By John Fullerton
‘What do you want to do?’ The captain looked uncomfortable in the ditch. As ditches went it was a pretty good ditch, dry and deep and lined with cement, but the captain seemed worried; he squatted on the heels of his boots, keeping his fatigues clear of dirt. He explored his Saddam Hussein moustache with a forefinger as if reassuring himself that it hadn’t fallen off.
It seemed an odd question. Hendricks was drenched in sweat and coated in dust; he had wedged as much of himself as he could into the storm drain, folding his limbs like a tortoise in its shell, and he seemed content to stay awhile. He pointed up the hill. ‘Well, I’d like to visit your ranger battalion, but there are too many of us. May I make a suggestion?’ Hendricks didn’t wait for a response, and he resisted the temptation to let the captain know it had been a very bad idea to invite the entire press corps to a brigade briefing with the promise of a trip to the front line in a war without front lines. The captain would probably get a stupid medal for it. ’Take a couple of snappers, a TV crew, maybe three reporters. We can pool our stuff if that’s what people want.’
Hendricks couldn’t have cared less what the others wanted or didn’t want and he hated sharing anything. He was far too competitive, but he had to have a story, and what had been passed off as a briefing – while it might be grist to the mill of local media – wouldn’t pass muster with the internationals, and there had been nothing so far today that he could use. He had to get up that hill somehow and much as he disliked such arrangements, organizing a news pool seemed the only way, the carrot for the captain. How else to justify the time already wasted? It had to be a decent story worth offering on the evening world news schedule. It didn’t help that Hendricks was two hours ahead of Greenwich. His enemy wasn’t the mortars but time, and time was slipping away from him.
‘What about the rest of you?’ A small crucifix dangling from the captain’s neck caught the light as he turned to look at Fraser.
The rest? What did Hendricks care for the rest? The rest had no more stomach for a scrap than this fancy captain. No, that wasn’t fair. He couldn’t blame the local journalists. They had lived through a decade of this, and everyone had lost someone, or knew someone who had lost someone. Why take the extra risk for a second-rate news story?
‘They’ll head back to the city soon as the firing eases off.’
‘You’re willing to walk?’ The officer preferred French; it was better than his dandified Arabic.
‘I have a choice, Captain?’
It was already lunchtime. Like most folk, militiamen and soldiers clung to routine; it gave life structure, a shape, something to look forward to in the midst of chaos. Whatever enthusiasm they might have had for killing one another a decade ago, it was no longer enough now to screw up the little pleasures. None of this awfulness would be bearable otherwise. On the gunman’s going rate of $150 a month no-one could expect more; it was no longer religion or politics, it was paying the rent, putting food on the table. Killing and dying went on because there was never any shortage of ammunition, thanks to the deep pockets of the war’s foreign patrons. Theirs was a shabby trade, indiscriminate and pointless, everyone knew that, but at least mealtimes were respected. Thank God. Hendricks imagined he could smell the manousheh: flatbread hot from village ovens, drenched in olive oil, sprinkled with zaatar and folded double, washed down with Turkish coffee and finished off with Marlboro or Gauloise. Weird how the prospect of death or injury made a man fantasise about food or sex or both. Hendricks swallowed a rush of saliva.
Christ, he was famished.
