Text and Photographs by Norbert Schiller
The summer of 2006 was supposed to be a bumper year for Lebanon’s tourism. Lebanese from across the globe were expected to stream in to show support to their country which had witnessed a revolution and a string of political assassinations. The most high profile of these attacks was the massive roadside bomb, on Valentine’s Day, 2005, that killed Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 21 others. Syria was blamed for the killing which incited an uprising against its 30-year occupation of Lebanon.
Hariri’s assassination triggered a popular uprising which was dubbed the Cedar Revolution. After a month of mass protests centered in the heart of Beirut, Syrian troops were driven out of Lebanon. However, these events also put a wedge in Lebanese society between two opposing camps which became known as the March 8 and March 14 alliances. The first, led by Hezbollah, was in favor of the Syrian presence, while the second opposed it.
After Syria’s withdrawal, many Lebanese believed that the tense standoff between those who supported the revolution and those who opposed it would subside, but that wasn’t the case. On June 2, 2005, the assassinations continued with the death of historian, lecturer and journalist, Samir Kassir in a car bomb as he was leaving his home. Kassir, believed to be a pillar of the 2005 revolt, had been a staunch critic of both Syria and Hezbollah. Just over a month later, another prominent March 14 member and former general secretary of the Lebanese communist party, George Hawi, was killed. Then, after assassination attempts against politician Elias Murr and television journalist May Chidiac, the publisher of Lebanon’s leading newspaper an Nahar, Gibran Tueini, who had been a fierce advocate of the March 14 movement, was assassinated on December 12. Like most Lebanese, I prayed for the new year to ring in a peaceful transition for Lebanon.
Whereas most foreign correspondents are able to maintain a degree of distance while covering events in another country, it’s a different story for those of us whose daily lives are consumed by such upheaval. Eventually, the conflict seeps into your personal life affecting those closest to you. Since both Zina and I were working as journalists at the time, we tried to contain our fears and anxieties so they didn’t affect our family life. Still, it was difficult to shield our children Alexandra and Tamer, who hadn’t even heard of Hariri or any Lebanese politician before these events, from the turmoil around us. Although the children continued to go to school and pursue their activities, the violence sometimes got too close for comfort. One evening, while I was picking up Tamer from soccer practice, a bomb detonated in a nearby parking lot jolting our car with its shockwave. As my journalistic instinct kicked in, I parked the car, and grabbed my camera which I kept with me at all times during this period. I left Tamer in the care of a neighborhood produce shop owner and told him to wait until my return. Luckily, it turned out to be a small bomb planted as a warning more than anything else.
With the beginning of 2006, the picture seemed more hopeful. For me, the first six months were extremely fruitful and fulfilling. The year began with the announcement that the book, Wines of Lebanon, my first collaborative effort with wine writer Michael Karam, had won the coveted Gourmand Award for Best Book on Wine Outside Europe 2005. Later in June, the book 28 Days that changed Lebanon documenting the period following Hariri’s assassination was ready for publication. I had worked with Naji Zahar and Zina on this project. A few days after the book was launched, Michael Karam and I got an unexpected invitation by the owners of Chateau Kefraya, also distributors of Dewar’s Scotch whiskey in the Middle East, to attend a three-day whiskey workshop in Aberfeldy Scotland, which we gladly accepted. And if that wasn’t enough, on July 9, my beloved Azzurris, the Italian soccer team, won the FIFA World Cup beating France in a thriller. After all that, what could possibly go wrong?
On the morning of July 12, I got a call from Zina who was working at Naharnet, an online English news service associated with an Nahar newspaper, to say that there had been a cross-border incident involving Hezbollah where several Israeli soldiers had been killed. At first, I didn’t think much of it as the two sides had had a long history of confrontations and the Israeli response had normally been limited to bombing Hezbollah-controlled areas in South Lebanon. As news began to filter in, it turned out that three Israeli soldiers had been killed, two others wounded, and another two had been captured. To make matters worse, shortly after the incursion another four Israelis died when their tank hit a land mine while mounting a rescue operation inside Lebanon.
