Of Men and Martyrdom: Back to South Lebanon

Aqaba- I finished my latest Fabled City episode (above) which is a bit of a very personal mini-documentary. It is rare that I revisit specific sites from past wars. Usually you report a story a move on to the next conflict in a whole other region. The next story I worked on after this was Indian-occupied Kashmir. After that is was the effects of the Rohingya genocide on Bangladesh. From story to story. Keep it moving. Or in many cases, even if I wanted to go back to somewhere, it was impossible. Libya comes to mind. Often times a past visa-less battle zones are legally or logistically nearly impossible to reach again. Some places could be entered for just a brief moment in time before a new regime takes hold and institutes much of the same bureaucracy it claimed it was fighting to overthrow.

Back in 2006 I rushed off to cover the war in Lebanon as part of a longer linear narrative. Rather than look at the wars of the 2000s as entirely discrete stories–Afghanistan–then 18 months on, Iraq etc etc, I wanted to frame them as part of a then evolving continuum with a more holistic perspective on what was being pedaled by certain influential thinkers as an almost unavoidable civilisational conflict. Us vs Them, neoconservatives vs violent Wahabbis/salafis (these terms were often used interchangeably), West vs East, and so forth. The terror wars were defined by their lack of a clear definition. There were no clear geographic boundaries to this new, very 21st century conflict. The Americans were at war in Afghanistan, preparing to go to war against Iraq, and yet the first known drone assassination occurred in Yemen? The terror wars were to know neither geographic boundaries, nor those concerning the very laws of war.

A rescue worker gazes at the ruins in the south of Beirut, destroyed by the Israelis in the hours before the beginning of the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah & Amal. In small print the yellow tape reads “The Divine Victory.” To Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, this was what victory looked like. ©2006 Derek Henry Flood

The war in Lebanon in July & August 2006 didn’t fit into this paradigm as it was not waged by the United States but by Israel and the militants with whom that country went to war were a mix of primarily armed Shia parties that portrayed themselves as rational actors who were engaged in defending the borders of a multi-confessional nation-state. The war in the Levant was both confounding in this respect while personally troubling in its mechanised brutality.

The air strikes may have in fact had a much longer lasting psychological impact than physical one. All these buildings have been rebuilt by now but the trauma can still haunt the night. There exists a thread of terror from this war in 2006 to the 2020 port explosion to the 2023 earthquakes in Turkey that managed to shake Beirut. Everyone is always bracing for the next catastrophe. ©2006 Derek Henry Flood

Having experienced 9/11 at home in New York, I had quietly made a personal pledge to try and bear witness to every accessible aspect pf the terror wars short of spending unwanted time in a black site. 9/11 was the inception point of my entry not into the Middle East or South Asia (already been traveling all over both since the 1990s) but into the news business as it were. Chasing stories. Risking all. The consequences were not more than I could have ever imagined, I’d had colleagues die already in the Levant and Caucasus. But they were more than I was prepared for for myself I suppose.

Graves of Hezbollah and Harakat Amal militiamen at the martyr’s cemetery in Srifa, South Governorate, Lebanon. I still can’t believe not only that I found this nightmare but that I had the wherewithal to dare to return there. ©2023 Derek Henry Flood
A faded poster of the late Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani outside Srifa. Soleimani was Hezbollah’s Iranian patronage network embodied within a single man. A one-time an ally in pure realpolitik terms when Tehran and Washington had common enemies, he was assassinated in Iraq at the very beginning of 2020 by the United States. When you visit many parts of Lebanon today the imagery of this larger-than-life figure will not let you forget that. The constant mission creep owing to the unconstrained nature of the terror wars meant that drone strikes perfected against salafi-jihadi non-state actors such as AQ and the Deobandi Taliban would migrate to genuine state actors like Soleimani, a Shia partisan and military leader with whom the US was not at war. ©2023 Derek Henry Flood