Hendricks counted and timed the incoming on his fake Hong Kong Rolex. Breaks in the desultory mortar fire lengthened. Thirty seconds. Two minutes. Two minutes fifty-five. Six minutes. The cicadas seemed to know, too. They resumed their see-saw chorus in the forest of umbrella pines during the lengthening intervals. Someone stood up. Someone else followed. After a moment’s hesitation, as if at a signal, the media pack emerged en masse from cover and ran for their cars. They wanted their lunch, too. A local Associated Press reporter followed hard on the heels of an Agence France Press snapper – known for both her superb pictures and her heroin habit. Hendricks was relieved; good riddance – it meant less competition. Doors slammed, engines revved, wheels spun and the cavalcade of Citroens, Peugeots, Volkswagen Golfs and those civil war battlewagons, the Mercedes taxis of 1960s and 70s vintage, jostled for precedence and stampeded downhill, nose-to-tail. Once again, only in reverse, the column now in retreat threw up clouds of dust. Sunlight winked from a score of windscreens in the hairpin bends. A spotter up there on the mountain could not fail to miss the circus. Hendricks imagined that someone else – a corporal or sergeant – would have to stop chewing his grilled chicken and garlic just long enough to give an order. So it was that three mortar rounds – Hendricks judged them to be 82mm mediums – soared into a perfectly blue sky and plummeted down, crashing into the hillside, mushrooms of grey smoke bracketing road and storm drain. Hendricks hugged himself, cringing at teeth-jarring detonations. Too damn close. He ducked his head, his forehead pressed against his knees; he clasped his shins with both hands and made himself as small as he could. He hated fucking mortars. Did he whisper or scream? He didn’t know, didn’t care; the fin-tailed bombs performed balletic parabolas and came down vertically. Their kill zones were circular and there was no hiding from them; it was trigonometry – you got lucky or you didn’t. That’s all there was to it. Leaves, bark, twigs shredded by steel fragments from eucalyptus trees lining the road cascaded down on both Hendricks and the captain. Some of the vegetation found its way inside the reporter’s filthy shirt collar and down his sticky back. Having thus bid the visitors a noisy goodbye, if that’s what it was, the mortar crews slouched back to their sandwiches, Turkish coffees and smokes in the shade, for there was no more firing. Duty done, they could resume their games of cards and backgammon or take a long afternoon nap. No-one had been hit as far as Hendricks could tell.
He was still there and still lucky and that’s what mattered.
Now the captain excelled himself and earned a soupçon of respect; the first Hendricks knew of it was a crashing, a roar like an avalanche. The crashing became a shaking, a clanking, a metallic screeching like nails across a school blackboard only a thousand times louder. The pines shook, the ground quivered and Hendricks poked his head above the edge of the ditch.
A giant mollusc, green and very grimy, twisted and slithered downhill. It rocked from side to side and pitched back and forth. Leaving a trail of broken timber, it slammed onto the road, churning up tarmac; the monster had no legs, only tracks caked with mud. It opened its trap-like mouth with much wheezing and squeaking. It gushed a toxic smoke of burned diesel and veiled itself coyly in sepia dust. This M-something-or-other, a relic from one of Washington’s failed wars (there would be no shortage of those in the decades to follow), had been summoned by the captain to carry the foreign journalists up to visit the army Rangers in their hillside trenches. Hendricks would not have to walk, but the mollusc did not inspire confidence and he thought that maybe it would have been better if he had legged it after all.
The ‘tourists’ squeezed in, packed tight as the Tube in the London rush hour.
Barthes, Parisian fashion photographer with weak mouth and trademark white silk scarf, was first. Fraser’s colleague Cusak, a six-footer from Toronto who never looked anything less than immaculate whatever the circumstances, even bulked up in his snapper’s multi-pocketed Renoma jacket bulging with cameras, lenses and rolls of film, sat opposite. A local Visnews staffer, Rabboukian, impossibly brave, hawk-nosed, pigtailed and sweating copiously, hugged his video camera to his chest as he squeezed in next to Cusak. He and Rabboukian were laughing at something Cusak had shouted above the racket of the mollusc’s engine about losing their legs. Barthes frowned. He was one of life’s frowners. Atwater of The Times was next, a preternaturally juvenile, baby-faced old Harrovian in a safari jacket with curly blond hair, impeccable manners and dead eyes of grey. Women and girls thought him handsome and Hendricks hated him for it. Paganini, an elderly correspondent from Milan’s Corriera della Sierra and veteran of many forgotten wars in places few people had heard of, perched next to Atwater and looked around him; he smiled and his smile seemed to say, ‘children, isn’t this fun?’ Hendricks stood aside for the only female and freelancer present, Prostoy; he deliberately avoided looking at her bottom in pink jeans as she clambered aboard just ahead of him, but he breathed in a lungful of her perfume. His hard-one was swift and immense as it was embarrassing. As he took his place opposite her, Hendricks used his wire bound reporter’s notebook to hide his tumescence.
