A series of profound explosions from the south of Beirut; the Israelis “jostling the rubble” of the suburbs, as we now say, although who knows how many corpses lie in this pit? An Israeli calls me from Los Angeles. She thinks she has discovered a reason why the Lebanese Red Cross may have been targeted by the Israeli air force. “I will send you a fax proving that they are helping the Hizbollah,” she says.
I await the fax, which turns out to be a New York Times report from southern Lebanon, recording how the Red Cross gave medical assistance to wounded members of the Hizbollah. I call Rachel back. The Lebanese Red Cross helped wounded American marines after they were suicide-bombed in Beirut in 1983, I tell her, and they gave help – and were criticised for it by their Lebanese neighbours – to wounded Israelis after a suicide bombing in Tyre the following year. Isn’t it the duty of all Red Cross teams to help all those who are suffering? “Perhaps, but they should have detained the Hizbollah,” comes the voice from Los Angeles. What? The Red Cross is now supposed to imprison Israel’s enemies?
I receive another fax from Rachel. “I am for dialog (sic) but not with the Devil, Nazis et al,” she says. “Reality and justice are derived from the ability to discern between good and evil, between truth and lies, and between the fireman and the arsonist. Keep safe.”
A ceasefire at 8am tomorrow, or so we are told.
The Israelis and the Hizbollah fought to the end, 200 rockets into Israel and a few final bombing runs on the suburbs of Beirut. Among the last to die was a small child in the Beirut Dahiya district whose body was found clutched in her dead mother’s arms. A final kick to the civilians of Lebanon, just in time to meet the truce deadline.
Cody and I set off to southern Lebanon over smashed bridges, round vast bomb craters, beating the earth down to allow Hassan’s “Death Car” to drive over them, trying to avoid the thousands of unexploded shells lying in the fields. So many bombs on the Litani that the river has partly changed its course and we walk into the water. We drive to Srifa, a village which clearly was – heaven preserve us from these clichés – a Hizbollah “stronghold”, but whose ruins now cover dozens of civilian dead. I am photographing the wreckage – using real film because I still feel that digital cameras lose definition – and I find that I see through the lens more pain than I see with my own eyes. I think this is because the sheer extent of the bomb damage is focused in a frame. Later, I look at my developed pictures in Beirut and am appalled by the level of destruction. Some of my pictures look like the photographs of French villages after German bombardment during my dad’s First World War. They will find 36 bodies under the Srifa rubble upon which I have walked.
Epic traffic jams on the way back to Beirut as hundreds of thousands of Muslim Shias try to return to homes which in many cases no longer exist. Cody, normally a cool customer, jumps out of the car in rage to remonstrate with a man who refuses to reverse up the road to let our queue of cars through to Beirut. “The arsehole says the reverse in his car doesn’t work,” he says in fury. I remind Cody that Captain Cook lost his life when, after many years, he lost his temper with a native and got pierced by a spear.
I am sending my dispatch to The Independent from an internet café when an American nurse whom I have known for years walks up to me. “We have a badly burned woman in emergency and we’ve just had to tell her that her three children are dead,” she says. And how did she take this news? “You can imagine. We found out she’d had her tubes tied so she can’t have any more children.” And her husband? “Dead,” the nurse replies.
The Lebanese papers carry the news of the death in action of David Grossman’s son Uri, killed fighting the Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. That Grossman, a brilliant and compassionate writer well known in Lebanon – his books are on sale here and the local newspaper reports are written with dignity – should suffer in this way seems especially cruel. I turn to his work on the Palestinians of Israel, which nestles in the bookcase beside my desk. “Every acrobat knows the secret of walking a tightrope over an abyss; the Arabs in Israel have learnt something even more difficult – to stand still on the wire,” Grossman wrote in 1993. “To live a provisional life that eternally suspends and dulls the will… So it has been for decades, for hundreds of thousands of acrobats.”
Sixteen-hour power cuts, worse than before the ceasefire. Plenty of oil tankers in Cyprus but the shipowners – and the insurers – are cravenly waiting for Israeli permission to sail their vessels to Lebanon. Hizbollah says it doesn’t want to disarm. The French say they want a clearer mandate before sending troops to join the international force in southern Lebanon. I hear the ceasefire creaking.
All the talk is of a “robust” international force and my journalistic colleagues have become besotted by the word “robust”. The BBC talks about a robust mandate for a robust army and robust United Nations peacekeeping. It reminds me of the Nato manoeuvres in Germany that I watched back in the 1980s when the Reuters correspondent expressed his belief that generals loved missiles because they could no longer have erections. In the Arab world, to be arrogant is to “have a big nose”, and the problem is that whenever generals in Lebanon become “robust”, they tend to get their noses chopped off. We shall see.
Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, has appeared on television, talking like a president – though admittedly a more impressive one than the Syrian satrap currently installed in his palace above Beirut – but acting as if the Shias of Lebanon will now define the future of the country.
Through my office window I watch the Shia poor still driving back to the blasted south of Lebanon, mattresses on the roofs of their cars, mothers and babies in the back, interspersed on the roads with Lebanese troop trucks, tanks transporters and armoured vehicles which will soon be joined – or not, as the case may be – by foreign troops to augment the UN army in the south