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Nowhere to Hide

I ARRIVED IN DOWNTOWN BEIRUT on the last day of the war, August 13. Huge explosions had just shaken the city 30 minutes before. I deposited my bags in the first hotel I could find and joined another photographer who was hailing a cab on the street corner. Downtown Beirut looked normal, a bit quiet, but normal for a lazy Sunday afternoon. We drove straight to the southern suburbs, the Shiah neighborhood called Haret Hreik. Slowly, what seemed like an ordinary city turned into a deserted urban landscape: vacated apartment buildings, some of them collapsed, rubble strewn on the streets, shattered shopping windows and burned-out cars. Apart from some stray dogs, only young men on scooters ventured out — Hezbollah boys, as the driver explained when he stopped his car and refused to drive further.

We jumped out and ran the few blocks to the bombing site. Four apartment buildings, each about 15 stories, had been flattened by Israeli bombs and turned into a giant smoking heap. The place was crawling with rescue workers and, again, the scooter boys keeping the journalists at bay. The scene reminded me of a small 9/11.

“Don’t stay too long,” a journalist advised me. “A second attack usually follows within an hour.”

Hezbollah obviously had some warning system, because all of a sudden everybody started to run to their cars. I looked for a place to find shelter, but then realized there was nowhere to hide. These bombs would blow up any building. Just before we reached a waiting car, a few other explosions shook the earth. We sped off and made it safely to the center of town.

I have been in many wars, but nowhere did I see destruction on such a massive scale. Normally, warring parties resort to shelling and shooting at each other, and it takes a lot of mortars and grenades to bring down a building. What I saw in the southern part of the country was even more shocking. Some villages were wiped out, completely flattened — no recognizable structures were left. Did the Israelis overreact to Hezbollah’s provocations? Many think so. And obviously, the Israeli offensive hardly affected Hezbollah’s capacity to strike. During the last hours before the ceasefire, after a relentless bombing campaign of four weeks, Hezbollah nevertheless was able to fire a record number of katyusha rockets across the border — 250!

Today, the ceasefire seems to be holding.