alongside the Syrian army against rebels in the strategically significant town of Qusair in Homs province. At that time I had also been invited. This time around Hezbollah were being besieged in their own backyard and some foreign press were having difficulties gaining access to the scene.
Photo by Hasan Shaaban.
The car pulled down a quiet backstreet and stopped outside what looked like a social club. They lead us in and a giant poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei—founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran—was hung from the back wall, flanked by lesser dignitaries from the Hezbollah theo-political pantheon.
My colleague and I were separated behind black partitions at either side of the hall. A glass of water was placed on the table behind the partition next to three brown plastic chairs. In the corner of the hallway a group of teenagers sat eating chicken tawouk.
The man in the cap left, and a clean-cut, smiling man named Issa joined us accompanied by a silent scribe with a shaved pate.
“I don’t speak much English so you are going to have to help me in Arabic,” says Issa, though he speaks good English.
He proceeded to ask a series of questions our whereabouts at the time of the blast, my journalistic credentials, and my reasons for being in the area. Halfway through relaying the required information, another man appeared around the corner of the partition. Speaking to Issa in rapid-fire Arabic he said something about the use of force in connection with another detainee. Later I find out my colleague was told he’d probably be staying the night. But Issa turned to me, and said apologetically, “We do not do such things. We have certain procedures.”
After a few more minutes of questioning Issa got up satisfied. The otherwise silent scribe asked me if I wanted more water, but Issa decided a refill wouldn't be necessary.
Half an hour later Issa returned with my possessions.
“Please, just make sure that everything is there,” he said, before escorting us to another blacked out, plateless, ebony car. This time it’s a Jeep Cherokee. I saw a TV on the street that was broadcasting footage of the blast. A group called Saraya Aisha Um al Muqmeneen (Brigade of Aisha, Mother of the Faithful) claimed responsibility for the attack—the same group claimed last month’s blast nearby in Bir Al-Abed.
We were escorted back to our car and we jumped in accompanied by a non-descript figure who was there to ensure our “safe departure” from the area. When we stopped at an intersection, I saw a youth in a pink T-shirt sprint across the road before hopping onto the back of a waiting moped. Three shots rang out. The man in the back told us to keep driving.
When we reached the highway the man got out of the car and offered us a blessing: “Allah Ma’ak” (God be with you), he said before switching to English. “Drive Safely.”