I should have been dead: First in a series

An Ill-Advised Photo Op Leads to Militia Vote: To Die or Not?

  BEIRUT – I stood on an eerily quiet street in Ashrafiyah, a Christian neighborhood in East Beirut, during a truce day in the country’s 8- month-old civil war.

  At the opposite end of the street was an all-too familiar image: A group of armed militiamen were milling about their bunkered station – a circular pile of sand bags about five feet high. Since there was no fighting this day, the fighters stood there informally smoking cigarettes and chatting with one another. All of them wore ski masks to hide their identities. That told me they were members of the Kataeb, a Christian militia group with a reputation as fierce combatants.

  Their apparent relaxed demeanor gave me the courage to point my camera in their direction. My viewfinder quickly told me a different story: One of the militiamen had raised his rife and pointed it directly at me. As I slowly lowered my camera, I felt the cold steel of another rifle pushing against my back.

  “Let’s go. Move!” he said in Arabic.

Murderous war

  The war, which had begun in April 1975, escalated during the fall after numerous truces failed. A number of well-armed militia units – Lebanese Christians and Muslims, and resident Palestinians - had seized control of the city and its suburbs, each carving out turf they zealously defended. By day, the fighters slept. At night, their bullets, rockets and mortars made sleep impossible for the rest of us.

  Along with the nightly battles, the militia units erected spontaneous roadblocks. They pulled unsuspecting innocents from their vehicles, checked their religious affiliation and executed opponents on sight. During the worst times, body counts often exceeded 100 each day.

  After a particularly bad stretch of fighting in early November, the militias called a one-day truce to allow the city's residents to restock their dwindling food supplies, withdraw money from their banks and visit relatives in areas that had been under siege for weeks. At the time, I was living in West Beirut, near the American University. It was a relatively safe neighborhood. I had just moved from another, not-so- safe West Beirut neighborhood, where the walls of my apartment building accumulated one too many bullet holes. I left the day after my neighbor, Mohammed, was grazed by sniper fire while sleeping in bed.

  One of my new roommates, Jeff Smith, an Englishman, had left his East Beirut apartment in a hurry two months earlier and had not returned. Jeff was anxious to take advantage of the truce to retrieve some of his belongings. I had a car and offered to drive.

  As we made our way through the narrow, crowded streets of West Beirut, we saw for the first time the extent of the damage to the city. The non-stop shelling had gutted acres of office buildings and reduced hundreds of shops to rubble. Nearly every apartment building had been scarred by gunfire. Traffic was thick at the Green Line, which divided predominantly Muslim West Beirut from the east, which was exclusively Christian. It took an hour to pass through the heavily- guarded Green Line checkpoint.

  Smith's Ashrafiyah apartment was in an old, upper-middle class neighborhood. It would take him a couple of hours to organize his belongings, so I decided to go picture-hunting in the neighborhood. Although Ashrafiyah had not been shelled as much as other parts of the city, its proximity to central Beirut, where most of the heavy fighting took place, left it badly scarred from sniper bullets and mortar fire. It was a couple of blocks from Jeff’s apartment when I rounded a corner and made my first mistake.

Interrogation

  We walked three blocks, me in front, him in back. The rife remained pressed against my back. Each step, I thought, could be my last as he could have easily shot me anytime. My death would have been of no consequence in a city where rotting bodies were a common site. Finally, we entered a small apartment building and went down two flights of stairs. It was quickly apparent the basement had been converted into a Kataeb command post. A dozen or so militiamen armed with rifles and pistols were moving about and a number of maps were pasted to the walls.

  I was led into a large room where five men and a woman sat around a rectangular table. My "guide" spoke to the group in Arabic, explaining the circumstances involving my capture. The woman, who spoke excellent English, asked for my passport. I handed it to her and hoped my second mistake would not be discovered.

  For the next half hour or so, I answered many questions: Why are you in Beirut? What are you doing in Ashrafiyah? Why were you taking pictures? Why do you look like a Lebanese but don't speak Arabic? Although my knees were shaking and my heart beating quickly, I responded to each one as calmly as I could.

  I decided it was time to play my only possible trump card: I told the group I had a cousin who lived in the neighborhood. "His name?" the woman asked.

