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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
Hezbollah's camera-shy fighters
Paul Martin has been reporting for Newsnight from the Middle East. In the days before and after the ceasefire in Lebanon he tried to find and film Hezbollah fighters in the south of the country.

By Paul Martin

Hezbollah fighter

In most wars reporters have no difficulty seeing, and even talking to, soldiers or fighters.

In Bosnia, for example, you could meet one set of soldiers, race across the airport and be talking to soldiers on the other side within ten minutes.

Mind you, it was a dangerous exercise: during one such drive bullets struck between the T and the V of the large taped letters on both sides of one journalist's car.

But in Lebanon it's been a different story.

Newsnight was struck by the absence of television footage of Hezbollah fighters in action, let alone shots of fighters firing Katyusha or other rockets over the border into Israel. This despite more than 4,000 being launched, wreaking havoc among northern Israel's civilian population.

No filming

Hezbollah had delivered an edict: no filming of their fighters. They preferred all the video and photo images to be of civilians, preferably of mangled bodies in rubble.

In the southern port town of Tyre, Hezbollah representatives threatened dire consequences for anyone filming their fighters during the war.

"You'll never find real fighters to film," veteran photojournalist Bruno Stevens said as we chatted in Beirut's Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs.

"I've come very close in Baalbek, but [Hezbollah] high command vetoed it."

Our conversation was interrupted by a missile courtesy of an Israeli F-16 - we hastily departed.

Deserted streets

Lebanese soldier in Kfar Kila
The Lebanese army found some routes lined by Hezbollah flags
Newsnight decided to seek out fighters in two cities reputed to be Hezbollah strongholds: Nabatiyeh, just north of the Litani River, and Khyam, a smaller city well to the south to which we sent our intrepid Lebanese-Canadian camerawoman Katia Jarjora to.

Not only were there no fighters in the centre of Nabatiyeh, there were hardly any people of any description. Most had evaded the Israeli attacks by seeking refuge in outlying villages.

Filming by day in the eerily deserted streets, I figured it would be best to sleep in the one village Israel had never attacked, possibly because it was solely peopled by Lebanese Maronite Christians.

Even Christian villagers, though, had been severely affected by war. They, like all of the Nabatiyeh area, had no electricity, thanks to a recent Israeli air strike on the power plant in the Mediterranean coastal city of Sidon.

My host was a civil engineer whose office in a nearby town no longer existed: it, and 20 years of files, had gone up in a puff of smoke along with the entire building. It had been hit late one night, presumably, he said, because a Hezbollah charity ran a micro-lending scheme from a part of it.

In the run up to the end of the fighting, no-one in and around Nabatiyeh believed the ceasefire would materialise, let alone hold.

Final battles

We found a well-staffed by far from crowded local hospital a very useful place: it had a generator, so we could recharge camera batteries - and it even had a warm shower. I stayed there one night - in the gynaecological ward.

After the guns fell silent we raced out of the city southwards and came across a group of Hezbollah men holding a barbeque, with their children.
It also had a great lookout point, from where we could watch the final battles along the Litani River, as Israel thrust ground troops forward, supported by aircraft fire, to seize strategic spots on the key waterway.

There were flashes from outgoing Katyushas, but mainly plumes of smoke from buildings being hit by the Israelis. Rushing to one such scene, we found Israel had hit a sprawling newly-built edifice. Inside there was a room filled with charity boxes bearing a yellow cupped-hand signs - the charity was part of Hezbollah's drive to win hearts and minds, and recruits.

In the garage of the bombed building we found a large lorry marked with these signs - but inside the cab were dozens of yellow Hezbollah flags, containing the movement's gun-bedecked emblem. Make of that what you will.

Souvenir shop selling Hezbollah paraphernalia
Hezbollah's leader is celebrated by many in southern Lebanon
After the guns fell silent as the ceasefire took hold we raced out of the city southwards and came across a group of Hezbollah men holding a barbeque, with their children. Their wives sat at a separate table.

"This is all part of our plan: to destroy Israel and drive the Zionists out of all Palestine," one man declared. Hezbollah considers all of Israel to be Arab land. "Peace with Israel? Never."

Lebanese troops

On the Litani River, Thursday 17 August, just after dawn, we watched Lebanese army troops driving over a makeshift bridge. But Hezbollah had stolen a march on them and the army's vehicles had to rumble past a succession of lamp-posts displaying portraits of Hezbollah heroes from Ayatollah Khomeini to Hassan Nasrallah.

We continued south to Bint Jbail, scene of a bitter battle, and there found 14 Hezbollah fighters being buried. Their fellow fighters at the funeral had hidden their arms.

A pro-Syrian militia group had fought alongside Hezbollah, and were walking around the town of Khamia, openly displaying their weapons in defiance of the United Nations ceasefire resolution.

Finally we met two members of Hezbollah who, as we watched, took delivery of Kalashnikov semiautomatic weapons from a red van.

They cut short our interview after a phone call because of a sudden rise in tension. Israeli commandos had just attacked Hezbollah positions to prevent what Israel claimed was a resupply of weapons from nearby Syria.

Glimmer of hope

Boy with Hezbollah flag
Is there a glimmer of hope for peace in Lebanon?
On the border, in Kfar Kila, as the last Israeli vehicles left that part of the south, a youngster defiantly waved a huge Hezbollah flag at the departing troops - behind the border fence but still only yards away.

His father was doing a roaring trade in his souvenir shop - selling Hassan Nasrallah posters.

On the balcony of the closest house, another young boy was waving to the Israelis on the other side.

Do you actually want peace or war? I asked him, expecting the usual answer that there would never be peace with the Jews.

Instead he said: "Yes, I believe peace will come. War just brings destruction"

Amid a generally stark scene, Ali provided a glimmer of hope.

Paul Martin is editor of the independent company World News & Features (www.worldnf.tv).

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