Baalbek: not exactly the image of 'terror central'

Journalists tour devastated historic town during lull in israeli attacks

Daily Star

BAALBEK (4 August 2006) - THE square adjacent to the Palmyra Hotel was being renovated when the Israeli warplanes struck on July 13. The charcoal-gray paving stones are scattered where they were left when the laborers stopped work, like islands in an estuary. The ruins of ancient Heliopolis form a vista before the hotel entrance. Entering the hotel, you find a lone man who'd prefer not to speak. He suggests you speak to the mukhtar (a district mayor).

"The mukhtar?" says another man. "He left."

It's the morning of August 1, 19 days into Israel's assault on Lebanon, the second day of the Israelis' self-styled cessation of air attacks.

In a few hours time, 200 Israeli commandos will helicopter in, make a sweep through a Hizbullah-associated hospital and make off with five men, leaving between 10 and 20 people dead.

Israel will say the dead and detained are militants, that the raid demonstrated how they can strike anywhere they want in Lebanon. Hizbullah will say the Israelis were lured to Baalbek by leaked information that a member of the leadership was in town and that the dead and detained are civilians.

"A Hizbullah stronghold," Baalbek is a mixture of Christians and Shiite and Sunni Muslims, thus reflecting the population of the Bekaa generally.

It isn't exactly bustling the day of the raid. It's not abandoned either. A pair of young Internal Security Forces officers in gray camouflage chat beneath a pink parasol. Soon after entering town, an older gentleman asks if you need a room for the night.

"You should get permission from Hizbullah if you want to look at the bomb sites," he cautions. Indeed, within a few minutes a polite, bearded man in sandals asks how he can help you.

A walkie-talkie appears and you're led to another fellow who quickly takes down your group's details - more or less as if you were buying a visa at the border. The second man apologizes, but there's a war on and the party has to take precautions.

An ancient Mercedes appears - the sort Beirut taxi drivers use to ply their trade - and you're told to follow in your car. A guide sardines himself into the back seat, alongside two rangy hacks.

When you try to follow Mercedes Man, though, the ISF men charge from beneath their umbrella, brows furrowed.

"Monsieur! Monsieur! Aks as-sayr (You're driving against traffic)!" one says. After a few minutes Mercedes Man, who drove past the ISF unaccosted, backs up to explain.

"Aks as-sayr!" the policeman repeats without a trace of irony - in Beirut the police don't necessarily enforce, or obey, the rules of the road. Mercedes Man sighs, then, and asks you to follow him into town by a different route.

Long passed, it seems, are the days when men claiming Hizbullah membership would kidnap foreign journalists. True, since this conflict erupted there's been at least one reported incident of Hizbullah detaining foreign hacks for questioning.

The incident seems to have been provoked by the aggressive questioning of some displaced people in Sanayeh Garden. "Being Hizbullah supporters," a journalist apparently said, "you people are the logical target of Israeli attacks, no?"

The refugees accused the journalists of being spies and everything deteriorated from there
The refugees accused the journalists of being spies and everything deteriorated from there. The detention lasted a few hours.

The party has been a media-savvy organization for some years now, though it's far from transparent. One of the reasons it's so effective militarily is that information is so tightly controlled. Such discipline makes an informant's work very difficult. It also greatly irritates Lebanon's political class - whose foibles are public knowledge and for whom power sometimes lies more in posture than execution.

Peacetime tours of Hizbullah facilities are, by definition, one-sided affairs. Representatives happily show the press their social welfare institutions and allow them to speak with party activists. There is virtually no free-range investigation, though, let alone nosing around military and administrative centers.

"Yes, it's no problem touring the bomb sites," Walkie-Talkie Man says. "Operation centers, though, are off-limits."

the Hizbullah version of the destruction offers a basic narrative that can be interrogated more reliably than the bizarre fictions offered by Israel
You know this isn't the whole picture, but the Hizbullah version of the destruction offers a basic narrative that can be interrogated more reliably than the bizarre fictions offered by Israel.

On the evening of the most-recent Qana massacre, for example, Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, pontificated that "the difference between Israelis and Lebanese is we have bomb shelters in our houses to protect us from Khizbullah rockets. In Lebanon, people have rocket launchers in their houses."

Your guide directs you through Baalbek's winding roads to what looks like a ruined apartment block. There's very little to see, in fact, but shattered breezeblock and concrete, the odd Nido (powdered milk) tin, machinery wrecked to anonymity.

"This was a school," he points to one gap. "This was the Taawaniyye (Co-Op grocery store)," he points to a second pile of rubble. He says planes destroyed them on successive days in the first week. "There were no casualties. We evacuated in time."

Walking atop the rubble, the scale of the damage defeats your camera, so you fall to peering into the blasted sitting room of an adjacent flat. From the wall of another exposed room, a portrait of the Imam Ali stares out over the axle of an upended lorry.

Some wary-looking women and children have emerged on the ruined street to inspect the damage across the road.

"We should hurry," the guide says after a few minutes. "Israeli planes are overhead."

You count at least five ruined gas stations in town. Further on is a water-filled hole in the road - a former garage apparently. Across the street is another collapsed apartment block.

A blown-out wall reveals a wardrobe overstuffed with clothes - the way wardrobes can get when you can't bear to throw things away. Facing it is shelf, stuffed with plush toys.

From behind his camera someone - acutely aware of the low voyeurism of this - makes a grim joke about how a set designer couldn't construct such an effective shot.

You drive on, pausing at an intersection long enough for your guide to point out where an Islamic benevolent society used to be.

You are directed to another, rather larger, gap in the urban fabric and a more gregarious man materializes. This was a residential area before it was struck by a series of bombs and missiles, he says.

At the back of one building, the walls and floor of an upper-floor flat have collapsed, leaving a child's coat hanging on a coat peg. More voyeurism.

A sign atop one partially gutted building reads "Centre Mustafa Balouq." Balouq, Gregarious Man says, is "a businessman who set up a benevolent society. There was a business center. A place to take out small loans. A charity."

"Over there," he points across the street. "That's a Husseiniyyeh [Shiite cultural center-mosque complex]. The people around it are terrified it's the next target."

Your guides tell you some 135 people have been killed in the Bekaa since this conflict began. Unlike the devastated South, there's no shortage of food and water yet but there hasn't been any electricity in the villages in two days. At every site the refrain is the same. "There are only civilians here."

"We aren't fighters," says Gregarious Man. "All the fighters are in the South. We're just here to make sure there's no looting."

All hands are struck by how relaxed and polite the Hizbullah men are - encounters in the Dahiyeh can be more abrupt.

In Beirut several hours later, you hear Israeli commandos are raiding Baalbek. You wonder whether any of your hosts are now dead or detained.

*Jim Quilty writes features for The Daily Star.

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