Covering the Siege of Beirut

Kurcias captures audio from a Maronite Christian monk i i

hide captionMarty Kurcias captures audio from a Maronite Christian monk just outside Beirut.

William Drummond, NPR
Kurcias captures audio from a Maronite Christian monk

Marty Kurcias captures audio from a Maronite Christian monk just outside Beirut.

William Drummond, NPR
Map of Lebanon i i
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Lebanon
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Marty Kurcias' Journal

Kurcias's journal entries

hide captionKurcias kept a journal during his time covering the Siege of Beirut, his first foray into war reporting. Read some of his entries here.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Timeline of Events

View a timeline of key events that took place during the Siege of Beirut.

William Drummond and Deborah Amos i i

hide captionCorrespondent William Drummond writes a script while Deborah Amos, a producer at the time and now a correspondent for NPR, edits tape in the hotel room.

Marty Kurcias, NPR
William Drummond and Deborah Amos

Correspondent William Drummond writes a script while Deborah Amos, a producer at the time and now a correspondent for NPR, edits tape in the hotel room.

Marty Kurcias, NPR
Marty Kurcias in 2007

hide captionMarty Kurcias, seen in this 2007 photo, is an audio technician at NPR.

Bill Deputy, NPR

Technology Then and Now

In 1982, the technology for reporting from a foreign country was very basic. Read about the difficulties the NPR crew faced in getting the story out during the siege.

Twenty-five years ago, during the summer of 1982, NPR sent a crew of three to Lebanon to report on what came to be called the Siege of Beirut. Marty Kurcias, part of this NPR crew, was the audio engineer for the team. In this reminiscence, he reflects on his first foray into covering the news in dangerous places.

Beirut was my first experience in a war zone. I had volunteered for the assignment without knowing quite what I was getting into. It went something like "Hey, Kurcias, ya got a passport?" "Yeah." When I went home that evening and turned on the TV, I saw pictures of a city shrouded in smoke and flames. Gulp. Big Gulp.

Within a few days, correspondent William Drummond, producer Deborah Amos and I were on our way. My job was audio engineer, which I often describe as a "cameraman for radio." We flew to the island of Cyprus, where we booked overnight passage aboard a tramp freighter bound for the Lebanese coastal town of Jounieh, just north of Beirut. We huddled shivering on the deck in the cold night air and got little sleep.

One gallant sailor offered his bunk to a skeptical Deborah and, sure enough, she was back on deck in no time when his offer turned out to be not so chivalrous.

The next morning when we arrived, Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" was playing on the radio in the taxi that took us to our hotel. Fitting, as that was surely where we were headed. Confirmation was not long in coming. Upon checking into my room at the Alexandre Hotel in East Beirut, I noticed that it came complete with broken window and a large gouge on the wardrobe where shrapnel had hit. That's when I knew there wasn't going to be a chocolate on the pillow that night — or any night.

The War

In June, Israel had launched Operation Peace for Galilee, sending its army across the northern border into Lebanon to root out the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and to put a stop to attacks on its border communities. Pushing the PLO in retreat further and further north, by July the Israeli Defense Forces surrounded the PLO and thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon's capital city of Beirut.

By 1982, Lebanon was in its seventh year of a civil war, so the city and its inhabitants had already taken a beating. Now, however, with the invasion by the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the most sophisticated and well-equipped armies in the world at the time, the scale of death and destruction had intensified considerably. The city was being bombed heavily from land, sea and air. Often for hours and hours at a time.

Most of the targets were in West Beirut, where thousands of PLO guerrillas were holed up in and around the Palestinian refugee camps. They came under criticism for embedding themselves among civilians, but they asserted that they had no other choice. The PLO, although seriously outgunned, returned fire from their limited arsenal.

Cluster bombs and phosphorous bombs dropped on the populace by the Israelis created nasty wounds that Beirut's doctors had no experience treating. From a doctor at Barbir Hospital, we learned about the uniquely horrific nature of white phosphorous burns. It's extremely difficult to put them out — to stop the burning. It will burn through flesh down to the bones. Dr. Amal Shama'a spoke of a set of five-day-old twins that arrived at the hospital dead, but were still burning. Even after an overnight soak in buckets of water, she said that the infants continued to smolder.

The streets of Beirut were filled with rubble. Buildings were shot up, blown up, falling down. Broken glass was strewn everywhere. It was hot and dusty. Soldiers, guerrillas and civilians toted automatic weapons and brandished pistols. It was difficult to keep track of the many different armed militias of various stripes.

As the Israeli army laid siege to the city, tightening the noose, supplies of life's necessities — food, water, and medicine among them — became scarce. Electricity and telephone service were intermittent. Garbage went uncollected. Sanitation suffered. Hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties. Nevertheless, some people refused to leave. In the years to come, in other places, I would always marvel at the steadfastness of people who said that, despite the danger, they would not leave their homes.

No matter how hard it was for us, I was mindful of the fact that it was much worse for the inhabitants — and for them there was no letup. As journalists we knew that we, at least, would be leaving this dreadful place at some point.

Nowadays I can't hear the Warren Zevon song, "Lawyers, Guns and Money" without thinking of Beirut. Bill had it on cassette and we used to laugh about how perfectly it described our predicament. ("Send lawyers, guns and money. Dad, get me out of this.")

Surviving the Siege

Beirut. Beirut? What am I doing in Beirut? And why is it disintegrating before my eyes and ears? — Journal entry, 8/07/82

How did I get through six weeks in Beirut? One word: adrenaline. The body produces adrenaline in response to stress. There was, of course, no shortage of stress in Beirut. Every day was a cavalcade of new sights, sounds and experiences all delivered within the context of danger and death. The daily dose of adrenaline enabled me to work the long hours, and kept me going in the face of the grim reality we confronted in a city under siege.

