Monday, April 09, 2007
Reflections on a kidnapping
This Monday marks four weeks since the BBC’s Gaza correspondent, Alan Johnston, was last seen. He has now been held longer than any other western journalist or aid worker kidnapped in Gaza.

(Militants have held 20-year-old Israeli Army Corporal Gilad Shalit captive in Gaza since last June. Corporal Shalit, however, is a member of an army engaged in hostilities with various Palestinian groups. Alan Johnston is a non-combatant.)

The precedent is disturbing, but, alas, not a complete surprise. It is part of a trend that has been gathering strength in the Arab world for more than two decades, a trend that does not bode well for westerners who live and work in the region.

When I first came to the Arab world, to Lebanon, in the early 1970s, there was little open hostility to westerners. So much so, in fact, that my father, a diplomat based in West Africa, thought it safe enough to send me and my 11-year old brother to boarding school in Beirut.

A teenager let loose on the Lebanese capital, I was free to explore the city—its flashy streets and neighbourhoods, its seedy dives, its markets, its slums, its refugee camps—with few restrictions other than a 6 pm weekday curfew, a 10 pm weekend curfew, and my weekly allowance of 25 Lebanese pounds (around $10, if I recall correctly).

I revelled in my new environment, was fascinated by its complexity, and began learning Arabic. For a hyperactive teenager, Beirut was paradise.

That paradise began to fall apart with the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in April 1975. Suddenly parts of Beirut were off-limits. In the beginning of the war (and in the beginning no one actually called it war) classes would be suspended for a week, then resume for a few weeks as the fighting subsided and the agreements between the warring parties took hold. But the agreements would break down, the fighting would rage for a week, then another ceasefire would be cobbled together. This pattern went on until mid-summer, when the truces became shorter and the fighting longer, and it became clear it was indeed a war.

The civil war in Lebanon marked the start of a new and perilous phase for westerners in the Arab world, and perhaps the west as a whole. (Keep in mind this is a personal recollection, not a history of the region. As perilous as it has become for westerners in some parts, I’m well aware it’s been far more bloody and traumatic for many of its inhabitants.)

I remember listening in the early 1980s to a Lebanese academic, Professor Yvonne Haddad, who in the months following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon listened closely to the mosque sermons in Beirut’s southern suburbs. I don’t remember her precise words, but the meaning stuck with me: she warned that something dark and dangerous was fomenting, not just in Beirut but across the Arab world, which would have grave and long-term consequences for the west. And while I don’t have the text of her presentation in front of me, I came away with the impression she was warning that the amorphous, rarely personal but oft-expressed rhetorical anger at western intervention in the region and military and diplomatic support for Israel would soon be translated into violent action.

Sure enough, it didn’t take long before westerners in Lebanon—academics, journalists, diplomats, aid workers and spies—were kidnapped and held hostage for years, and in some cases executed. In 1983 other Lebanese militants blew up the US embassy in Beirut (just down the road from where I went to school), and the US Marines and French army barracks. Two years later others hijacked TWA flight 847, executing one of its passengers, an American serviceman, and dumping his body onto the tarmac of Beirut’s airport.

Thankfully, Lebanon is no longer such a dangerous place for westerners, but it serves, or rather should have served, as a cautionary tale for the rest of the region.

It seems that the case of Lebanon of the 1980s is now being partially replicated in two places which, despite their sometimes fearsome reputations, could, once not long ago, be surprisingly welcoming: Iraq and Gaza.

I spent a good deal of the 1990s shuttling, first, between Baghdad and Amman (where I was based from 1993 to 1998), then later Baghdad and Cairo (where I was based until last year). Despite the many headaches of covering Iraq under Saddam Hussein, I almost never felt my life in danger.

But even back then there were indications the United States was widely resented. I spent many a day in foul-smelling, overcrowded, decaying Iraqi hospitals, where the sick—and many of them were children—died before my eyes from conditions easily treated had it not been for United Nations sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Self-righteous western officials were keen to point out that, had Saddam Hussein complied with UN Security Council resolutions, those sanctions would have been lifted (it is now clear Saddam was far closer to compliance than those western officials led us to believe) and the suffering would have ended. But I did see in the eyes of the relatives of the sick and dying resentment and indeed hatred at the west for failing to act as hundreds of thousands died.

