LEBANON: Getting close to the fire
By Borzou Daragahi in Beirut
Things started to calm down when the bespectacled nebbish young man with a bandage over the bridge of his nose showed up.
He was short, pudgy and wore a plaid shirt buttoned to the top of his neck. And unlike the other Shiite militiamen who had detained us and taken away our cameras and identification cards, he refused to shake hands with the women.
But the frantic, black-clad Amal party militiamen clearly looked upon this fellow with respect. Once he arrived, the militiamen became calmer and more respectful toward us. They started offering us Pepsi, cigarettes and gum. After being detained by a gang of Shiite militiamen for nearly an hour during Lebanon's troubles today, we were confident we'd be soon be released.
The trouble started after several colleagues and I drove to South Beirut. We wanted to take a few snapshots and interview some of the young men who had plunged the country into crisis by setting up roadblocks to close off the roads leading to Lebanon's international airport.
After wending our way past a few barricades, we came to a dead end. We got out of the car. A kid who was apparently a member of the pro-Hezbollah Amal militia told us we should take pictures down the road.
So we walked about a quarter-mile. We were taking snapshots of flight attendants navigating a highway embankment on foot, attempting to get past the barricades to the airport, when the trouble started.
Suddenly a tall black-clad militiaman approached me. He demanded my press card. I showed it to him. He took it away, pulled out a walkie-talkie and began barking into it that he had found some people claiming to be American journalists. "What should I do with them?" he asked.
I demanded my press card back. I had spent hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours to obtain a Lebanese residency and work permit to get that press card. I'd be darned if was gonna let it get away so easily.
More of his buddies arrived. They demanded our cameras. We refused. Things got a little physical, with the Amal guys pulling on my colleagues' camera straps.
We relented, but not before pulling most of the memory cards out of the cameras and stuffing them into our pockets.
They carted off all our equipment and identification and surrounded us. Were we under arrest? Were we being robbed?
An English-speaking guy approached us.
"You're Americans!" he said. "What are you doing here?"
He said he was a police officer. "You know these Amal guys," he said. "They're out of control."
They demanded our cellphones. At first, we refused. But they had guns holstered at their waists. We felt helpless and relented.
"You'll get it back," the "police officer" assured us.
Then "spectacles" arrived. He was different from the Amal guys. A lot more controlled. Self-contained. When I told him I was of Iranian descent, he seemed elated, trying out his few words of Farsi on me.
He held onto our phones, kind of toying with us, seeing how we behaved. Classic interrogation technique, I thought. Make us feel isolated and vulnerable, him in control. I assumed he was the local Hezbollah leader, overseeing the operations of the less disciplined (but better dressed) Amal fighters.
We humored him and his merry band. "This is not good for Amal's image," I confided to one of them. He shook his head up and down in agreement.
Finally he handed back our phones, but asked us not to turn them on. The cameras came a few minutes later, a little dusty but not at all damaged. They escorted us back to the car, squawking occasionally into their walkie-talkies.
Not a bad experience. In the end, we wound up learning a lot more about them than they learned about us.
Photos: Scenes from Beirut today. Credit: Borzou Daragahi / Los Angeles Times