Our reporter's night in a Lebanese jail
After a run-in with Hizbullah militants, Monitor correspondent Nicholas Blanford finds himself in a Lebanese military jail.
The white van pulled up and blocked our car. Three bearded men climbed out. We knew instantly they were from Hizbullah.
Who are you? What are you doing here? What have you been photographing, the men asked.
We are journalists, we explained. We were in Yahfoufa, a Lebanese hamlet near the Syrian border, reporting a story.
They didn't buy it. Instead, they thought we were Israeli spies.
And so began our ordeal that would take us from a Hizbullah hideout to a Lebanese Army cell. My Shiite fixer, Ali, and I were grilled for hours, often in handcuffs, and detained overnight.
It all began two weeks earlier when Ali and I, along with another colleague, dined with some members of Lebanon's militant Shiite Hizbullah in the Bekaa Valley. The grilled lamb and chicken and salads were delicious, conversations with the Hizbullah men relaxed and friendly.
We finished the day taking a few potshots at a watermelon with Ali's automatic pistol.
Two weeks later, on Sunday, Ali and I drove into the Bekaa to report on smuggling across the border. I wanted to visit Toufeil, the most remote village in Lebanon reached only by a dirt track.
But the Army stationed in the Bekaa told me I would need permission to travel to Toufeil from the Lebanese Defense Ministry in Beirut. Instead, we headed to Yahfoufa, a hamlet set in a rocky valley near the Syrian border.
As always, we talked to people and snapped a few photos. But that got the attention of the local Hizbullah men.
After they stopped us on our way out of Yahfoufa, the Hizbullah men told us to follow them.
We ended up at a nearby house in Yahfoufa where we were offered cups of Turkish coffee. Soon, more Hizbullah men arrived and we were escorted to an office in the village of Nabi Sheet. Ali and I handed over our cellphones, wallets, and my small backpack of journalistic gear for their perusal. That didn't help the situation.
In the eyes of our captors, my GPS device and a satellite phone – intended to aid our trip to remote Toufeil – only marked us as spies. Still, I was not unduly worried. I had been detained by Hizbullah before. It usually meant sitting with them for two or three hours while they verified my identity. I reeled off a list of names of top Hizbullah officials whom they could contact.
However, the Hizbullah men of the Bekaa are a tough, suspicious breed and unused to foreigners tramping around their areas.
Furthermore, Hizbullah has grown more wary of foreign journalists since the recent revelation that two Israeli correspondents had entered Lebanon on foreign passports and reported from the party's strongholds in Beirut and the south, an act that has made life more difficult and potentially dangerous for Western journalists operating here.
The Hizbullah men made no move to contact the officials in Beirut. They served us strong, sweet tea in tiny glasses, "to help you stay awake," one of them joked. Then another asked politely if we minded being handed over to the Lebanese Army. We said that was fine, but my heart sank. It meant entering a whole nightmare of slow-paced bureaucracy.
We were bundled up in two separate vehicles. Each sped through Nabi Sheet's narrow streets and out into the open countryside. Military intelligence was awaiting our arrival beside a house. They drove us across the Bekaa to the Ablah military barracks.
For the next eight hours we were grilled repeatedly. Who were we? Where had we been? A stocky, shaven-headed officer meticulously wrote down our answers.
Another agent asked that I scroll through the pictures I had taken that morning in Yahfoufa on my digital camera.
And there, on the screen, was the shot of me firing an automatic pistol. I froze. I had forgotten to delete the photo we took two weeks earlier shooting the watermelon.
"This is you?" the agent asked. I nodded meekly. Ali closed his eyes in resignation.
We knew it was going to be a long night.
It turned out that although firing automatic weapons is common in Lebanon, it is, in fact, illegal. And Ali and I faced being prosecuted in a military court for shooting a watermelon.
The bald agent refused to let us telephone anyone, answering every request to alert our wives to our whereabouts with a brusque "in five minutes."
Ali suspected that they were deliberately stalling, knowing that our first call would set in motion the process of getting us released. In Lebanon, if you want to get something done, it helps to have wasta, or connections with powerful people who can pull strings on your behalf. Both Ali and I had sufficient wasta for our predicament, if only we could contact them.
At midnight, we were placed in the custody of the Military Police, handcuffed, and driven to base's jail.
It was a long night. The lights were switched out, plunging the prison block into darkness. I laid on a smelly wool blanket spread out on the concrete floor of the cell, using my boots as a pillow and breathed in the fetid stink from the cell's latrines.
"Man, we really did it this time," said Ali.
After daybreak, we learned that we had been tracked down and the phone lines were burning to secure our release. The breakthrough came at 9 a.m., when we were told we could leave.
By 4.30 p.m., we were out. Soon we were back in Beirut.
On Tuesday morning, we returned to Ablah. Ali had to turn in an AK-47 he owned. When we met our jailers this time, they greeted us like brothers, kissing me on the cheek and patting our backs. One day we had been criminals, the next welcomed guests.