Last in was a bearded crewman in denim and trainers with a sweatband around his head and an AK-47 like a toy across massive thighs; his job was to reach out and turn a lever. The rear door rose up like a medieval drawbridge and huffing asthmatically, it sealed the bodacious visitors in and shut out the sky, the Mediterranean, the hills, the forests, the cicadas. In sweltering heat and darkness, gasping in a miasma of dust and diesel, the journalists groped for handholds and braced as the M-something-or-other mollusc swivelled on its tracks, shook itself like a dog out of water and lurched forward, clambering and bouncing back the way it had come. Hendricks was struck by strange flying objects and stranger bodies, including that of Prostoy.
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Maalesh. No problem.’
Hendricks heard the small arms fire hit; he couldn’t tell if anyone else had heard the impacts. They weren’t that loud, it was like a patter of rain, or maybe someone riffing fortissimo with his fingernails just behind his head through the half centimetre of armour plate or whatever it was. Five or six rounds maybe, a calling card: we’re here. Kiefak? How’s it going, lads? Could the APC withstand 12.7mm rounds? Best not ask. Hendricks hoped he wouldn’t find out.
The M-something-or-other staggered to a halt after what seemed like a very long time, but it was only five minutes before the rear clanked open and Hendricks found himself standing confusedly in a village street; what had been the main street, but was now a river of crushed masonry, broken pipes, gutted cars, upended telephone poles, an iron bedstead, a filthy bath and a great quantity of unrecognizable carbonized objects and misshapen lumps of fused glass.
The village – its name translated as Western Market – had been fought over for weeks and had changed hands several times. There were Roman ruins in the area and the village itself dated back to the 16th century. ‘Welcome to Souk al-Gharb.’ The captain stepped carefully into the rubble from another relic beloved of war re-enactment enthusiasts, a Willys Jeep with radio aerials and canvas roof. Like the APC, it bore the national army’s symbol of a white cedar tree.
‘We were shot at, weren’t we?’ Prostoy sounded hopeful and very American.
The captain checked his moustache. It was still there. ’A few rounds, Mademoiselle. Nothing serious. They like us to know that they know we’re here.’
The captain’s insouciance raised him a further peg in Hendricks’s estimation. After all, the Willys Jeep had provided no protection from the welcoming small arms fire other than its mobility.
Led by the captain-come-tour-guide, they stumbled along the street, bounded on either side by walls cut down to crooked stubs a few feet high. What structures remained standing had been reduced to latticework, holed in so many places and so lopsided that they seemed to defy gravity. Fighters emerged in twos and threes from the wreckage to stare at the visitors like shy aborigines face-to-face with camera-toting European anthropologists. They were as grubby as their surroundings, their uniforms ill-fitting and torn. Unshaven, their hair long and tangled, they resembled tramps. They clutched AKs and their pockets were stuffed with spare clips and grenades. They wore American flak jackets that had last seen service in Vietnam; the foreigners were each handed one and urged to wear them. The body armour was immensely heavy; covered in shiny green nylon, Hendricks’s seemed to be made of glass fibre and metal plates. It was too small to close across his torso; left open, he knew, it was worse than useless – if he got hit, the round could ricochet around the inside of the jacket. It didn’t bear thinking about.
Battalion headquarters was a building that had collapsed on itself, a sandwich of concrete and crushed brick, iron, plaster and glass, and behind several layers of sagging sandbags, reinforced with tree trunks and iron girders, was a single large room. It had been the basement; battery-powered lights allowed the commander to display maps and photographs laid out on trestle tables. The journalists stood in a semi-circle of shadow facing the burly lieutenant-colonel whose name – Ahmed Murad – suggested a Sunni Moslem. He kept his remarks to the minimum. He tapped the maps with a bayonet. Here we are. There they are.
