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Trail of Terror: 'The Boys from Berkayel'

NBC Producer Steve McCarthy takes you on the road in the making of  NBC's  Lisa Myers documentary, Trail of Terror: Jihad in Iraq.  Witness this fascinating look into a world rarely seen and barely understood in the Western World.
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Producer Steve McCarthy traveled throughout the Middle East for NBC's Lisa Myers documentary, Trail of Terror: Jihad in Iraq.  Witness this fascinating look into a world rarely seen and barely understood in the West.  Here is Part 1 of 3:  Inside Lebanon

I admit I was a little nervous going into the hills of northern Lebanon to interview four young men who had gone to Iraq to fight American soldiers. To get to the small town of Berkayel, where the men lived, we had to drive from Beirut through the seaside town of Tripoli. The U.S. State Department suggests that Americans stay away from Tripoli. Our Lebanese producer, Mustapha told us there are many radicals in the town.

But when I asked Mustapha (for about the fifth time) about danger in meeting these men, he laughed. He said not to worry.

We were going there in early July, two months after the Syrians had pulled out of Lebanon. Our hotel was right down the street from the scene of the bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February. The city seemed to be bursting with construction and optimism. But we heard the north, closer to Syria, may still have Syrian intelligence agents around.

So on Saturday, July 2nd myself, Bruce Schwarz (audio/lighting), Mustahpa and our driver set out for the hills of northern Lebanon. I was shooting video out the window as we drove – until we got close and Mustapha said to put the camera down.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived, however, was a bunch of kids running around. We were lead into a courtyard and up two flights of stairs. More kids, elderly people, women with babies – I realized this was going to be ok. We were led into a room with a large basket of fruit on a table and invited to sit and eat and drink sweet tea.

It turned out people here love Americans. As we continued our journey through the middle east, with subsequent stops in Jordan and Syria, we were constantly reminded in words and deeds that Americans are still liked – even if their government’s policies in the region are not.

We interviewed the “Boys From Berkayel” as we came to call them, one by one. They told us their story. They watched the U.S. invasion of Iraq on TV and heard the call for help from their Iraqi brothers. The four, all in their early 20s, decided to go to Iraq.

They hired a driver to take them to the Syrian border. Once there they persuaded the driver to abandon his car and come with them. They took a bus across Syria to the Iraqi border and then ran across the border. They claimed Syrian soldiers fired their weapons in the air to stop them.

Once in Iraq they say they were greeted by some Iraqi people and jeered at by others. Eventually they made their way to Baghdad, then Al Kut and finally Mosul. They were given old weapons. Before they could even fire a shot, however, they were strafed by U.S. airplanes and received minor wounds. They were then captured by Kurdish forces and sold to American soldiers for, they claim, $100 a piece.

The Boys from Berkayel were taken to Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. (Camp Bucca is named after NY City Fire Marshal Ronald Bucca who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. I had actually met Ronnie when he worked at Rescue 1 in the early 90s) At Camp Bucca, they claim they were roughed up. I later interviewed Major Stacy Garrity who was in charge of processing prisoners and she told me that the commander of Camp Bucca actually followed the Geneva Convention rules for POWs, even though the prisoners were not members of a regular army.

One shocking thing did happen to one of the guys named Nadim. He volunteered for a work detail cleaning up the perimeter fence of the camp. He accidentally set off a cluster bomb and both his legs were blown off. Major Garrity and British medical documents confirmed that this happened. He was sent home months earlier than the rest of his friends.

The interviews with the Boys from Berkayel went well. One of them, Feddy, who spoke English, did get a little intense when he warned “This message to every people American -anybody American - we have one person in Iraq from USA, American - tell him - go from Iraq now.” After that it was handshakes and email address exchanges. More tea and fruit and we were on our way out to shoot scenics of the town.

While were filming from on top of the hill, we were once again surrounded by curious kids. Two men came out of a house and introduced themselves and insisted we sit down for coffee with them. Mustapha actually took some video of Bruce and I sitting with them. This would happen again during our trip.

As we moved onto the main street we continued shooting scenes and people waved and smiled. But then one of the Boys of Berkayel who was guiding us said something to Mustapha about some Syrians who were coming to town. Mustapha’s demeanor changed – his smile disappeared and he told us we have to leave. We took off in a hurry and were in Beirut by nightfall.