Monday, June 8, 2009

On Entering Lebanon

As I anxiously await news of Lebanon’s bitterly-contested Parliamentary elections, concerned that history—primed to repeat its obstinate self—will once again rouse the beast of the country’s sectarian rule and lead to renewed violence, I reflect on an answer to a question so many have asked me: how did you get so involved with Lebanon?
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My curiosity, more than anything, landed me in war-torn Lebanon in 1980. I had read that a Lebanese Army major, Sa’ad Haddad, had defected to form his own militia in southern Lebanon—and he, a Christian Arab, had allied himself with the Israel Defense Forces. I wanted to know why.

I crossed mined roads, war zones and hostile checkpoints to get a credible answer from Haddad, himself: to rid his native soil of the encroaching Palestine Liberation Organization and the occupying Syrians, infiltrating predators who were destroying his country and pursuing his people’s extinction. I thought I was in relatively hot pursuit of him, but he walked in on me—late at night and all of a sudden—in the alcove of what wouldn’t pass for a hotel elsewhere. Paltry press accounts and political scuttlebutt had prepared me for a hothead, a warrior, so I must have had some cross between Douglas MacArthur and Genghis Kahn in mind as I initially mistook the unimposing figure in combat fatigues and dirty boots for his intermediate lackey. The man I sat down with—can this be Haddad?—was burdened, weary and plainly sad. No airs, no histrionics. As I would discover, a peasant-patriot. He interrupted the interview to say, “You ask interesting questions.” In time, I became his confidant and unspoken friend. He took me to his house, just dirt road steps across from the house he’d been raised in, to show me his bullet-riddled walls—just above his reading chair… inches from where his wife and children dined… closely splayed over the family’s only toilet.

I entered Lebanon as often as I could. I would run into Haddad and his odd lot of soldiers on a nameless dirt road anywhere, whereupon he would bring his jeeps or tanks to a halt and find a place for us to chat privately. I would lean toward him and say, “Come on, level with me,” and inwardly marvel that he would. Once, he borrowed a house, its occupants honored to vacate quickly as we took over their kitchen.

I was distracted by the rumble of tank engines idling outside and said, “I feel like I’m holding up the war.”

The course of my life took an abrupt turn. While in Lebanon, I could feel everyone—from Haddad’s band of men through Israeli, Lebanese and Arab troops to multi-national United Nations peacekeeping forces—wondering, “Who is this man?” In little time, people began to see me as the Middle East expert I was swiftly becoming: welcome mats (and rugs) were spread out for me, while in the States, my accounts and viewpoints appeared in major publications and in the U.S. Congressional Record, and I appeared on TV and radio, and addressed large gatherings, always alerting audiences to, imploring them to prevent, a Christian genocide.

Did anything I said make a difference? Save lives? Spare any part of the Christian community? Haddad later told authorities that I “turned it around” for him.

Israeli troops were gathering on Lebanon’s southern border. The military, led by General Ariel Sharon, planned to enter southern Lebanon to stem the PLO’s missile attacks on northern Israeli towns. When it did (1982), it rolled north through Lebanon. Sharon, whom I came to know well, told me with boyish candor that it was not part of any strategy he had in mind—but that his forces encountered so little effective resistance from the PLO, they just kept going. With an expansive shrug, he explained, “We couldn’t stop!”

As the PLO fled north, and soon to Tunis, the Lebanese started taking their country back. They elected a president, a cultured, charismatic 34-year-old Christian Maronite, Bashir Gemayel, who didn’t live to take office.

[If you haven’t read the February 20th, 2009 entry on this blog, please click on “Who Was Bashir?” or scroll down.]


  1. The election is over. Hopefully Bashir would have been pleased with the results.

  2. What a wonderful thing to have been a part of! I envy journalists such as yourself, for having the courage to ask hard questions and put yourself in harms way for a story. It is such a gift to be able to win the trust of someone to where they want to divulge sensitive information to you. You obviously made a huge impact with your reports and I commend you! What a life you have lived! I look forward to many, MANY more exciting stories!

  3. My wife an I were in the Golan Heights in June of 1982. We watched the flatbed trucks hauling tanks towards Lebanon, while our guide denied we were watching anything other than war games maneuvers. We could see the faces of the young soldiers were not in a playful mood at all and knew we should head back south for the safety of the beaches of Tel Aviv. We sat in the restaurant of the Dan hotel watching the Lavi's screaming north over the beach while the Dolphins hummed nervously behind. I wished at that moment that I could be experiencing what you were Ray. I wished that I could somehow be closer to the action in the north to see and hear the true stories of the christain genocide that no one seemed to care about. All these years later, thanks for caring Ray.

  4. Fascinating stuff, Ray. Is that you, at right, with Haddad in the photo? For a look at Lebanon more recently, I suggest you see the excellent movie UNDER THE BOMBS. It's available for rent from Netflix or GreenCine, and for purchase from its distributor Film Movement. Full of good drama -- and a lot of even better questions -- it also offers a look at what happened to some of the Lebanese who sided with Israel during (I believe) the time that you cover in this blog piece. Keep it up!