They buried Ali Shabaan as a martyr-reporter yesterday, another journalist of the Syrian war to die in action – but a Lebanese this time, unknown in the West but loved in his south Lebanese village, not least by the girl he was to have become officially engaged to this Saturday.
Fatima Atwi clung to the railings of the balcony over the road from the beautiful village cemetery. She wore a black veil and was inconsolable. All Ali Shabaan's three sisters could do was embrace her. Ali – I met him once, briefly, in 2006, during the Israeli-Hezbollah war – had worked last weekend on the Lebanese-Syrian border so that he could have this weekend off for his engagement ceremony.
That's why he died. Shot in the heart. By the Syrians. Forty bullets hit his car and that of his fellow crew member and reporter at Wadi Khaled. A quick death, I suppose. A quick funeral, of course, according to Muslim tradition. They said the "fatiha" prayer for the soul of Ali Shabaan and placed his body in the dark earth of the little cemetery where his friends fondled the stones of the grave and said extra prayers.
Every journalist who dies in violence in Lebanon is called a martyr. Not a bad description, I think, of all of those who die – easterners or westerners – trying to report the truth, that all too subtle narrative that must name the guilty party. But Al-Manar, the television station of the Hezbollah – Syria's ally – did not speak of Ali Shabaan as a "martyr" but as a "victim" of a battle between Syrian troops and "terrorists". As one of Ali's employers said yesterday, he was wiped off the news agenda of Hezbollah as a victim of "crossfire", the old explanation of Palestinian deaths at the hands of the Israelis. "But for God's sake," he said, "this wasn't an Israeli television station – this was a Hezbollah station!"
But why did Ali Shabaan die? He and his crew had passed the Lebanese customs shed at Wadi Khaled in northern Lebanon on Monday to film the border, and shouted across to the Syrian immigration officers that they were filing for New TV on the Lebanese side of the frontier. The story from his colleagues yesterday was straightforward: after they had identified themselves, the crew began filming and were then told to stop by uniformed Syrian troops. These soldiers reportedly shouted: "Go back." The crew were reversing their car when it was hit by a fusillade of bullets. Ali Shabaan was hit by the first round. NTV's staff is adamant that at no point did they entire Syrian territory.
In his home village yesterday, one said: "We are with the Hezbollah when they fight Israel. But we are not with the Syrians when they kill their people. We Shia like to sacrifice, like Imam Hussain. It is in our blood to do this. It was natural that Ali Shabaan, a cameraman, a journalist, wanted to know the truth. Were the Syrians penetrating Lebanon?" I asked an old man about Ali Shabaan. "He was a good kid, I can tell you," he said. "You could see that the moment you met his family."
Ahmed Shabaan, Ali's father, stood at the graveside as the latest of Lebanon's journalist-martyrs was laid to his eternal rest. Thin, unmoving in facial expression, he watched the body of his only son placed in the earth. Muslims out here have no coffins. And oh yes, Syria sent its official condolences.