I remember clearly a night in September 1983. I was nine at the time. Alex was six. Ben, four. We were getting ready for bed. My mum, Anne, was hurrying us along. Perfectly normal. Dad was away, working. Again, perfectly normal. Then, she told us "Daddy's had a little accident in Lebanon, but they're trying to get him home soon." Again, normal. He was always getting himself into tight situations. A plastic bullet in the leg in Northern Ireland. We helped him dress the wound. Arrested in Poland. A pretty impressive story to tell friends at school. This latest scrape? I don't think we batted an eyelid. A week later, the phone rings and things aren't the same any more. His body has been found in a place called Kfar Matta and there will be a funeral and we will get a week off school... and no matter how often I sit in maths lessons wishing he would stride in and scoop me up in his arms, he is never, ever coming back.
For almost two decades, Lebanon and the village of Kfar Matta have never been far from my thoughts. After all, this was the place where my dad, Clark Todd, came to report on the civil war. Despite being a husband and father, he took a chance on his life to tell a story – and he lost. Recently, Alex, Ben and I decided it was time to visit Lebanon and, more importantly, the place where, almost 19 years ago, events happened that were to change all our lives forever. We wanted to see where Dad had died and, if possible, find out when and how it happened.
"This is my father, here." I hold out a photograph of my family to a middle-aged man in Kfar Matta. Fouad admires the picture of us standing, grinning, outside our front door in England. He says he's sorry about my father's death. Later, Fouad shows me a photograph of bodies piled up in the room we're now standing in. He points to a balding, rotting corpse at the front of the heap. "This is my mother."
As we approached Kfar Matta, a 40-minute drive from Beirut, butterflies were fluttering around my stomach. I half expected a tall, grey-haired Canadian, with hands like shovels, to run out and hug us. He didn't. Instead we were met by Adnan Deeb, a retired airline pilot, who wrote to my mother some months after Dad's death detailing villagers' versions of events. He also sent us a pillowcase upon which Dad had written in his final hours. It included the message "Please tell my family I love them". This bloody, filthy rag – our final memory – is now buried in an old chest at home, gradually rotting away.
What surprised me most in Kfar Matta was that almost everyone remembered Dad. Probably better than Ben even, who was barely four years old when he died. They scrabbled to tell us their memories of a "good man", who had laughed with them but also warned them to leave the village. Said, a stubbly faced man pushing 50, pointed to the "exact place" where a shell had exploded and the shrapnel had hit Dad in the top left of his chest. "It was around 10am, and he was taking pictures just here," he said. A vision sprang to my mind – blue sky, warm sunshine, and Dad wandering along taking snapshots of snipers nestling like birds in the hilltops! Said apparently helped him down to an arched cellar, where he lay on a bed and a local nurse was called for. The rest of Dad's crew left to get help. Said told us Dad's wound wasn't serious. He might have survived, if the Christian Militia – the Phalange – hadn't attacked this Druze Muslim village the following morning.
They showed no mercy. One hundred and nine people were gunned down. Many others were taken hostage and tortured. Manal, 25, now watches television in the room where her 14-year-old sister and 29 others died, including Fouad's mother. One man, Mounir, was shot in the leg and taken hostage. He was only four years old at the time. Another, Majed, was in the first cellar when the Phalange burst in. Five of them escaped through a back door. His grandmother didn't make it. According to the villagers, my Dad didn't either.
The Phalange heard him moaning with pain. An elderly man, Salah, told them it was only a wounded American journalist and they should leave him. They didn't. "I heard them say bad words to him, and they shot him too," he said.
Kfar Matta lies in the Aley mountains. Across the valley is the Chouf. The air is so fresh you want to gulp it down. The land is green and lush. Snow-capped peaks rise in the distance. Today it's hard to believe what happened here. My sister Alex made friends with Manal, who saw her sister die. She asked her if she was religious. No. Did she understand religion? No. Did she understand politics? No. Did she know why her sister was killed, and others spared? No. Some people say time heals, but it doesn't answer questions. Manal's confusion – like ours – still haunts her.
A friend who spent many years in Lebanon had warned us that no two stories are ever the same. Later that evening, we met Quasim, the driver for my Dad's crew. A slight, bony man, with a weathered face, he said he was desperate to talk to us. He had a "weight" he wanted to lift from his heart. Speaking quietly, with dramatic pauses, he said they had wanted to leave Kfar Matta much earlier. They were held back by another crew, who were too scared and refused to go. My Dad wouldn't go without them. When they eventually moved, Dad was hit in the chest by a sniper's bullet. "Not shrapnel?" we asked Quasim. "No. A sniper." They helped him to an empty house and held padding to his chest. Dad told them he was dying and they should go. Quasim said if they'd stayed with him, they too would have been killed. The other crew – the one they'd bloody well waited for – had already fled.
Quasim admitted he had no idea what happened afterwards. But he said the villagers had lied to us. They weren't around when Dad was hurt. And, yes, he was seriously injured. Quasim believed he would have died quickly.
I didn't want to hear any more from this man. I left the room. I was furious. Then, I started crying. Maybe Said in Kfar Matta hadn't helped Dad to the cellar at all. Maybe the villagers wanted us to believe Dad was massacred with their families and friends so we would listen to their story. It was then I realised we will never know what really happened. This was 20 years ago. War is mayhem. It's chaos. There is no order to events. The only person who really knows is Dad. And he's gone.
So, was this a pointless journey for us? Far from it. During our time in Lebanon, we discovered – quite by chance – that the crew did make it to the UN Headquarters in Naquora. The force commander's special advisor, Timur Goksel, told us, in his gravelly voice scraped dry by Marlboro, that they were very upset and desperate to get help. He said he'd sent a car to Kfar Matta to try to get Dad out. The shelling was too intense. But they did try.
A pointless journey? How can it be when we've made so many new friends? No matter what happened to Dad, the people of Kfar Matta will never forget him or us – and we'll never forget them. We have discovered a country that never gave up. It still bears the mental and physical scars of war, but life is moving on.
I have no memory of world wars. I only know from history lessons, books and what my older relatives have told me. I have seen war on the news, but I, like most people, switch if off and life continues. I hope I never have to learn first hand just how bloody and disgusting and pointless it is. The people of Lebanon have lived – and died – in war. One woman told me... "Death was the norm; life an exception." I believe my dad – our dad – wanted to tell the truth about what was happening. And while he was at it, he became a part of normal life in Lebanon.
Anna Todd is a journalist for BBC Cambridgeshire. A documentary about her journey will be broadcast on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on the mid-morning show on 23 FebruaryReuse content