Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Saturday, 2 February 2008

The city that made me a journalist

As she leaves her posting in Beirut to report from the US, BBC correspondent Kim Ghattas reflects on how growing up during Lebanon's civil war sparked her desire to become a journalist.

The two little girls are wearing neat dresses with tiny flowers and puffed sleeves. They are playing hopscotch on the street.

Bombed buildings in Beirut in 1980
Bombings and sniper attacks were a fact of life during the civil war

One has dark hair and hazel eyes, the other has lighter hair and green eyes.

They are both smiling, apparently carefree. But they are surrounded by bearded militiamen, toting Kalashnikov guns.

All around them is destruction - empty streets, and bombed out buildings.

It is 1976 and this is the frontline in Beirut, a year after the start of the civil war.

Journalists from French television are interviewing the two little girls. They had stumbled upon the children while filming a report in the neighbourhood of Galerie Semaan, an area notorious for its snipers.

Family history

The girls are my sisters. And recently, the fair-haired one - Audrey - found the two films of our family in the French national television archive.

The journalists had been so intrigued by my sisters that they had come back to film them at home.

It was Audrey's eighth birthday and my parents had prepared a cake for her. With my eldest sister, Ingrid, they all sang "Happy Birthday" together.

Here was my own family, the subject of a news report... Watching the films recently we were all fighting back the tears

But, as the camera veered away from the smiling faces, you could see the apartment was partly destroyed - a chandelier dangled by a thread and my sisters' drawings were stuck to a wall to cover the pockmarks of explosions.

My Dutch mother - pregnant with me at the time - explained how she tried very hard to make a normal life for her husband and children amid the chaos of war.

Watching the films recently we were all fighting back the tears.

A child walks past some tanks on the way to school in Beirut in 1990
Civil war raged in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990

They reminded us of how far we had come, of everything we had tried so hard to put behind us - the sniper attacks, the bombed out flat, the nights in bomb shelters, the hours waiting for a bus to take us out of the country.

For me, viewing the old, crackly footage was a surreal experience.

I am now so used to putting together reports myself about people being bombed in southern Lebanon or families trying to cope with life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

But here was my own family, the subject of a news report.

The Lebanese are often accused of amnesia, as they enjoy the good life in Beirut's restaurants and clubs and try to forget why there was a war.

None of the issues which caused the conflict have been resolved and that is why today Lebanon is once more facing its old demons.

As a journalist, I often questioned this collective memory loss but now I realise that my family was just the same.

We simply moved on and rebuilt our lives. It was the only way to stay sane after going through so much violence.

Waiting game

I still remember the day I decided to become a journalist.

A map of Lebanon showing the capital Beirut and Syria and Israel

I was 13 and I was tired of my Dutch cousins asking me about whether I went to school and if we had enough food.

I did not understand why they were unable to grasp the fact that we were living a normal life, it seemed perfectly normal to us.

I felt the need to explain places and issues to people around me. I started with Lebanon and the wider Middle East and now I am moving on to the US and its foreign policy.

People often ask why my parents stayed in Lebanon or even why they remained in that neighbourhood. There is no clear answer.

Partly it was not knowing where else to go but, to a greater extent, they always thought it could not get worse, that the war would end soon.

In Lebanon, everybody is always waiting for something - the next ceasefire, the next president, the next summit. Hope is what has kept people going.


Now I am leaving behind a troubled, deeply divided country.

Ghattas family

Lebanon is a nation without a president, a crippled parliament and a barely functioning government.

The sometimes violent stand-off between the Western-backed government and the opposition - who are supported by Iran and Syria - has been going on for more than a year. And the Lebanese are, for the first time, starting to lose hope.

During my last weekend in the city where I have lived my whole life, I was invited to a party.

The host was a Shia from Baalbeck, the stronghold of radical Shia militant group Hezbollah.

An American film director and several French artists were among the guests, a mix of Christian and Muslim Lebanese.

We ate clams and mussels to a background of electronic and hip-hop music, as supporters of the opposition and of the government argued about politics.

On the day I left Beirut a newspaper editorial predicted that when the power struggle that Lebanon is going through comes to an end, the country that will emerge will be very different from the diverse, tolerant and vibrant one that I witnessed on that last evening. We shall see.

As I start my new life grappling with American foreign policy in a wintry and cold Washington DC, I will still be on the phone to Lebanon.

I will be speaking to my two young nieces growing up in Beirut who so resemble those two little girls in that crackly old footage.

Through them, I will keep in touch with what is happening in the city that made me a journalist.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 February, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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