Snapshots from the war zone: ‘Grenades are bad for business’

Friday 13/11/2015
Award-winning American photographer Heidi Levine in Jerusalem.

The 1978-79 Islamic revo­lution in Iran was one of the most difficult and dangerous of the region’s conflicts to cover. Of­ten, when assigned to cover a war, journalists are not given a choice of which side they will be on. Revo­lutions are usually more compli­cated than wars because, due to the nature of the conflict, the two sides battle at close quarters and usually in cities.
It is often difficult to differentiate between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” in conflicts but during the revolution in Tehran, the au­tocratic regime was clearly the vil­lain in that it used indiscriminate force, with horrific consequences, in a bid to maintain power.
The shah’s forces had the guns but, from all that I witnessed over a four-month period, it was obvi­ous the people had all the guts.
Protesters were being shot in the hundreds at large gatherings, which usually took place at night. The military tried to keep journal­ists in their hotels and were not averse to clubbing those intrepid souls who ventured out to witness the killings, then carting them off to jail for more beatings.
The casualty tolls from these nocturnal slaughters varied widely; the revolutionaries inflat­ing them, the regime minimising them.
I found a way to assess the horror of these events with some accu­racy: counting bodies in morgues. At the first one I visited, an orderly, clearly a sympathiser of the revolu­tion, enthusiastically showed me the rows of bloodstained corpses of men, women and even children.
Because people were still dying of natural causes, I told him: “I just want to see the ones with bul­let holes.” He nodded, and said: “Do you want to see the babies?”
I demurred.
I did that for several weeks until I could no longer stomach the end­less rows of dead.
One day in late December 1978, I had to talk to our local correspond­ent whose office, which I used, was part of his large home in affluent pro-monarchy north Tehran. He was a die-hard shah loyalist and often tried to prevent my reports going out. I entered the residential part of the house unannounced and found the family rolling up their Persian carpets. They were getting out. I knew right there the revolution was won. The shah fled into exile a few weeks later.
There were moments of humour sometimes, dark and macabre, but humour nonetheless.
In 1985, during Lebanon’s civil war, a bewildering, many-sided af­fair that was often several wars rolled into one — rather like the current war in Syria — many for­eign journalists were based in the Commodore Hotel in the Hamra district of West Beirut.
There, pampered by the genial and indefatigable manager, the late and lamented Fouad Saleh, resident correspondents, (as op­posed to the visiting “firemen” who flew in only when something big occurred) mingled nightly with a variety of Lebanese militia chief­tains, who were a useful source of information and whose acquaint­ance rescued many a correspond­ent’s skin when things got hot and heavy in the streets.
I struck up a friendship with one of these warlords, a burly Druze we shall call Najib, a hard man who had killed many times. Over time, it became clear he was wearying of the bloodshed, like one of those ageing gunfighters in western movies who knows his time has passed and just wants to get out before he gets killed himself.
Najib drank heavily and was al­ways watched over by his men. He had a sly humour about him and we became quite close. He even brought his wife and daughter to meet me.
One night, Najib was pretty sloshed. When I walked in he gave me a bear hug and slipped some­thing into the pocket of my jacket. I put my hand in to feel what was there and found to my horror it was a hand grenade. The pin was still in its slot, so it was safe.
I handed the grenade back to Najib, saying “Here, you keep it, habibi. You need it more than I do.”
“No, you keep it,” he guffawed and unzipped his bulky bomber jacket to display half a dozen gre­nades clipped on ringlets. “I’ve got plenty more!”
He took the grenade and lurched over to a Lebanese official sitting at the bar — and dropped the grenade in his lap. The poor fellow fell off his stool, ran out screaming, “Gre­nade!” The bar emptied in seconds.
Najib and I were the only ones left but we knew the grenade was safe. Najib’s boys and I sat him at the bar and got him so drunk he could hardly walk, then his men took him home.
The Commodore crowd had gone off to other watering holes where there were no drunken gunmen with hand grenades. Mo­hammad, the barman, closed up. “Grenades,” he grumbled with the wisdom of one who’s seen it all, “are bad for business.”