Hendricks kept his distance from Prostoy, aware of how much he stank of sweat.
He scrawled a few words in his notebook. He sketched his own map; it took only a few quick lines: the Mediterranean coastline running north-south, the parallel north-south highway, Beirut itself, the highway from the Lebanese capital through the mountains heading east to Damascus. South-east of the capital a short diagonal represented the ridge that dominated both highways, high ground with five hills like the knuckles of a closed fist. In the depression between the first and second ‘knuckle’ was the village of Souk al-Gharb surrounded by market gardens and farms. Whoever held it could safeguard or threaten the capital’s access south and east. It also blocked the southern approach to the presidential palace at Baabda and the defence ministry at Yarze. Strategic was a word that came to mind.
Paganini wanted to know who the army’s enemies were on the other side.
The lieutenant-colonel had long black eyelashes and his bushy eyebrows were joined up in the middle. He wore a beret with a ranger shield that looked as if it had been copied from U.S. Ranger units. ‘Druze. Kurds. Palestinians. Lebanese communists. Syrian National Social Party militia. Supported by Syrian army tanks. T-55s and 62s.’ He spat the words as if he’d eaten something disagreeable.
Atwater, who knew the answer to his own question: ‘These men we’ve seen outside in the village. They are Rangers?’
Murad gave her a long, appraising look. ’Lebanese Forces’.
‘Correct. The Ketaeb.’
The army disliked their rightwing militia allies and the distrust was mutual.
‘Where are the Rangers?’ Prostoy again, like a holidaymaker in sub-Saharan Africa asking a safari guide what time the elephants will gather at the watering hole below her balcony at Mala-Mala.
‘Up the hill. Those of you who want to walk up there will see them.’
Outside again under a near-vertical sun, Hendricks saw that the street led uphill. At the end of the village it crossed open ground – gravel and sand and no cover to the east where the tanks lurked, hull down in the pines. It was about 60 metres or so to the nearest position and they’d have to do it in a single rush. Not everyone was keen. Barthes decided he’d take some pictures of the Phalangists around battalion headquarters.
Here we go. Hendricks told his legs: run. They twitched but remained where they were. Run. This time they worked. He pushed off with the ball of his right foot. His knees pumped, thigh and calf muscles flexed, his hands punched the air at chest height. He sucked in air through his mouth. Sweat blurred his vision. He ran as fast as he could, no dignified trot but a mad charge, the gallop of a 20-1 odds old nag. His flak jacket was a dead weight against his chest and seemed to be pushing him backwards. His fear-meter was ticking away in his central cortex; well within the range of what was comfortably manageable, even when the rounds come in from the left, too high to do any harm. They whispered overhead, 7.62mm bullets almost spent and heard moments before the distant detonations of the weapons firing them. Crack-bang.
Cusak led. Hendricks was aware of Paganini to his left and slightly behind; Paganini was still smiling, while Prostoy, on Hendricks’s right, kept level with long, easy strides. Atwater was directly behind him. When Cusak stopped, Hendricks cannoned into him and they grabbed one another to avoid falling over; it seemed uproariously funny to both men.
They were in the trenches on the heavily-mined Hill 888 and they stank powerfully of shit; they were little more than an untidy series of shell scrapes – rather than dig more than two feet down, the troops had thrown up a wall of earth, buttressed with masonry, from concrete slabs to bricks and roof tiles. Steel roof girders red with rust had been placed across the trenches at irregular intervals, with the objective of forcing Hendricks and his comrades to bend double in places where snipers were active. The tourists – that’s what the Lebanese called the foreign media – went forward in single file, crouching low, watching where they placed their feet, turning left then right in a series of zig-zags that followed the edge of an escarpment.