  "Nabil Nahas," I replied.

  "Ah," she said, "his cousin Nadim is one of us."

  Elated they knew Nabil, I relaxed for the first time. Using a nearby phone, they quickly reached Nadim who said he would call Nabil. I was sent to another room, where I paced nervously for about 15 minutes. Where is Jeff? I wondered.

  Back before the tribunal, the woman told me Nabil said I was "probably OK."

  "But he couldn't say 100 percent sure," she said.

  That's understandable, I replied. We had met only a few times and were not closely related.

  Nervous again, I worked the gum I was chewing a little more quickly. That irritated the militiaman who had brought me in. He said something to the woman, who asked me to remove the gum.

  "He wants to search you," she said.

  My heart sank as he began feeling my pockets. I began sweating when he found the second passport in my pouch, the one with my picture and a different name. With a smirk on his face that said: "I told you so," he tossed it on the table. The woman flipped through it and passed it around the table.

  Finally, she asked, "Do you want to explain this to us?"

-PHOTO-

My story

  "It’s not what you think," I said. I then told the group my improbable story.

  I had left the United States 13 months earlier for a two-month backpacking tour of Europe, a long-anticipated break before completing my master's thesis. Cash poor, I was too old to qualify for the youth fare rate [no longer in existence], which would have halved the $650 airfare to Madrid. Unwisely, I concocted a scheme that secured a second passport in my 21-year-old cousin's name, allowing me to buy the cheaper ticket. No big deal for a couple of months, I thought.

  But my trip grew to four months as I moved eastward to Greece. One day, while sitting at a café in Athens, I discovered I was only a short flight from Lebanon, the country my grandparents had emigrated from 70 years earlier. Three weeks later, in October 1974, I landed in Beirut, which at the time was flourishing from the oil boom in the Arabian Gulf. I soon tracked down relatives in a lovely mountain village in the Bekaa Valley, where I lived for two months. I then found a job at an advertising agency in Beirut and arranged to complete my degree requirements while in Lebanon.

  Meanwhile, I validated my real passport and stashed the bogus one, which remained buried until the Saturday of the truce. I had $80 worth of traveler's checks remaining in my cousin's name that I wanted to cash that day. It was only the second time I carried both passports.

  "I know it sounds crazy," I told the group, "but it's the truth."

  They were understandably perplexed by my story. My favorite militiaman, who never left my side, spoke quickly to the woman. "He thinks you're a spy," she said. "We need some time to discuss your situation."

Deliberation

  As I left the room I ran into Jeff, who was being led through a door by another soldier. "I've been looking for you forever," he said. "I was worried sick." I was elated. Jeff was one of only a handful of people who knew the tale of my two passports.

  "He can verify my story," I told the group, as Jeff and I stood before them.

  They appeared even more confused. But Jeff, bless his heart, repeated my story, covering every detail.

  We were sent to another room, where we waited for maybe 20 minutes. Each minute seemed like an hour. I knew my fate, and possibly Jeff’s, rested with the six people in that room.

  Finally, one of the tribunal members who had not spoken previously appeared and asked us to follow him outside. Our car was in front. [Earlier, they had taken the keys and asked where I had parked.]

  "Get inside," he ordered in heavily-accented English.

  He leaned inside my window and handed me both passports.

  "I don't know why we are letting you go," he said. "Many people have died for much less than this. Don't let us see you around here again."

  BEIRUT – I stood on an eerily quiet street in Ashrafiyah, a Christian neighborhood in East Beirut, during a truce day in the country’s 8- month-old civil war.

  At the opposite end of the street was an all-too familiar image: A group of armed militiamen were milling about their bunkered station – a circular pile of sand bags about five feet high. Since there was no fighting this day, the fighters stood there informally smoking cigarettes and chatting with one another. All of them wore ski masks to hide their identities. That told me they were members of the Kataeb, a Christian militia group with a reputation as fierce combatants.

  Their apparent relaxed demeanor gave me the courage to point my camera in their direction. My viewfinder quickly told me a different story: One of the militiamen had raised his rife and pointed it directly at me. As I slowly lowered my camera, I felt the cold steel of another rifle pushing against my back.

  “Let’s go. Move!” he said in Arabic.

