Dateline Beirut


Part 1

Wednesday, 19 July, Afternoon

(The local time is six hours behind Japan Time.)

After many detours, I arrived at Beirut.

Planning to cover Samawa, I left Japan a week ago (on the 12th), and I was making preparations in Amman, but I couldn’t arrange for an entry into and security in Iraq, so regrettably I had to abandon the plan.

I wanted to examine “what the Self-Defense Force really brought to Samawa,” from my own point of view, free from the Administration/Defense Agency/SDF public relations.  But, on second thoughts, it may be better to report on it later, rather than right after the SDF’s “withdrawal.”  I’ll come back when everyone else will have forgotten about Samawa.  (My previous reports on the SDF in Samawa are included in my book Little Birds and special features added to the DVD version of Little Birds.)

Anyhow, changing the plan quickly, I decided to head to Beirut under air raids.

Here, we have yet another war between Israel and the Arabs (after how many such wars?).

The Israeli military attacks Lebanon.

The Israeli military invades the Gaza strip in Palestine.

Chaos reigns in Iraq, which is already in a state of “civil war” depending on where you find yourself.

What America and Israel do are always the same — the same process, the same result.  Air strikes, terror, destruction, attacks, invasion, repression, occupation, oppression, chaos, civil wars. . . .

Remember Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion: the invaded country is unable to pull itself together and get back on its feet, even after the departure of the last foreign soldier.  A war may begin with an invasion from the “outside,” but it has a way of permeating the “inside,” deep and wide.

Yesterday, I entered Lebanon, by ground, via a route that first took me from Amman to Damascus.  Shortly after crossing the border between Syria and Lebanon, my driver got off the highway and onto a desolate country road.  Since he couldn’t communicate with me in English, the road made me wonder for a second: “Am I getting kidnapped?”  Later, I asked about the route through a translator, and the driver proudly told me that the highway, a target of the Israeli military, was dangerous and that the path he took was the safest.

A Burning Military Truck in Lebanon
Central Lebanon, 19 July 2006
© Photo by Takeharu Watai

Even on that road, though, I saw a military truck that had been bombed and was still on fire, a black plume of smoke rising from it.

This is the first time I’ve seen Beirut.

Not that I had read Gorugo 13 [a comic book about a sniper who accepts a job from anyone, regardless of ideology, on the condition that his client tells him the “whole truth”], the name “Beirut” has a special ring to it.  When I was in college, the cities that I dreamed of seeing at least once were Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Phnom Penh, Beirut, Baghdad, Kabul, and Pyongyang.  The only city on my list that I haven’t visited yet is Pyongyang.  I’d love to get there . . . at least once.

Lebanon suffered from the civil war that began in the late 70s and then the Israeli invasion.  That civil war finally ended in the 90s.  Over the last ten years, cities in Lebanon were just beginning to be restored to their former beauty — now they are being destroyed all over again.  The more beautiful a city is, the more likely it becomes ruined by war, or so it seems.  Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Kabul are good examples.

Beirut today is calmer than I thought.  It’s a city that is unlike any other in the Middle East, with its unique mix of Muslims and Christians.

Many shops were closed in the afternoon, and pedestrians were few, but a customer in a burger shop told me that they were only closed for lunchtime, to avoid summer heat.

Foreign media are showing scenes of evacuations of foreigners endlessly.  Why should the evacuation of Westerners be treated as news?  In any war, foreign or civil, an overwhelming majority of local people are unable to flee, even if they wanted to.

Everybody downtown appeared not to be panicky, but I heard huge explosions — somewhere near — last night, around 8 PM.  “Israeli bombs,” shouted some in the street in alarm, but I couldn’t see the smoke.

It all reminds me of the bombing of Baghdad three years ago.  At that time, too, I heard explosions here, there, everywhere, never quite certain exactly where the bombs hit.  Nevertheless, the sounds of bombs alone strike fear.  Past experience of being bombed doesn’t so much as get you used to it as serve as a reminder of the fear you felt.  All that citizens of Lebanon can do now is to see what’s happening now superimposed on moments remembered from their “wars past.”

Everything in Beirut — from translators to cars — is expensive, now that it’s in the midst of so-called “war inflation.”  Seeing through my need, the first translator who was introduced to me said, “The situation is dangerous, so . . . ,” proceeding to give me a quote of a three-figure daily rate.  Whether in Iraq or Lebanon, money flies away.

Not knowing the lay of the land in Lebanon, I’m a “beginner” here, unlike in Iraq, and I know I’ll face an uphill struggle.  Time to have some tea (a tea bag — what do you expect?) and go to sleep.

Part 2

Thursday, 20 July 2006

Wandering aimlessly in the streets of Beirut, without a car or a translator, lo and behold, I found a man who is a driver and translator.  I was lucky — his job working for another reporter had just come to an end.

That has been a pattern in many places I covered as a journalist for the first time.  Necessity is the mother of accidental discovery, for me.  My driver-translator’s “rate,” always a matter of concern, is half that of the quote I was given yesterday.  Translators are crucial for the work of foreign correspondents.  Half the success of reporting depends on them.

Before the beginning of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I stood in front of the main gate of Baghdad University, accosting one student after another like a barker: “Do you speak English?  Could you work with me from tomorrow?”  Later, someone must have called campus security, for I was treated as a “suspect,” taken to the administration office to explain myself.  In the end, no student cooperated with me.  That’s understandable.  The rule under the government of Saddam Hussein was that a foreign journalist must be escorted by an “official translator-minder,” so no student could take such a “dangerous part-time job.”

Now, the translator I found in Beirut says, “I have all the tools of the trade ready for you.”  In the trunk of his car are bulletproof vests and helmets.  He sure has been in this business for some time.  But I don’t really need such accoutrements.

Many a TV correspondent reports live wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest, but those are just their “telegenic costume.”  After getting off air, they take them off, since they are “oh so heavy.”

Yesterday, I wrote that Beirut was “calmer” than I had thought, but southern Beirut, which I entered today, is another world entirely.  Not a soul is seen in the ruins of it.

Southern Beirut
Southern Beirut, 20 July 2006, © Photo by Takeharu Watai

Everything from office buildings to family homes has been destroyed by repeated bombings over the last seven days.  No doubt there must be some members of Hezbollah in this area, but all the destroyed buildings were shops, markets, and the like.

Annan is said to have appealed for the “deployment of UN peacekeepers” at the UN Security Council.

Would Israel stop bombing if UN peacekeepers were sent?   Or rather Israel wouldn’t stop bombing unless UN peacekeepers were sent?

Canadians, English, Danes, and other foreigners are leaving Lebanon by ship today.  A little after 9 PM, the area that I visited earlier today was bombed again.

Takeharu WataiTakeharu Watai was born in Osaka in 1971.  He has worked as a journalist since 1997, and he joined Asia Press International, an association of freelance journalists, in 1998.  He has reported on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, famine in Sudan, East Timor’s independence struggle, the religious conflict in the Maluku Islands, and the invasion of Afghanistan among others.  He served as a cameraman and Iraq correspondent for Asahi TV, TBS, and other media in 2003-2004.  Out of more than 123 hours of footage of the Iraq War he shot, he made an acclaimed documentary: Little Birds (2005), the recipient of the Human Rights Award at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival and the 2005 Japan Conference of Journalists Grand Prize among other awards.  These dispatches were first published as his blog entries.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]