Shadid in Southern Lebanon: It’s ‘About Peoples’ Lives’

By: Joe Strupp

There are at least two people Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post calls each day from war-torn Tyre, Lebanon. One is an editor in Washington, D.C., and the other is his five-year-old daughter in Boston.

“I try to call her every day, she knows what is going on – I know she has cried about it,” Shadid, 37, told E&P during a cell phone interview this afternoon, referring to his only child, Laila, who lives with Shadid’s ex-wife. “It is a constant on my mind, that is the worst part about this job.”

Citing utter exhaustion, Shadid said he hoped to finally get a good night’s sleep today, but then he will no doubt go out and explore again with his driver — a Lebanese dentist. Danger is a constant, since, as he explained, you don’t necessarily hear the bombs “before they hit.”

Shadid plans to be in Tyre, or wherever the story extends, until there is a cease-fire. “I don’t see it ending very soon,” he predicts. “There is a lot in play right now, a vested interest by many in what happens.”

Embattled Middle East countries are nothing new for Shadid. As a 10-year veteran of the region, whose experience includes covering the Iraq War for two years (winning a Pulitzer in the process) — and suffering a gunshot wound in Ramallah in the West Bank four years ago — Shadid has likely seen it all.

Still, such preparation hasn’t made his latest assignment in the heavily bombed areas near Tyre any easier. Since arriving in the battered city a week ago, Shadid has reported, in a stark and gripping fashion, on bombings near a local hospital, the dangers of traveling roads under attack, and the cries of children looking for their missing or dead parents.

“It has been grueling, I have been writing one or two stories a day,” he told E&P as he spoke outside the small hotel where several western journalists are staying. “You can get out, but you have to look out for the roads. You hope roads are open, but you take risks.”

Using his trusty laptop and the wireless BGAN satellite connection, along with his Lebanese cell phone, contact with the outside world, and the ability to file stories, has been relatively easy. Finding the stories, and the people, are another matter.

“I think people are capturing the moment, something that stands out,” he said about the reporting approach he takes, “the scene at the hospital, a spectacular time or a spectacular moment. I want to chronicle that as a witness. The war is a backdrop and it is a story about peoples’ lives.” Shadid speaks Arabic, no doubt a great help.

Among the first stories Shadid found was when he ventured to Srifa, a rubble-filled town some 25 kilometers from Tyre, last Thursday. He said the bombed out roads required him and a driver to travel some 125 kilometers via back roadways. “We were the only car on the road,” he said. “We thought about walking, but the driver talked me out of it.”

As Shadid neared the city, it was apparent the area was too dangerous, so his story became the lives of those along the way, which included people living in basements and others sizing up coffins. “It was probably, in some ways, better,” he said about the story.

Two others have involved the impact on hospitals. One, posted and published last Monday, described the lives of wounded in a Tyre medical center, where Shadid visited after three cars were bombed in the area. He described the pleas of a son whose face had been burned beyond recognition asking his mother about his father.

“I went there later, after the attacks,” he said, describing how he went about getting a different angle than others. “I just talked to the patients.”

The other hospital story, published Wednesday, involved the experience of being in a hospital in nearby Tibnin as shells blasted a neighboring hillside. Shadid said that story unfolded after a convoy of seven vehicles carrying journalists followed a Red Cross ambulance to the hospital, which broke down as the bombings began.

“I kind of broke away and worked the back hallways,” he recalls of his approach that resulted in some harrowing, first-person accounts. “I had to work really fast, it is the fastest reporting I have ever had to do. That was the toughest thing, you want to be sensitive to their plight, but you have to ask questions fast — that is the uncomfortable part.”

Those questions resulted in Shadid’s telling the story of five babies born premature, elderly women with bloodied and bruised feet wrapped up, and others who were simply seeking shelter in the building from the attacks.

But Shadid is the first to say he is not doing anything more than most other reporters on the scene. “I am struck by the professionalism of the colleagues,” he said. “I think everyone is doing well. I don’t know if I am getting a lot more than they’re getting.”

Shadid, who spent two years covering the Iraq War prior to relocating to a Beirut apartment last summer, arrived in Tyre one week ago, he said. With the hotel filled his first night, he slept on the beach, which he described as “having a nice breeze,” but eventually, “you heard bombing.”

The next day, he found a room at the hotel, where a Post photographer and a web editor are also staying. “The hotel is filled with refugees,” he said. “A woman brought me pasta she had made the first night, on the beach, and others brought me water,” he explained.

Shadid also found a most unlikely driver, one Adnan Ghandour, whose day job is usually that of a dentist. But, since the fighting, Shadid said he has had few patients and has taken Shadid where he needs to go in his “old, old Toyota” for the going rate of $500 per day.

“We run into his patients when we are running around town,” Shadid said. “He has driven me around every day.”

While Shadid agrees with other Iraq-veteran reporters in Lebanon who believe that some places in Iraq are even more dangerous, he says the roads in Lebanon offer more concern than the incoming bombs. “This ranks right up there,” he says about comparisons to Baghdad. “But you have to get on the road here and get the story. I don’t feel as nervous about bombs falling as I do about the roads.”

As for doing the job, Shadid says few official channels for information are available. “The official stuff is from the Red Cross or the hospital,” he says. “The Lebanese government is almost shutdown and you don’t get anything from Hezbollah. They keep a watch on you, you know they are around.” Still, Shadid says Hezbollah leaders or fighters do not disrupt reporting. “They have not interfered with my work,” he says.

Declining to give an opinion on who is most at fault, Shadid declares that a cease fire is far off.

“The Americans and Israelis have set their goals very high,” he said. As for his own health and well-being in that time, he vows to keep covering it all. “The toughest thing is the exhaustion,” he says, noting he hoped to get to bed early for once tonight. “I haven’t gotten much sleep.”

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