Pre-arrival flight deck briefings are usually innocuous affairs. Not today. “If it appears to be a bit of a heavy landing and rather abrupt braking,” advises BMed’s Capt Jason Holt, “that’s just me making sure we don’t go too far down the runway.”
Going too far down runway 16 at Beirut Airport, of course, would mean winding up in the bomb crater at the southern end. Rafic Hariri International had been among the first points of call for Israeli fighters 35 days before, when the smouldering tension with southern Lebanon’s Islamic resistance group Hezbollah exploded into armed conflict. Precision air strikes, notably along the three runways’ centrelines and several taxiway intersection points, appeared to have crippled Beirut’s main gateway.
Not so. With a fragile ceasefire barely 80 hours old, BMed flight KJ001 (with Flight International as the only aviation press representation on board) touches down on the foreshortened runway (a NOTAM declares the available landing distance to be just 2,000m, some 40% shy of its physical length) and taxies to a reception committee of military personnel, ground handlers, Lebanese reporters, politicians and excavators. Even as military engineers are digging in the background, working to remove three or four unexploded Mk 84 bombs, there’s a sense that, in this city, the locals view a state of war as no less transient than Londoners would a particularly heavy downpour. It’s an inconvenience; find shelter, it’ll pass.
Beirut Airport is open, and the staff aren’t easily discouraged by minor issues such as an absence of aircraft – flag-carrier Middle East Airlines decamped to Damascus rather than risk a potentially-expensive return visit from the Israeli Air Force – or passengers. The departure hall is deserted. There isn’t a customer in sight but practically every shop is open, lit and manned – even the small souvenir kiosk, an outpost of defiance in the face of Lebanon’s wrecked tourist season.
None of the postcards features the landscapes of Dahieh and Haret Hreik, the residential suburbs through which the airport road passes, and over which Israeli aircraft have unloaded a devastating quantity of ordnance in a bid to dislodge Hezbollah from its southern Beirut stronghold.
Shells of apartment blocks, blackened by fire, stand adjacent to unrecognisable piles of concrete coated with grey dust – ten-storey buildings vertically compressed to barely ten feet. Smoke is still rising from some of them, and in the air hangs a faintly sweet, but nevertheless unpleasant, scent. At the end of one blasted street, where a lone child aged about nine is salvaging metal scraps, the twin-spired Al-Hassanein mosque is unscathed. It’s a stark reminder of the accuracy of precision-guided bombs. Even if, from where I’m standing, Haret Hreik looks as though it’s been precisely bombed just about everywhere.
Someone once told me that curiosity doesn’t kill cats – it’s answers that tend to prove fatal. Hezbollah sentries in T-shirts are guarding a makeshift barricade, blocking access to a main road. My taxi driver says that, beyond, is a ‘secure zone’. Quite what needs to be secured isn’t obvious.
Despite my not speaking a word of Arabic, carrying no identification bar an expired press card, and not being equipped with any of the other normal tools of ad hoc diplomacy – cigarettes, hard currency and the like – I stride towards the barricade, optimistic of blagging passage, or at least a photo or two. I’m a dozen steps away when a white van, its driver’s directional awareness bordering on the suicidally deficient, tears through the checkpoint. On his feet in an instant, one of the sentries pours AK-47 fire at the receding vehicle, bringing the van to a sudden, screeching halt before he sprints after it.
Fluency in Arabic, it turns out, is unnecessary. As I raise my camera, a combination of shouting and gestures clearly hints that photography at this moment could be disadvantageous, particularly if my current list of advantages counts being able to walk. Best I leave now. The taxi driver, who has heard the gunfire, appears mildly surprised - perhaps that I'm still alive. He asks, grinning: “Did you upset Hezbollah?”
Camera-shy its members might be, but Hezbollah isn’t anti-Kodak. Photographs of missile-blasted homes make good propaganda, especially those whose walls are draped with sarcastic banners declaring that this mess was ‘Made in the USA’ and cryptically referring to ‘The New Middle Beast’. Demolished tower blocks, indistinguishable between streets, on closer inspection reveal grim reminders that these were individual homes: a sofa, lampshades, rugs, kitchenware. Copies of the Koran lie outside one obliterated residence, and from the dust of another taped-off heap of masonry I pull a child’s stuffed toy dog, its yellow fur coated grey and embedded with glass shards.
Even with Hezbollah’s permission, and the licence afforded to me as a journalist, each photograph feels somewhat indecent, as if Haret Hreik has become a grotesque tourist attraction. I return to the battered silver taxi, and ask the driver – who has patiently acted as negotiator, advisor and translator for an hour – to take me back to the hotel. He looks at me knowingly. “You can smell it? In the air? That’s the bodies they haven’t reached yet.”
Just five minutes’ drive from the suburb, much of the evidence vanishes. The Khatem Al-Anbiyaa mosque, with its distinctive blue domes and sandy towers, is tranquil and magnificent in the morning sun. Beirut’s traffic and bustle seem to belie any suggestion of a city so recently at war.
Rafic Hariri Airport, three hours later, is trying with only partial success to imitate the same sense of normality. Middle East Airlines, which yesterday managed to uphold Lebanese pride by scrambling to operate the first Airbus into its home base, is preparing a scheduled A321 service to Amman. It’s parked at gate 20. The BMed A321 is back (having had to hop across to Cyprus for fuel), waiting at gate 21. Every other gate is empty. None of the indicator screens shows any flight information and there are still more shops than people in the departure hall.
One of those shops appears busier than the others. But it’s not doing any business. The staff are boxing up its entire stock of Lebanese confectionery, hastily abandoned a month before when Israeli jets blazed over the horizon. It’s expired, says the storekeeper, and illegal to sell. Everything is to be dumped; an ironic footnote, given that southern parts of the country are receiving food hand-outs from humanitarian aid convoys.
Having turned down my cash-for-cakes offer three times, the storekeeper is becoming increasingly apologetic and flustered. I suggest that, if she can’t sell them, perhaps she’ll agree just to hand me a box, no questions. She can’t, she says, politely – she’ll need all manner of permission from her manager, else she’ll be in trouble for giving me, of all things, out-of-date dates.
Even negotiating with Hezbollah wasn’t this difficult. But eventually I offer a compromise: I’ll help her dump the stock. I’ll dump one tub of it. In London. She capitulates, on condition I don’t tell the other passengers. I don't have the heart to point out that there aren’t any other passengers to tell, so I promise and head for the gate. Diplomacy in the Middle East works after all.