Robert Fisk’s World: Scenes from a busy Beirut correspondent's notebook

The Israeli police turn up to see what we are doing prowling on the Jewish Sabbath

Saturday 27 February 2010 01:00

It's back-of-the-book time again, those little funny, sad stories that don't quite make it from the reporter's notebook into a fully fledged dispatch but which shouldn't be thrown away.


*I am in Hebron, on Macintyre Tours (see last week's column) and -- noticing our Palestinian West Bank correspondent – the Israeli police turn up to see what we are doing, prowling this supposedly sacred city on the Jewish Sabbath. I try to cool the cops down by asking the uniformed guy at the window of the police car where he lives in Israel. "Sderot," he says at once. Sderot, city of Hamas rockets, marginally the most dangerous place in Israel. So which do you prefer, I ask? The dangers of Sderot or the stone-throwing of the Jews and Arabs of Hebron? The cop bursts into laughter. "Good question," he says.

*I am back in Beirut. A Sunday, and Missak Keleshian, an Armenian researcher – actually, he's in love with film and photographs and is a technician by trade – is showing an original archive movie on the Armenian genocide. It was made by German cameramen in 1918 and 1920. Never before shown. I sit at the back of the big Armenian hall in the Beirut suburb of Dbayeh and the camera tracks across a terrible wasteland of dry hills. Southern Turkey – or western Armenia, depending on your point of view – just after the 1915 genocide of one and a half million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. And a woman comes into focus. She is sitting in the muck and holding her child – alive or dead, I cannot tell. She is weeping and wailing and there before our eyes is the 20th-century's First Holocaust – which our precious US President Barack Obama dare not even call a genocide lest he offends Turkey. Literally moving proof. Later footage shows 20,000 Armenian orphans in Beirut, 30,000 in Aleppo. Where are their parents? Ask not Obama. In one extraordinary scene, the orphans of the First Holocaust are sitting at a breakfast table two miles in length. I am both mesmerised and appalled. They smile and they laugh at the camera. Dr Lepsius, a German working for Near East Relief – how swiftly the good Germans who cared for the Armenians turned into more dangerous creatures – holds the children in his arms. Outside an orphanage, other children plead for help. Then there is a picture of an orphanage run by the Turks in Beirut in 1915, in which the children, Nazi-style, were "Turkified", given Muslim names to eradicate their identity. Enough. This will be a big report in The Independent. But there is a long, panning shot across Beirut. It is Lebanon, 1920; there are tents for the Armenians but the sweep of film shows the port. There are steam ships and sailing ships and the long coast which I see each morning from my balcony.

*To my Beirut balcony, today, beyond which a modern ship, Odyssey Explorer, is passing. It is pale blue and attractive and real – "real" ships for me have a smokestack in the middle of the vessel, not at the back – but its gloomy role this past month has been to find the 54 corpses still on board the Ethiopian Airlines flight which took off from Beirut international airport on 25 January and crashed into the sea just over four minutes later. I took off a few hours earlier en route to Amman. The weather was awful, tornado-wind and rain. We bumped around the sky. When Macintyre called me later to tell me the flight was lost, I just told him I wasn't surprised. But the rumours soon started. The plane was blown up. It was sabotaged. The wife of the French ambassador was on board. Alas, she was. But the terrible truth soon came out. The black box flight recorder was presented to the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri (son of the man assassinated just over five years ago). You can hear the crew as they fly their aircraft – inexplicably – straight up to 9,000 feet and then fall backwards out of the sky. In Amharic – the language of Ethiopia – the pilot blurts out: "We are finished. May God save our souls." It is heartrending. The word is that he had not completed his full year's flight training for his Boeing aircraft. And what did the Odyssey Explorer find? First of all, it found another aircraft at the bottom of the sea – not the Ethiopian plane. I think it was probably the hull of the Hungarian Malev aircraft accidentally hit by a shell in 1975 at the start of the civil war. No one survived. But incredibly, ever since the first word came in of the Ethiopian crash – ironically, from a gunman of Abu Nidal's repulsive old militia, who thought he was under attack by Israel when the aircraft hit the Mediterranean – the Lebanese have found every body of those flying on the plane. I called by a member of the security forces this week to ask what it was like. "Robert, it's the fish. That's the problem. The last sack of remains came up with six backbones inside." Yes. God spare us.

*But let us end gently. I have called up Andrew Buncombe – Our Man in Delhi – to warn him that I may shortly be arriving in the Raj and expected him to provide me with peacock-strewn and manicured lawns whereon cummerbunded waiters will serve me gin and tonic at sundown. Buncombe said he'd have to hire the lawns, waiters and peacocks. Readers will be kept informed.

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