The Guardian (1999)

It was a hard and brutal stare that held no trace of anger, disdain or humour. It was almost impossible to penetrate. It was the stare of a man who knew he was going to get his way. The stand-off lasted a few minutes. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the kalashnikovs coming out. I handed over the rolls of film.

We’d just finished filming the climax of the Islamic holiday of Ashura in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Thousands of Shia Moslems had gathered, as they do every year, to remember and mourn the death of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, killed in battle in the 7th century by his Sunni rivals. As the Imam recited the story of Hussein’s death, the assembled masses, all dressed in funereal black, began to moan quietly to themselves. Rocking backwards and forwards on their heels, the moans turned into violent sobs and then swelled to a wrenching and disturbing wail of grief. Beating their chests with a loud thud, they started up an echoing chant – “Death to Israel, America is the Great Satan.”

At that moment two heavies from Hezbollah security came over and demanded our film. We were confused. Hezbollah officials, one of whom was accompanying us, had given us permission to film the climax of the event. The heavies pushed him roughly aside. It became clear they would not let us leave until we handed over our film.

We knew that filming with Hezbollah wouldn’t be easy. We’d come to Beirut to try and solve one of the great mysteries of recent times. Between 1983 and 1992, nearly a hundred Westerners were grabbed off the streets of Beirut, often in broad daylight, and held hostage for as long as seven years in bleak, underground cells throughout Lebanon. Terry Waite, John McCarthy, Jackie Mann and Brian Keenan survived the ordeal. Three other Britons, the forgotten hostages, Philip Padfield, Leigh Douglas and Alec Collett were killed in captivity. Who took them? Why were they taken? How were they kept secretly hidden for so long?

Hezbollah has always refused to talk about the hostage crisis, denying that it was responsible. But the group did and still does control the southern suburbs of Beirut, the labyrinthine network of alleyways and dead ends where the hostages were held during the 1980s. The few individuals identified by western intelligence as being behind the hostage-taking were part of the Hezbollah infrastructure. Even if Hezbollah was not directly involved, it seemed a good place to start asking questions.

To reach Hezbollah, you have to leave the familiar, western atmosphere of the centre of Beirut and head towards the southern suburbs, home to Lebanon’s Shia population, traditionally the most downtrodden of the country’s many religions and sects. It can be an unnerving journey for anyone who has read the hostages’ accounts of their kidnappings. Portraits of a stern looking Ayatollah Khomeni glare down at you accusingly, the thickly bearded Shia men seem to watch you too closely, the women, heads bowed, scuttle past too quickly.

We were led to an iron door in the stairwell of a dark, anonymous appartment building. There was a clanking of doors being unbolted and we were ushered into a small, bare room and searched. Our passports were taken away. A door banged shut behind us. The sound of furious whispering reached us from the corridor. People came and went, staring at us suspiciously. We tried not to look too closely into anyone’s eyes.

After an interminable wait we were moved into another room. This one was carpeted, with an old sofa and two armchairs. On the wall was the ubiquitous poster of Ayatollah Khomeni. There was one small window, covered with a curtain, through which we could just hear the sounds of Beirut street life. Doors opened and slammed down the corridor. The sound of footsteps came closer and a Hezbollah official walked in. He stared at us for a long time, then, with our anxiety mounting, this representative of an organisation that is the epitome of hardline Islamic culture and morality, cheerfully remarked, in excellent English, that our cameraman bore a startling resemblance to D.H. Lawrence.

There were good reasons why we thought Hezbollah might be ready to talk about taking hostages. Hezbollah or “The Party of God” is now a respected and popular political party with several MPs in the Lebanese parliament, its members feted as heroes throughout the Middle East because of their resistance to the Israeli army which occupies the southern part of the country. Hezbollah even has a website to argue its case and seek support from the West. With its image tainted for so long by charges of terrorism, suicide bombing and hostage-taking, Hezbollah, we hoped, might grab the chance to come clean about the past in order to put relations with the West on a better standing.

Our arguments seemed to convince the Hezbollah press office and painstakingly we set up meetings with Hezbollah’s leaders, fixed dates to film in the Hezbollah controlled southern suburbs, arranged access to their religious events. It seemed as though we had won over one of the world’s most secretive groups.

It wasn’t long before we realised it wasn’t that easy. Interviews that had been arranged for weeks were suddenly cancelled at the last moment, seemingly on a whim. Whenever we went into Hezbollah areas in the southern suburbs we were followed, checked on and searched. We excused much of this behaviour. Hezbollah is still fighting a vicious war with the Israeli army and is paranoid that the Israelis will penetrate its intelligence apparatus.

But soon, what was merely inconvenient began to turn nasty. Hezbollah heavies made vague but dark threats when we approached them for filming access. They intimidated members of our team and other contributors. They confiscated rolls of film. At each turn our protests were met with the same hard, impenetrable stare.

The reason why Hezbollah was apparently refusing to cooperate came out in an interview with a supporter of Islamic Jihad, the group that claimed the kidnappings. An American senator had visited Beirut a month earlier and was demanding that the kidnappers be brought to justice. Hezbollah’s greatest fear is that if the identity of the hostage-takers is revealed, some of its former, or even current members could be extradited for trial in the United States.

Hezbollah did give us our interviews, but what they said was a stepping stone to a much more interesting and complex story. As we retraced the steps of the hostages by filming in the places where they were kidnapped, the grimy underground car parks where they were held before being transported to more permanent cells and the basements where they whiled away days, weeks and years, it became clear that this was not an operation carried out by a small group of maniacal and desperate men. The logistics of kidnapping, imprisoning, guarding, feeding and transporting so many Western hostages within such a small country could only have been possible with the help of a network of hundreds of supporters.

The real key to the hostage crisis though was finally unlocked for us, not through our interviews with Hezbollah, nor by the hostages, nor by the western politicians who tried to get them out, but by the reaction of the wider Lebanese population. Few ordinary Lebanese, whether Christian, Moslem or Druze would condemn the taking of western hostages during the 80s. Those that lived through those years would instead ask you to consider the facts: a bloody civil war was raging between Lebanon’s different religious sects and family clans, thousands of Lebanese were taken hostage, the Israelis invaded, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards got involved, the Americans, French, Italians and British sent in troops, the Syrians attacked. Hostage taking was not the knee-jerk reaction of an isolated group, but the response of a population desperate to regain some power in a world that was rapidly spinning out of their control.

“Hostage” was filmed during 1999 in Beirut, Washington. New York, Paris and London. It tells the complete story of the Middle East hostage crisis.

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