Say Hi to the Israeli Drone

Before this lockdown ends and tales of incarceration become less topical, here’s another bit of lockdown of sorts. There’s a twist to this one, so bear with me.

This was a five day episode in Tyre, in southern Lebanon, during the 2006 Israeli bombardment.

We had set up base in a fisherman’s house among nets, fish traps and other fisherman’s paraphernalia. We were in the Christian sector that was deemed safest because the Israeli’s didn’t have a bone with the residents there.

Their fight was with Hezbollah and its infrastructure in and around the city, particularly the many caves and tunnels in the surrounding hills where the group had dug positions over the years and from where they were firing missiles at Israeli cities.

We’d watched them do it from the beach a short walk away from the apartment.

You’d see the missiles launching into the air, usually in volleys of three. A minute later an Israeli jet would fly over and drop a bomb on the exact spot where the missiles traces were still visible. The bombs were massive, the ultimate in Israeli military efficiency.

You wouldn’t think anything would survive a direct hit like that. They had the exact location from where the missiles were fired – you could see the trails leading right down to it. But minutes later, right from the same spot, as if to say fuck you, you missed, another volley would streak up into the sky on a trajectory south and across the border.

Talk about cat and mouse, only a lot louder.

In the coming months I would scour these hills looking for stuff. It was there that I had the first sense of what it feels like when a tank turns it’s turret and you can’t recognize it because the barrels pointing straight at you. On previous (and later) occasions I’d moseyed into the line of fire – that time the tank moseyed its barrel around to me.

Any case, we were holed up in this apartment and would go out on the daily routines of people documenting a war.

The FB profile picture of me is coming down the stairs from the apartment on our daily commutes to the war.

It was taken by Sheryl Mendes (hi Sheryl), who knows a thing or two about cameras, wars, journalists, rights and plights, human rights and violations, international courts of justice, NGOs far and wide, politics, terrorists, rebels, movements, and things too strange to mention in good company. She works 24 hours a day and uses the rest of her time to write.

Ain’t nobody can keep up with Sheryl Mendes. I won’t even dare you to try.

Before we got the apartment we’d slept on the beach outside the only hotel in the area which was fully booked by media and other courtesans of war. There was a certain Casablanca feel to two souls sleeping on a Mediterranean beach under the stars in a war.

The main picture here, the one with me smiling like a prick under a while helmet, was taken by Martin Chulov, who was lucky not to injure himself using the camera. (hi Martin)

Give Martin a whiff of a terrorist bomber a thousand miles away, however, and he could follow it and knock on the guys door in a day or two. I know, I seen him do it.

He was the first to get to the Bali bomber who, because of the many nationalities he’d killed, was being chased by every security agency and spy network on the planet.

Martin got there first.

I have not always been inclined to wear protective gear like. Here, we were waiting outside a hospital in Tyre on a body count and the bombs were falling in the city, some quite close. It was a hairier than usual day and we hurriedly got into the gear.

First, there’s the weight of the vest thing that starts to compress your spine in a about 30 minutes.

Add up to 10 kg of camera and hardware and your back starts to throb in about 10 minutes. There’s a ghost throb in my back now just from the memory of it.

Also, that camera you see there is about 2.5-3 Kg with the lens – and there’s another camera out of sight on my other shoulder.

Those of you with a sharp eye for the refined fashion sense of international men of mystery might notice that I’m wearing the same clothes in the two pictures – they were taken on the same day. That’s the other camera I’m holding in the profile pic.

Notice how my left soldier is tweaked back to keep the camera balanced behind my back. Take a look, it’s important.

Years later in Iran, I was leaning over to take a close shot of then President Akbar Hashim Rafsanjani during an election. I was using a second camera, when this 2.5-3 kg of shock proof magnesium encased bit of Nikon gear (same heavy lens you see here) came loose, swung round over my shoulder and whacked the guy sitting directly opposite him on the back of the skull making him yelp – it was actually funny. It may not have cracked the guy’s skull, but it cracked Rafsanjani up and I got a picture of him in full crack.