Israel responded immediately by bombing roads and bridges in the South in an apparent attempt to prevent Hezbollah from transporting the abductees away from the border region. However, the Israelis quickly escalated their retaliation by dropping bombs on Beirut’s international airport as wells as roads and bridges near the town of Damour, just south of Beirut. In my opinion, Hezbollah commanders were also caught off guard by Israel’s swift and disproportionate reprisal. Israeli army chief of staff Dan Halutz issued a statement saying, “if the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.”
At the time, I was the sole photographer representing United Press International (UPI) in Lebanon. For the first two days, I didn’t take any pictures as events on the ground were unfolding too rapidly. I realized early on that I was going to need additional help, so I put the word out that I was looking for freelance photographers. On the third day, I took my first tour of Beirut to view the damage caused by the Israeli air bombardments. Most of the bombing had targeted the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. After photographing crumbled overpasses and destroyed infrastructure, I proceeded to the airport where repairs were being done to the runway for the resumption of international air travel. Near the airport, I got up on an overpass to take photos when I suddenly heard Israeli fighter jets screeching overhead before discharging bombs close to my location. The strikes were targeting the runway as well as a fuel storage depot further south sending a fire ball into the sky. As I was clicking away from my position on the overpass, I realized that I was I was standing on a potential target, so I hastily left the area.
For the following month, I had a hectic daily schedule and the days seemed to roll into each other without a clear break. I would go out in the morning to photograph the destruction caused by the previous night’s bombing in and around Beirut, or head to the port to cover the evacuation of foreign nationals. I also documented the dire conditions facing refugees who had fled their homes due to the fighting. When I made it back to the office, I edited and filed my images while waiting for the freelancers to send theirs. I barely caught a few hours of sleep before heading back out again the following day.
The evacuation efforts started after the first week of fighting, when it became clear that this conflict was not going to end any time soon. Most of those leaving were Lebanese who had dual nationality. In the beginning, the operation was well organized but as the bombing campaign intensified reaching areas across the country, people began to panic and the scene at the port became more chaotic. Most foreign embassies such as Canada, France, Australia, and other smaller missions organized their evacuations from the Beirut port where nationals gathered to board ships headed out to Larnaca in Cyprus. At first, the US embassy did the same but then it moved its operations to a beach just north of Beirut from where amphibious landing crafts ferried US citizens to warships waiting offshore. This change may have been due to security concerns about US warships sitting at the Beirut port in a time of conflict. The day I photographed the beach evacuation there were hundreds of Americans waiting in a huge line that extended inland over a bridge crossing the main coastal highway. The evacuees included elderly men and women, mothers with babies, families, and people who had been wounded during the conflict all moving en masse, at a snail’s pace towards the sea. A friend said that she waited 16 hours in line with her two young boys before it was her time to board a landing craft.
As the war raged on in the South, and the bombing campaign intensified in and around Beirut’s southern suburbs, refugees flocked to safer areas of Beirut and other parts of the country. Schools, mosques, churches, sporting clubs, and private homes all opened their doors to house those fleeing the fighting. I made regular tours of my own neighborhood to see where refuges where being housed. Farouk, the driver with whom I had worked for years, lived in the neighborhood of Chiyah on the edge of the southern suburbs. When a client of his who lives abroad offered him her apartment, he moved with his family away from the conflict zone. The refugee assistance efforts were surprisingly well organized as they were coordinated by the Lebanese Red Cross and other NGOs who provided bedding, clothing, medicine, and meals.
From the onset of the conflict, the international community and the United Nations were trying to negotiate a ceasefire. Politicians from Europe and the United States, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visited to help negotiate a ceasefire. On July 30, the Israeli air force hit a building in the town of Cana in south Lebanon killing dozens of Lebanese, including many children while they were sleeping. After that attack, which caused an international uproar against Israel’s brutal attacks against civilian targets, there was a lull in the fighting but not for long. On August 7, Arab foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Beirut to discuss a draft U.N. resolution that called for a ceasefire. But Israel, as usual, disregarded all these diplomatic efforts continuing with its bombardments and ground operations with the intention of creating a new buffer zone in south Lebanon along its border.