Murderous war

  The war, which had begun in April 1975, escalated during the fall after numerous truces failed. A number of well-armed militia units – Lebanese Christians and Muslims, and resident Palestinians - had seized control of the city and its suburbs, each carving out turf they zealously defended. By day, the fighters slept. At night, their bullets, rockets and mortars made sleep impossible for the rest of us.

  Along with the nightly battles, the militia units erected spontaneous roadblocks. They pulled unsuspecting innocents from their vehicles, checked their religious affiliation and executed opponents on sight. During the worst times, body counts often exceeded 100 each day.

  After a particularly bad stretch of fighting in early November, the militias called a one-day truce to allow the city's residents to restock their dwindling food supplies, withdraw money from their banks and visit relatives in areas that had been under siege for weeks. At the time, I was living in West Beirut, near the American University. It was a relatively safe neighborhood. I had just moved from another, not-so- safe West Beirut neighborhood, where the walls of my apartment building accumulated one too many bullet holes. I left the day after my neighbor, Mohammed, was grazed by sniper fire while sleeping in bed.

  One of my new roommates, Jeff Smith, an Englishman, had left his East Beirut apartment in a hurry two months earlier and had not returned. Jeff was anxious to take advantage of the truce to retrieve some of his belongings. I had a car and offered to drive.

  As we made our way through the narrow, crowded streets of West Beirut, we saw for the first time the extent of the damage to the city. The non-stop shelling had gutted acres of office buildings and reduced hundreds of shops to rubble. Nearly every apartment building had been scarred by gunfire. Traffic was thick at the Green Line, which divided predominantly Muslim West Beirut from the east, which was exclusively Christian. It took an hour to pass through the heavily- guarded Green Line checkpoint.

  Smith's Ashrafiyah apartment was in an old, upper-middle class neighborhood. It would take him a couple of hours to organize his belongings, so I decided to go picture-hunting in the neighborhood. Although Ashrafiyah had not been shelled as much as other parts of the city, its proximity to central Beirut, where most of the heavy fighting took place, left it badly scarred from sniper bullets and mortar fire. It was a couple of blocks from Jeff’s apartment when I rounded a corner and made my first mistake.

Interrogation

  We walked three blocks, me in front, him in back. The rife remained pressed against my back. Each step, I thought, could be my last as he could have easily shot me anytime. My death would have been of no consequence in a city where rotting bodies were a common site. Finally, we entered a small apartment building and went down two flights of stairs. It was quickly apparent the basement had been converted into a Kataeb command post. A dozen or so militiamen armed with rifles and pistols were moving about and a number of maps were pasted to the walls.

  I was led into a large room where five men and a woman sat around a rectangular table. My "guide" spoke to the group in Arabic, explaining the circumstances involving my capture. The woman, who spoke excellent English, asked for my passport. I handed it to her and hoped my second mistake would not be discovered.

  For the next half hour or so, I answered many questions: Why are you in Beirut? What are you doing in Ashrafiyah? Why were you taking pictures? Why do you look like a Lebanese but don't speak Arabic? Although my knees were shaking and my heart beating quickly, I responded to each one as calmly as I could.

  I decided it was time to play my only possible trump card: I told the group I had a cousin who lived in the neighborhood. "His name?" the woman asked.

  "Nabil Nahas," I replied.

  "Ah," she said, "his cousin Nadim is one of us."

  Elated they knew Nabil, I relaxed for the first time. Using a nearby phone, they quickly reached Nadim who said he would call Nabil. I was sent to another room, where I paced nervously for about 15 minutes. Where is Jeff? I wondered.

  Back before the tribunal, the woman told me Nabil said I was "probably OK."

  "But he couldn't say 100 percent sure," she said.

  That's understandable, I replied. We had met only a few times and were not closely related.

  Nervous again, I worked the gum I was chewing a little more quickly. That irritated the militiaman who had brought me in. He said something to the woman, who asked me to remove the gum.

  "He wants to search you," she said.

  My heart sank as he began feeling my pockets. I began sweating when he found the second passport in my pouch, the one with my picture and a different name. With a smirk on his face that said: "I told you so," he tossed it on the table. The woman flipped through it and passed it around the table.

  Finally, she asked, "Do you want to explain this to us?"

