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Alex Forsyth takes a wrong turn in Beirut and ends up at the very heart of Hizbollah.
When the recent spat of violence broke out in Lebanon in May it looked like the country was on the brink of another civil war. Hasan Nasaralla, the leader of Hizbollah, had declared war on Sunni rivals, ferocious gun battles had erupted in the streets and burning roadblocks littered the city.
On the ground in Beirut, some feel the group to be terrorists, whilst others feel they are a necessary and constructive presence that helps the community. Then there are those who simply don't care. When I spoke to DJ Samslam, who was living in the city throughout, he laconically identified himself with the latter group. However, it is not until it is taken in context that one can appreciate why people, whether its the Lebanese or ourselves, have such conflicted reactions to Hizbollah.
Hizbollah are clearly aware that the media plays an enourmous role in the swaying of public opinion. It has a powerful and prolific media output, including a radio station, Al-Nour ('The Light'), and a television network, Al-Manar, ('The Lighthouse' - itself on the terrorist list). It was clear that there was a media war going on when I arrived in Beirut. Emerging in the early 1980s, during the civil war, the Shi'a Islamic party Hizbollah ('Party of God') was a reaction to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. They primarily called for a destruction of Israel, decolonisation and the instating of Islamic theocracy but Nasralla has since stepped them back on these fronts. Hizbollah is a political party with democratically elected MPs in the Lebanese parliament, but the actions of their military wing has invited a lot of negative media attention. Accusations of terrorism by the US government, including kidnap and suicide bombings, have all been denied by Nasralla. Even so the USA, Israel and the UK have together branded Hizbollah and their 'external security' wing as such. This was briefly lifted when Hizbollah condemned the 9/11 attacks and but was reinstated soon after. According to Hizbollah's 1985 manifesto the militant wing is necessary as it states; "(we are) in a state of permanent alert in order to repel aggression and defend our religion, our existence, our dignity." It insists that the party are not "a bunch of fanatic terrorists whose sole aim is to dynamite bars and destroy slot machines."
I got in touch with a contact who worked at Beirut's Daily Star, a young British woman called Caroline Anning, and agreed to meet in the heavily westernised street, Germezeh. She told me Hizbollah had set up an exhibition of their last victory. "It's in the south of Beirut somewhere... a sort of show of everything Hizbollah did, everything they captured I think. You might need a translator. It's very one sided. It's a bit mad... there is a big poster of a wounded Israeli solider being carried on a stretcher and in really big letters it says 'It's Lebanon, you fools."
I drove into the suburbs of southern Beirut in search of the building. The difference in Bierut's districts after only a few miles of road was substantial. Here the effects of the conflict were inescapable. The glittering boutique shops and chain restaurants were replaced by pock-marked husks of grey buildings. The odd car, unmoved, flattened by debris or riddled with bullet holes, sat as sentries for sites of untouched destruction. The level of support for Hizbollah was apparent too. Posters of Hassan Nasrallah dotted the walls, as did the flag. The most impressive show of support was the enthusiasm of a young man, Ali, who we asked for directions. When hearing our destination he was delighted to escort us and be our translator, flatly refusing any payment.
We were greeted by a tall man who, after searching us, took us inside. Uneasy and very aware, I sat at the man's bidding. First, he showed me pictures of amputees, destroyed hospital wards and burn victims. Next, pictures of Israeli children writing messages of hatred on bombs and missiles to be dropped in Beirut. "They hate and want war always from young age," I?was told. Having set them up as monsters the next room went on to mock Israeli's army for their weakness. "The Israelis are very like children when they fight, and that they would run away when I fight with them," I was told.
By the end I felt like I was taken through a house of horrors. While it was clear that Israel were responsible for countless atrocious acts that occurred the arrogance and lack of compassion almost voided any sympathy I felt. This side of Hizbollah does nothing to help their image. As I leave I see a blue collection box with the slogan "the hand that fights, the hand that builds." This is the side that runs fours hospitals, that runs schools, clinics and agricultural centres. The side that supplied running water after the war, that paid for reconstruction and rehousing, the side that Ali, my translator, adores.
For some, like my wealthy DJ?friend, Hizbollah are neither a help nor a hinderence. But for others continuing normal life in this climate is not only difficult but is no longer tolerable. One such, Maissa, a young student, lived with her sister and mother in Beirut but has since moved to Paris to study. Her father was killed in a car bomb and she has since lived a somewhat sheltered life. When we drove to her home in West Beirut we had to pass two checkpoints. We were questioned and both my passports were checked. Her house is walled, guarded and monitored. "You can't do anything, you can't go into the center of town because of Hizbollah," she tells me when I finally get through. "Everything is shut down now. It was so busy before. I want to be able to go to a club and come home and not worry about checkpoints. You think you'd get used to all this, but you can never really forget it"
I got a glimpse at the anxiety she mentioned. As a group of us rode home we took a wrong turn. Faded murals of martyrs and pictures of imams stared gloomily from shadowed walls. My companions' humour quickly abated, the radio was turned off, a woman sat lower in the seat and covered her hair. "This place could change again at any time" Maissa explained afterwards. "I want to be able to study, and live the life of a student." It will continue to be unstable and a few will be content with instability but many, notably those who want to study or raise families, will continue to leave until a solution is reached. Hizbollah's tactics seem to be softening and the recent changes in Lebanon, the restoration of peace and the Doha agreement have lifted some tension. On Promise for the Resistance Movement Support website, over a picture of Hasan Nasralla lies a new dogma; "We do not want to kill anyone. We do not want to throw anyone in the sea. Give the houses back to their owners, the fields back to their landlords and the homes back to the people. Release the prisoners, and leave us to live in this region in security, peace and dignity."