When I had the chance, I traveled outside Beirut to photograph what was happening in other areas. On one occasion, as I headed south, the main coastal highway was inaccessible as it had been heavily bombed and we were forced to drive on backroads making a huge detour through the mountains. Many of the towns and villages that we passed in Hezbollah-controlled areas had been destroyed and their residents had fled. A few days later, I traveled north along the coastal highway, which up until then had been largely spared from Israel’s wrath. However, in the early morning of August 4, Israeli jets bombed four bridges along the coastal highway which paralyzed traffic in either direction in the largely Christian part of the country. Such unwarranted reprisals were evidence of Israel’s intention to punish all Lebanese for its conflict with Hezbollah.
While all this madness raged across the country, Alexandra and Tamer tried to keep themselves entertained at home. School was already out and whatever plans we had had for the summer had been liberally shot down. They still had some friends in the building and the neighborhood, thought to be safer than others due to its proximity to the American University of Beirut, but all those with foreign passport were hoping to leave. As evacuation efforts intensified, the Austrian Embassy called and asked if we wanted to leave. Since both Zina and I were both working, we decided to send off the kids to safety. We had 30 minutes to get them ready, but we had already packed their bags. As soon as we arrived at the embassy, Alexandra and Tamer were ushered into the ambassador’s car and then we proceeded in a convoy to the Beirut port from where they boarded a Greek warship headed for Cyprus. In Larnaca, our children were met by one of Zina’s colleagues from work and after a few days in Nicosia, they went on to London and then to the south of France where they spent the rest of the summer with close friends.
Besides roads, bridges and the airport, the Israelis destroyed the electrical power grid, oil storage facilities, and private enterprises including a glass factory, dairy farms, and a business that produced prefabricated home. Israel also hit a fishing port just south of Beirut sinking nearly all of the small boats that were moored there. The attack on the oil storage facility in Jijeh caused an oil slick which blanketed part of the Lebanese coastline making it the worst environmental disaster in the Mediterranean to date.
A month after the ground and air operations started, Israel and Hezbollah finally agreed to a ceasefire. The agreement was based on U.N resolution 1701 which called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, an Israeli withdrawal, and the deployment of Lebanese troops in south Lebanon. The United Nations would also add troops to the existing units they had stationed in the South. The objective was to create a demilitarized zone between the Litani river and the Israeli border. However, the few days between the signing of the agreement and its implementation witnessed some of the war’s most intense bombardments. According to Human Rights Watch, during the last 72 hours of the conflict the Israelis dropped an estimated 4 million cluster bombs on south Lebanon. To make things worse, many of these bombs were old stock from the 1970s that didn’t detonate upon impact leaving vast tracks of land littered with unexploded ordnance. As a result, farmers were unable to harvest their crops for fear of stepping on one of these devices and many people, mostly children, either got maimed or killed from picking them up thinking they were harmless. One of the families that I visited lost their son when a cluster bomb fell from a tree landing on his head while he picked fruit. For months after the conflict ended, I had numerous assignments in south Lebanon to cover the work of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to disarm and dispose of unexploded munitions.
For the first time since the war began, I was able to go to the southern suburbs which resembled Dresden after the allied bombing campaign during WWII. Only a few buildings were still standing but even those would have had to be torn down due to the extent of the damage. The residents who had been warned to leave during the conflict were now coming back in droves to see what remained of their homes. The district was full of Hezbollah banners and posters praising what Hassan Nasrallah had proclaimed as a “Divine Victory.” As had been the case for any confrontation with Israel on Lebanese territory, Lebanon suffered the brunt of the casualties with an estimated 1,200 mostly civilian deaths and just over 4000 injuries. In comparison, 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed and a few hundred were injured. According to the Lebanese government the damage was estimated at 3.8 billion dollars.
Lebanon has never recovered from the 2006 war with Israel. In spite of the rebuilding efforts after the conflict, the war changed the internal balance of power giving Hezbollah and its allies a stronger grip on the country. This deepened the divide that had surfaced after the Hariri assassination resulting in a power struggle and political vacuum which have led the country to near collapse, 15 years after that fateful summer.