Hendricks could hear the opposing team talking a few feet away, below the army’s barricade. The language was Arabic, but too indistinct to make out and he couldn’t help but wonder if some of the PSP Druze, Kurds, Palestinians and SNSP boys from his own neighbourhood in Ras Beirut were up there, ‘doing their bit’ for world revolution and the greater Baathist glory of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad; a kind of day shift at the front, picnic included.
Aside from faeces, some of it quite fresh (fresh enough to make pretty boy Atwater dry retch), the trenches were littered with the debris of fighting men. A kettle, a cascade of spent 5.56mm cartridges, boots without laces, a dented helmet that had served as a cooking pot, several items of clothing trampled into the dirt, torn webbing, ammunition boxes, a greasy pillow, a broken arak bottle, bloody dressings, used syringes and empty vials of what? Morphine?
It may have been the noise they made, but whatever it was, the presence of ‘tourists’ had not gone unnoticed. Firing started up again, and this time in earnest. It began with a deafening whack of a rocket-propelled grenade, sending everyone diving to the bottom of the trench, flat on their bellies and hands over their heads, shit or no shit, and close enough to shower the journalists and their escorting officers with dirt.
Single rounds and short automatic bursts followed. Crack-bang. Crack-bang. Rounds whispered, sighed, snapped and sang, depending on the range of the firers and the bullets’ distance from the target; they dinged in ricochet off the girders and whizzed, whined and whirred overhead as if a swarm of hornets had found something sweet and succulent to investigate. Hendricks’s fear-meter had gone up an octave and the pinging had accelerated in the sonar of his mind, but he told himself it was still well inside the envelope. What if it wasn’t?
They squeezed into a strongpoint of sandbags with a one metre thick roof of logs, earth and yet more sandbags. The captain said they were safer there. Tall Rangers in disrupted pattern combats and berets and armed with Armalite rifles stared at them in the half-light. The foreign civilians of the 4th Estate stared back. The Rangers all had Saddam Hussein moustaches. The reason was obvious to all: Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Baghdad was supplying arms to the Lebanese army in the latter’s fight against the rival Baathist regime in Damascus on the basis of that old trope – my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
Hendricks glanced at his notes. He had one quote from Lieutenant-Colonel Murad. ‘The Syrians will never take Beirut, not as long as we hold Souk al-Gharb – and we’ll never give that up.’ The phrase ‘and we’ll never give that up’ Hendricks had added himself. It was what Murad had meant, after all. The lieutenant-colonel would have said it if he’d the time to think about it, and it rounded off the quote rather nicely. It wasn’t untrue. Murad was never going to deny that he’d said that he’d never give up the village; he couldn’t because it would imply he was prepared to do just that. Anyway, they were brave words no-one believed, not even the commander. Balls, all of it, but it was all Hendricks needed. He had his story for the day, and the punters would lap it up.
He sat back in the front passenger seat of Cusak’s battered Ford, arm poking out of the window, feeling the sweat dry on his face and neck as they rolled down to the coast and the city. Hendricks was already writing his story. The first three paragraphs popped into his head without any conscious effort; his synapses were trained to work like a word processor out of Pavlovian habit. It was the kind of story that wrote itself. There was no more shit and diesel; instead they plunged through invisible clouds of fragrance: eddies of sage and a rivulet of wild thyme, pools of rocket, oregano and rosemary growing in profusion on either side of the single lane road. In late afternoon, the sun dipping over a silver sea, shadow purpled the hills, and trickles of mimosa, lemon, honeysuckle and jasmine floated and mingled around the car and its two occupants. At this distance, even Beirut seemed inviting. Lebanon really was a beautiful country.
John Fullerton was born in England, grew up in apartheid South Africa and after working for newspapers, set out in February 1981 to cover the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Three years later he joined Reuters, working on 40 countries and covering a dozen wars. he has an MA in Buddhist Studies, and has published five novels and one work of non-fiction. When not traveling, he lives in Scotland.