It was an intoxicating feeling and I liked it. A lot. It is a common reaction. As Winston Churchill wrote, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." I liked the hustle of a breaking news story and the rare opportunity it afforded to be an eyewitness to history. I enjoyed taking on the challenges that arose. I came to appreciate the camaraderie engendered by shared experience and misery. And I believed I was doing important work, contributing to the public good, informing our listeners. News is sometimes called the rough draft of history, and it means something to me that I had a hand in composing it.

One builds up a lot of emotion and adrenaline around here. Sometimes I think I need to have a good cry. Or laugh... Or good night's sleep. Or meal. Or talk. Or...? — Journal entry, 8/04/82

The violence and danger in Beirut was of two varieties. There was the obvious: bombing and firefights. Then there was the wild card danger of car bombs, unexploded shells lying about, snipers and other types of random circumstantial violence. Soldiers, guerrillas, and citizens alike were under a lot of tension. One never knew when they might reach their breaking point and start shooting as a result of a misunderstanding or just for the heck of it.

One day we returned from lunch to find that a car bomb had been detonated right in front of our hotel. It was just luck that we had chosen to eat somewhere besides the hotel's outdoor café that day. The blast broke every window on the front of the hotel building and turned the café into a blackened pile of twisted wreckage. There were some injuries but, miraculously, no one was killed.

There were two Beirut hotels where journalists covering the siege stayed: the Hotel Commodore in West Beirut and the Hotel Alexandre in East Beirut. The scene at our hotel, the latter, was a culture unto itself. Together the journalists endured anxiety and frustrations, deadlines and danger, bad food and amusing waiters. Rumors, romance and scandal provided a diversion.

Today I overhead someone at the bar saying, 'This is the only profession I know where you get on a plane and fly first class, drink champagne and eat caviar, to arrive in some ... hole and check into a third rate hotel and see 50 of your best friends.' — Journal entry, 8/10/82

Culture and Customs

Journalists sometimes find themselves heading off to places they know little about. It would be nice to have time to bone up on local customs and culture, but short notice is the rule. Some infractions can get you in trouble; others are merely embarrassing.

The day after we arrived in Beirut, we went to the PLO press office to obtain press credentials. While relaxing in the waiting area for our papers to be processed, I was sitting with one leg resting crosswise on the other knee. Across the room, I noticed two guys who seemed to be admiring the new boots I was wearing. Only later did I come to understand that displaying the soles of one's feet is looked upon as uncouth — the soles of the feet are considered unclean in this culture. They, no doubt, were remarking on the rude and clueless American.

But despite the gravity of the story, and dealing with situations like this, there were a few instances of comic relief. I had struck a deal with the hotel chambermaid to do my laundry, which she washed in the bathroom sink. Upon returning to the room one day to produce that evening's report, I found my wet laundry draped over the furniture to dry. Clearing it away to make room to work, I happened to toss a pair of underwear over a lampshade. A few minutes later I smelled smoke and looked up to find that the light bulb had burned a hole in them.

Although scorched, they were not completely ruined — so I returned them to service. The following week, I came back to my room to find the chambermaid washing my clothes. Exclaiming, worriedly, in Arabic, she held up my underwear — now sporting a blackened ring where the hole had been burned — concerned that I had suffered a wound to that part of my anatomy. God forbid.

From Playground to Battleground

Beirut had once been an oasis, a popular vacation destination, a cosmopolitan city. It had earned a reputation as the Paris of the Middle East.

Over time, however, an increasingly large presence of Palestinian refugees had become divisive, upsetting the already tenuous political balance of Maronite Christians and Muslims in the country. When civil war broke out in Beirut in 1975, Beirut went from playground to battleground. Lebanon, beyond its own internal strife, became the turf upon which its neighbors, Syria and Israel, the PLO, and various superpower backers settled their differences. The negative consequences for the Lebanese were many.

For the Lebanese, the past 25 years have offered little respite from the hatred, bloodshed and brutality. Three weeks after I left Beirut at the end of August, the newly elected president, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated — killed by a bomb planted at his party's headquarters. A few days later, hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in southern Beirut were systematically massacred by Lebanese Christian Phalangist troops with the complicity of the Israeli Defense Forces.

In 1983, hundreds of U.S. servicemen stationed in Beirut as part of a peacekeeping force were killed by a suicide bomber who drove a truck full of explosives into the U.S. Marine barracks there.

Several more presidents and prime ministers of Lebanon have since been assassinated. Radical groups like Hezbollah have flourished in Lebanon, leading to continued friction and fighting with Israel. Israel has invaded the country again several times, most recently in 2006, when heavy bombing resulted in high civilian casualties and severely damaged the civilian infrastructure that had finally been rebuilt after years of war.

On this assignment, I encountered the graphic horror of war for the first time. I was naive about what damage war can do to the body as well as the soul. I witnessed the suffering and despair of innocent people. It put me in possession of the indisputable knowledge that, yes, people actually do this to other people. I guess I had to see it with my own eyes to actually believe that this madness was possible.

Marty Kurcias has worked as an audio engineer and producer for NPR since 1978. He has worked on stories in Israel, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, South Korea, Philippines, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, New York City after Sept. 11, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Deborah Amos is a foreign correspondent for NPR. William Drummond is a professor of journalism at University of California at Berkeley.

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