I recall a conversation with Udai Al-Ta’i, the head of the Iraqi News Agency (and, most of us believed, a senior intelligence officer) under Saddam Hussein. I often had to listen to his diatribes against the United States and Britain over cups of tea. It was rare that my eyes didn’t glaze over. Though I’ve long forgotten many of our meetings, this one stuck with me because I felt, for once, he actually believed what he was saying. “A generation of young Iraqis,” he warned me, “is growing up to hate, completely hate, the Americans.”

I now suspect Udai may not have been far off the mark.

But back then in Baghdad no one ever threatened me. In the months following the fall of the regime, those of us in the press corps who actually worked there in the era of Saddam Hussein (and we are now a vanishing minority, I might add) were ecstatic we finally had free run of the country.

Those bracing days are now a fading memory. Too many kidnappings, too many video-taped executions have closed off much of that fascinating country from first-hand reporting.

The door to reporting is still ajar in Gaza, but with Alan Johnston missing for four weeks now, it’s closing.

I’m no stranger to Gaza: I’ve been shot there, been shot at there more times than I can count. I had a CNN producer kidnapped by gunmen before my eyes in broad daylight. Despite all this, I always felt secure in the knowledge that the goodwill, humanity and generosity of ordinary Gazans were protection enough. And though I know those traits are still there in abundance, I fear they aren’t adequate protection against the kidnappers.

The longer Alan Johnston remains in captivity, the more difficult it will be for westerners to cover Gaza. That is not to detract from the abilities of Gaza’s many brave journalists. No matter how many times I’ve been there I will never, ever, know it as well as CNN’s tireless and experienced Gaza fixer Talal Abu Rahmeh or the BBC Arabic Service’s brilliant correspondent Fayad Abu Shamala, or Ramattan Studio’s producer extraordinaire Mohamed Salman.

I am confident that journalists like Talal, Fayad and Mohamed will continue to struggle to keep the doors open.

But there are far greater forces at work in the region, forces of anger that have been building up for decades.

You can argue about the reasons, but few would deny that many across the Arab world see the west, and particularly the United States, as the source of many of their woes. It was in Gaza that Abdallah Al-Shami, a spokesman for the militant group, Islamic Jihad, told me, “We must do something to shake America, to wake it up.” Two weeks later, it was September 11, 2001.

With Alan Johnston beginning his fifth week in captivity, with Gaza sinking deeper into violence, and much of Baghdad and large parts of Iraq a killing field, I suspect the forces of anger are only gaining in strength.

-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent
Your experience and knowledge of the area is facinating. I didn't realize that you had grown up in Lebanon and had witnessed the Civil War first hand. No wonder your stories reflect an understanding and closeness to the people like no other reporter. Keep up the good work we rely on you to tell the real story!!
Wonderful piece! I wish other correspondents were as familiar with their subject as you are.
"Academics","Spies", in Lebanon? the 70's?...My Lebanon? Naaa..You don't suppose those nice, well meant, American Evangelist educators, with their iconic image of (plated knee skirts, flat saddle-shoes, neatly tight bowed hair, beamy faces) were hired by some Lebanese institutions with the honorable intention of teaching us proper manners, English language, and spread the message of the Gospel, who on weekends eagerly took us (20-30 young pre-adolescent boarding students,) on long walks through Sidon's neighborhoods & countryside were part-time spies! Those God loving creatures would drag us up the slopes for picture taking, and for every "one click" of us students clowning around, there would be a "dozen clicks" of the surrounding scenery (Palestinian Camps)...the best part was strolling thru the camps, (plenty of them back then) that's when new rolls of film were required....Ok, enough deride sarcasm, maybe they were meant for some charitable cause, who's to say...truth is, never a dull moment living in Lebanon, twelve years in total, six of those in boarding school.

Thank you for your articles, for always insightful.
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