BEIRUT, Lebanon — We went to Kaafoun, north of Beirut in Mount Lebanon, on Thursday looking for a story. But anger and suspicion about our purpose meant we couldn't fully report on life in the beleaguered village.
Kaafoun is a village of about 5,000 residents, but it is overwhelmed right now with about 40,000 internally displaced people from other parts of Lebanon.
They have all descended on the village looking for a place to live because they have come out of areas in the south that have been bombed and destroyed. People are sleeping on the floors of schools or any other available public space. The children are playing soccer in the alleyways and food is getting more expensive by the day.
Some of the agencies like Mercy Corps are attempting to get food in there, but they have been unable to find what they are looking for — rice and sugar — because the market is so tight.
Our visit brought up the major journalistic conflicts of the moment. My job as a journalist is to go to a place and show how what is going on is affecting people. But, when I got to this town, the first instinct of the people who I was there to report on — the people who are most affected by the current conflict — was to be suspicious of me and my crew.
We weren’t in Kaafoun for more than five minutes when a man pulled us over and asked us if we wanted to speak to a Hezbollah leader.
He took us over to a local government office and chatted with some officials; there were five people around a table chatting with me and my producer Yasmina. The conversation went between Arabic, French, and English.
Eventually we determined that there would be somebody who would speak to us on camera, who would not be a representative of Hezbollah, but they would at least be able to share some thoughts on what people were going through because of the conflict.
So we went outside to do the interview with them and that’s when the trouble started.
Fear takes over
In the middle of the interview, some people from Hezbollah showed up and started pushing, shoving and saying in Arabic, “We’re going to go break the camera and knock the cameraman over. We’re going to take him out!”
Yasmina, who speaks Arabic, eventually passed the word that it was not safe to be on the streets in this village.
The real fear everybody seemed to have was that they believed that if a television camera was in town, it was there to take pictures that would be transmitted back to Israel for the targeting of new sites.
Everyone was really quiet anxious, so, we moved inside to shoot inside the school. Then we went and shot some pictures of the kids playing soccer outside because it looked like the children were having fun.
But the people from Hezbollah were back screaming at us. Then some very, very well-built, strong men showed up; as much as we attempted to calm them down things were really beginning to escalate.
So, we retreated into a building, thinking that if we were inside a building and not outside with a camera, maybe things would be a little less confrontational.
We did an interview with Batul Alitz, a really sweet little 12-year-old girl, who said she wasn’t even sure if she would be alive tomorrow. She said the bombs were dropping in Hayalselleh, her village in southern Lebanon, before she left and she wasn’t sure if her home had been destroyed or not. She was there with her two brothers and her mother. Her father is in the Lebanese Army in Beirut.
When we finally got back outside the people who had been confrontational and antagonistic with us earlier started shouted at us again all the way to our cars.
Clearly, everybody in the village was being watched. There was no real sense of acceptance that journalists were attempting to tell a balanced story.
The thing I heard more often than not was, “Why are you shooting pictures of us? Why don’t you go show what the Israelis are doing?”
My response was, “I’m here to show how what is happening is affecting you. It appears that you are victims.”
And then their response was, “Yes, but then you show these pictures of us, and you say the name of this town, and then they’ll target us. We’ll be next. They have killed so many children, and so many innocent people, if you show these pictures, then they’ll come kill us.”
You don’t get into a conversation of reasonable targets here, because quite frankly, they’ve seen or heard about the scores of civilians killed over the past eight days, so why would they think anything else?
It’s also a journalistic conflict. My job as a journalist is to go to a place and show how what is going on is affecting people, but that’s particularly difficult when those very people believe that somehow what I am doing may jeopardize their life.
As we got in the cars to leave, the Hezbollah leadership put some of their beefier men on motorcycles to follow us.
And they followed us for a long time until we finally stopped and asked them if they were going to follow us all the way. One of the local drivers said, “Yes, they are going to follow you all the way to Beirut.” And they basically did.