Amid chaos, fishermen blasting away

Sydney Morning Herald

Catch of the day Israeli attacks have forced fisherman like Ali to abandon their boats and instead fish with homemade explosives in the Lebanese port of Tyre.
Photo: Jeroen Kramer

TYRE (28 July 2006) - THE foundations thud like a punch in the chest and the shock of an explosion snaps across the terrace. Heads jerk up from laptop computers, chairs go flying back: that one was close, is somebody bombing us?

A glance at the sea and everyone sits down again. No need to worry: it's only Ali and Ismail, fishing with dynamite.

They work the reefs just offshore, the remains of Tyre's Phoenician breakwater. Three thousand years ago sailors from here ruled the Bronze Age seas, trading as far as Ireland.

Today, Tyre's fleet has dwindled into a small cove on the tip of the promontory, crowded with silent wooden half-deckers. War is washing over Tyre again, and if the fishermen put to sea they will immediately be fired on.

One result is a renewed enthusiasm for alternative fish-gathering solutions. Ali normally operates a boat but until the fuss and bother settles he is working with Ismail, his dynamiter.

Ali's job is to put on snorkel gear and swim slowly around the breakwater, looking for fish. He has a landing net tucked into the back of his shorts and in one hand, held clear of the water to keep it dry, he clutches the bomb.

The bomb weighs half a kilo and is made from fertiliser and a military detonator wrapped in many layers of cling-film. It is tied to a stone to make it sink faster, and the fuse is ignited by a match wrapped in tin foil.

When he sees a shoal of fish Ali lights the fuse and throws the bomb as quickly and as far as he can. The water spouts 10 metres in the air and then it is time to start diving: the fish sink when you bomb them.

"Six seconds, seven seconds, then boom," explains Ismail.

Almost on cue, the sound of a massive explosion comes crashing across the water from the mainland. Five kilometres away a huge plume of dust and smoke is rising from the houses on a ridge, and jets are now hissing high overhead.

But Ismail doesn't seem to notice. His job is to stand on the beach and watch Ali work. Ismail is the more experienced of the pair. Also he can't do much else, because he has no hands, and only one eye, due to a mishap six months ago.

"I had some C4, military explosive, which is more powerful than the stuff we usually make. I was sitting on those rocks over there holding the bomb in my hands and smoking a cigarette and somehow I lit it."

Miraculously, a passing boat pulled him off the rocks and took him into the harbour, where the Virgin Mary and the prophet Elijah watch over Tyre's fishermen - Christian and Muslim alike - from a little glass shrine on the pier.

Old stone buildings crowd down to the water - Arab, Turkish, French colonial mongrels. Some are in ruins, most are scarred with shrapnel.

This has all happened to Tyre before - in the '60s, the '70s, 1982, 1987, 1996. Just outside the mole lies the wreck of a Palestinian arms freighter, a reminder of the days when Israel used to trash Lebanon in its hunt for Yasser Arafat, not Hezbollah.

The sky cracks twice in quick succession as two guided missiles go supersonic then whoosh off to take out a workshop, presumed to be Hezbollah's, just east of the port.

Debris and broken glass scythes through apartment blocks but no one is killed and only a few injured. Most people have already fled. But the fishermen still gather outside their quayside bar every evening, smoking water pipes, drinking beer and playing backgammon, or watching the sky flicker red from the air strikes around Bint Jbeil.

Their war has acquired its own catchphrase: "Tallage! tallage!", they shout happily at passing journalists (Ice! ice!) - the call used for alerting quayside ice vendors when returning to port with a catch.

One customer is Hussam Ashkar, manager-cum-cook of the dockside Diver's Pub. He refused to close when the bombs started falling.

"I remembered that in 1996 the Israelis closed the road north for two weeks, so as soon as there was trouble I went out to the market and the stores and stocked up," he says. "I'm not a young man. I'm 40 years old. I was already 15 when the Israelis came in 1982.

"I remember how they bombed this port - that building over there was damaged in 1987. I'm not married, I don't have children. I'm not afraid. That's why I stay here."

The Diver's Pub is a gracefully arched brick cave. Behind the bar are displayed the flags of Australia, Ireland, France and - much smaller - Britain.

It was a famous haunt for UN soldiers, as well as divers exploring the ruins in the harbour.

"I'm not afraid of anybody," says Hussam again.

"I don't hate Hezbollah but I don't like them either. Why? I remember 1996. My father was killed, and my sister. They were in a bus on the road and the Israelis killed them. An Apache."

Then, like a switch has been flipped, he is suddenly weeping.

"I'm sorry," he says. "Now I do feel bad."


      Home |  Archives  |  Write On! |  Dossiers |  Search |  Boutique | Donate

Comments to : Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2006. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. Copyright of written and photographic and art work remains with the creators.