Cover Photo
Cover Photo

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My story

  "It’s not what you think," I said. I then told the group my improbable story.

  I had left the United States 13 months earlier for a two-month backpacking tour of Europe, a long-anticipated break before completing my master's thesis. Cash poor, I was too old to qualify for the youth fare rate [no longer in existence], which would have halved the $650 airfare to Madrid. Unwisely, I concocted a scheme that secured a second passport in my 21-year-old cousin's name, allowing me to buy the cheaper ticket. No big deal for a couple of months, I thought.

  But my trip grew to four months as I moved eastward to Greece. One day, while sitting at a café in Athens, I discovered I was only a short flight from Lebanon, the country my grandparents had emigrated from 70 years earlier. Three weeks later, in October 1974, I landed in Beirut, which at the time was flourishing from the oil boom in the Arabian Gulf. I soon tracked down relatives in a lovely mountain village in the Bekaa Valley, where I lived for two months. I then found a job at an advertising agency in Beirut and arranged to complete my degree requirements while in Lebanon.

  Meanwhile, I validated my real passport and stashed the bogus one, which remained buried until the Saturday of the truce. I had $80 worth of traveler's checks remaining in my cousin's name that I wanted to cash that day. It was only the second time I carried both passports.

  "I know it sounds crazy," I told the group, "but it's the truth."

  They were understandably perplexed by my story. My favorite militiaman, who never left my side, spoke quickly to the woman. "He thinks you're a spy," she said. "We need some time to discuss your situation."

Deliberation

  As I left the room I ran into Jeff, who was being led through a door by another soldier. "I've been looking for you forever," he said. "I was worried sick." I was elated. Jeff was one of only a handful of people who knew the tale of my two passports.

  "He can verify my story," I told the group, as Jeff and I stood before them.

  They appeared even more confused. But Jeff, bless his heart, repeated my story, covering every detail.

  We were sent to another room, where we waited for maybe 20 minutes. Each minute seemed like an hour. I knew my fate, and possibly Jeff’s, rested with the six people in that room.

  Finally, one of the tribunal members who had not spoken previously appeared and asked us to follow him outside. Our car was in front. [Earlier, they had taken the keys and asked where I had parked.]

  "Get inside," he ordered in heavily-accented English.

  He leaned inside my window and handed me both passports.

  "I don't know why we are letting you go," he said. "Many people have died for much less than this. Don't let us see you around here again."

  Postscript: Seventeen years later I was in Montreal attending the wedding of my cousin, Lisa Cook, who would be moving to the Beirut area with her husband, Fady Debbane.

  Waiting in line at the bar was Nabil Nahas, whom I had not spoken with since before my passports’ incident.

  "Hello, George. It’s good to see you again," he said, as congenial and warmly as ever.

  I was somewhat speechless and not sure what to say, but Nabil eased my mind a bit by quickly saying: "I’m glad everything turned out OK."

  I wasn’t sure how much he knew but I figured word filtered through his cousin Nadim and that he was up-to-speed on most of the details.

  "Well," I said, "it looked very bad for a while."

  Of course, the unspoken matter before us was the fact that Nabil could not completely vouch for me that day. He told me when the war intensified he, his wife, Michelle, and their three young children fled to the mountains. That’s where he was when he spoke to the tribunal.

  I then told him something I’d hoped I would have the chance to say one day:

  "Nabil, you had a wife and three young children. It was war time. You did not know me well so it’s true I could have been anything. You did the right thing."

  Obviously relieved, he said, "Well, I can tell you I was very nervous when I received the call from Nadim. You just never knew how those things will turn out during the war."

  Then, matter-of-factly, he said: "Usually, if they don’t kill you right away you have a chance. I was sure you were safe after I talked to them."

  But that was before they found the second passport, I said.

  I could tell right away he didn’t know anything about my other document.

  I quickly said: "Long story. And not what you would think,"

  "Well, then," he said, "you were extremely lucky."

  "Lucky indeed," I said.

  In subsequent years, Nabil and I have met a number of times at family gatherings, most recently in Beirut in 2015. We talk about many things – he is wonderful company – but we’ve never again discussed the events of that November day in 1975 when this young, impetuous reporter’s career almost ended before it began.