Apart from the weight, there’s the ethics – the contrast of some people having ppe and others not, as you can see from in the contrast between me and the guy behind me who rudely walked into Martin’s picture.

That nags you. Why me? Why am I the one to be protected? What about all these other people? It’s a dilemma I never conciled with.

Still, you try justify it in a number of ways. Most people are usually hurrying home or somewhere of relative safety to stay put. We were out in the storm every day. Statistically I was at higher risk than that guy.

Also, I am an intruder on a scene, a sterile and objective observer, I don’t belong there, and I mustn’t contaminate a scene with my presence, perhaps even if that contamination is my own blood and gristle.

If all else fails, the bottom line justification is if a bomb lands right between us, why should two people die when one could survive? The argument is a fuzzy one but the numbers are clear, and brutal.

But then, by the time you got into that gear, things are brutal enough and not much you can do is going to add or subtract from it.

Back to the lockdown:

One day the Israeli planes dropped flyers on the city – they did it regularly and it was usually propaganda. This time the flyers said there’s a lockdown. Nobody is allowed out on the streets. Anyone outside may get fired at, probably get it with a Hellfire missile from the drones that were perpetually circling overhead.

Their buzz, the ever present reminder of their menace and the chance of death before you realize you’d been targeted wears you down .

And so began our five day lockdown in the fisherman’s apartment.

It wasn’t clear whether the lockdown meant cars, motorbikes (which Hezbollah fighters and support used to move around) or people. But we were in the relative safety of the Christian quarter and we chanced going out during the days to watch the war, mostly sticking to that small neighbourhood of an acre or two.

On those forays I hoped that the Israeli intelligence peering down at us from their drones may spot the two pales faces and blonde heads I was with and the gear we were carrying and take us for who we are. But there were no guarantees.

Pleasant as it was in that cool apartment with all the fishing nets, the constant sound of drones, fighter planes, missiles streaking upwards and big bombs falling, and perhaps because I’d been relegated to cooking, we were all starting to get a bit cagey.

About five days into this, we got word from one of the big news agencies, perhaps CNN. They had been in contact with their American military friends who had been in contact with their Israeli military friends who had give us a two hour window to get our asses north of the Litani river and out of the locked down zone.

Word came in at nine, the window was from ten to twelve – give or take. We had an hour to pack our shit, and get into a convoy of six or eight vehicles – all with TV taped on their roof for whatever that was worth – and head north out of the lockdown zone .

Word had it that others, including Hezbollah, were taping the same innocuous letters on the roofs of their own vehicles for cover so whatever little cover we might have had was blown.

We were not to take the main highway north to Beirut – in any case all the bridges had been bombed and it was impassable.

So tracked along north using small farmer roads, travelling through picturesque Mediterranean groves of orange and grapefruit trees, circumnavigating the odd crater caused by one of those ten ton bombs the Israelis where knocking down bridges and buildings with.

Arriving at the trickle of the Litan River, we found whatever structure that stood as a bridge had been bombed and was in tatters. The river was almost crossable but not quite so we got to salvaging what materials we could and laying them down in the water to get the cars across.

We were out in the open in the lockdown zone, there were drones and jets overhead, bombs were falling, people were dying, we were nearing the deadline, we were stuck, and we were starting to get nervous.

At one point I stood back to inspect the crossing we had cobbled together and beside me was the CNN lady who’d arranged for our safety window. She was on her satellite phone working her contacts to alert the Israeli’s overhead of our predicament.

Still on the phone, she looked up – drones make you do that – said thank you and hung up.

Her contact in the American military, it seems, was in very trailer sitting beside the very drone pilot operating the very drone that was tracking us.

They had eyes on us real time.

They saw who and where were, why we’d stopped, and what we were doing. They were not planning on firing at us – but do hurry up.

It was a striking moment.

We all looked up to spot that drone and waved at it; maybe to confirm to it that this is us, maybe to say thank you for not shooting, maybe to relieve the tension, or maybe because waving at an Israeli drone that you know is watching you isn’t the sort of thing you get to do every day.

 — with Sheryl Mendez and Martin Chulov.

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