Five journalists share their most vivid memories of the Lebanese Civil War

On April 13, 1975, Kataeb gunmen killed 30 Palestinians on a bus in Ain al-Rummaneh, marking the start of Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

L'Orient Today returns to those years by revisiting testimonies given in 2019 by five journalists who covered the war. 

A convoy of the International Committee of the Red Cross on the outskirts of the Sabra and Shatila after the massacre by IDF-supported gunmen in 1982. (L’Orient-Le Jour archives)

Maria Chakhtoura, journalist at L’Orient-Le Jour, based in Beirut:

“The residents were clinging to us”

Maria Chakhtoura is the author of two books about the Lebanese civil war: “Mémoires de Survie” (Memoirs of Survival), published by Editions L’Orient-Le Jour in 2007, and “Liban 1975-1978, la Guerre des Graffitis” (Lebanon 1975-1978, the Graffiti War), published in 1978 by Editions Dar an-Nahar and re-edited in 2014. She is our former colleague and “roamed Lebanon from East to West and from North to South” during her coverage of the conflict. Here, she recounts one of the episodes that affected her most.

On Dec. 15, 1983, Chakhtoura traveled with a pool of journalists to Deir el-Qamar in the Chouf. The town had been under siege for 102 days, and the journalists were going to witness the evacuation of the Lebanese Forces from the city. “More than a story, it was an adventure,” Chakhtoura remembers.

Getting to Deir el-Qamar was a challenge. Some of the roads to the town were dangerous and impassable, especially the road from Beirut to Damour.

“With about thirty local and foreign journalists, we boarded a speedboat a bit before midnight in Beirut’s port, sailing away from the coast so as not to be within the range of the Palestinian-Progressives forces’ gunfire. We arrived in Jiyeh (south of Beirut) at around four in the morning. The sun was just rising, and we climbed the slopes to the road where we rode in an Israeli army truck. After going through several checkpoints, we arrived to Mechref at a Lebanese Forces’ post where we were served hot drinks. I had the impression of being in a movie,” she recalls.

“On the road, the minibus that drove us to Deir el-Qamar was escorted by the Israeli army. The Druze militiamen were posted with their weapons on the rooftops of buildings and houses… I remember them wearing khaki sherwals [pants].”

Arriving in Deir el-Qamar was a shock. “The residents were clinging to us, telling us about their physical and emotional suffering. They needed to talk. We had lumps in our throats. In the churches, the schools and the locations where they took refuge, a lot of residents had already prepared backpacks and were ready to leave as well,” Chakhtoura says.

Along with a journalist from Tele-Liban, she was the last person to return to Beirut.

“For the way back, we had borrowed a vehicle from the Interior Security Forces, thinking we would get there more quickly. At Kfarhim, the car got shot at. The windows exploded. The driver tried to escape the shots by alternating the breaks and the accelerator. It took many weeks to remove the small shards of glass from my skull,” recounts Chakhtoura, who remembers experiencing a range or emotions that day. “A certain rage was fueling the reporters. We were helpless. It was humiliating being in the presence of the Israelis. During each step of this journey, we had a lot of trouble holding back our tears.”

Robert Fisk, British chief reporter at The Independent, based in Beirut:

“I have never seen a massacre of this scale”

“I do not like stories about the effect that journalists have on the events they cover,” says Robert Fisk, a veteran Middle-East correspondent who arrived to Beirut in June 1976. “The people we should feel pain for are the victims and the survivors; those who are going through hell. As for journalists, when things get tough, they can buy a business class plane ticket and decide to take a break.”

Nonetheless, Fisk agreed to share the horrid story of Sabra and Shatila, the Palestinian camps in Beirut’s southern suburbs where Christian militias committed a massacre in September 1982, directly under the watchful eyes of the Israeli army. Fisk was one of the first journalists to enter the camps. He arrived “while the murderers were still there,” he says, and had to hide with other journalists in the garden of a woman who had just been killed. “The blood coming out of her body was still fresh,” Fisk recalls.

“That Saturday morning, upon entering the camps, I saw so many bodies, some thrown in mass graves... Women, children. I even saw a baby with a bullet in his head. Dozens of corpses of men piled on top of each other. I have never seen a massacre of this scale,” he says, the emotion still raw so many years later. “Barely half an hour after entering the camps, I immediately said: ‘This is a war crime.’”

The hatred behind the executions was shocking. “Killing women and children, raping... I even saw a horse that had been shot. I have never witnessed anything like this before,” he says.

“At first, we only saw lifeless bodies. Everyone was dead. There was no one to interrogate. Only a little later did we start seeing survivors. I remember a woman who shouted at me: ‘Did you take good pictures?’. For her, I was another vulture who only came to take photos of Palestinians’ dead bodies.”

That night, Fisk had nightmares. “It happens to me rarely. I dreamt of being in the camps again, climbing on a pile of corpses, and that my clothes had a foul smell,” he says. “I woke up, sniffed my outfits, and indeed they had a putrid smell. The next morning, I asked the help to burn them.” “What I saw in Sabra and Shatila reminded me of photographs of Nazis’ brutalities,” Fisk continues. “There were no more excuses for the Israelis after that.”

After witnessing what he called a "war crime," Fisk worked to broadcast what had happened. “I wanted to tell the whole story on the radios and in the newspapers. I wanted to give the details; the names of the victims. I wanted to impact the readers of The Time.”

In months that followed, a campaign was started to try to delegitimize Fisk. “Those, who like me, said the truth about Sabra and Shatila were accused by pro-Israeli circles of being anti-Semitic, racists, and neo-Nazis,” the journalist says. “I received innumerable letters accusing me of acting like Goebbels.”

Dominique Roch, French-Lebanese correspondent for several media outlets, based in Beirut:

“This war was the Vietnam of the time”

Between 1982 and 1987, Dominique Roch covered the Lebanese war for Radio France Internationale (RFI), Radio Suisse Romande, and the French weekly L’Evenement du Jeudi. “For our generation of young journalists, this war was the international ‘story’ of the moment, the Vietnam of the time,” says Roch, who has three significant events from that time stored in her memory.

“On Aug. 6, 1982, at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli army dropped a vacuum bomb on a building housing Palestinian refugees in the neighborhood of Sanayeh in West Beirut, next to the Ministry of Information where we used to go every day,” she recalls. “Israel had received a tip that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would be there that day. The building collapsed like a house of cards, with only one person surviving. In the rubble, there were personal items, photo albums… bits and pieces, parts of decimated lives.”

The morning of Oct. 23, 1983 is also seared into Roch’s memory. “I was asleep in Raouche. I heard a huge explosion, went out on the balcony and saw a cloud of smoke. I heard a second explosion.”

The American Marine barracks and the Drakkar post housing French paratroopers in Ramlet el-Baida had been hit by almost simultaneous suicide bombings. Two hundred and forty-one US soldiers and 55 French soldiers who were part of a multinational peacekeeping force in Beirut died in the attack.

“With Sammy Ketz from AFP, we were among the first journalists to arrive to the Drakkar post,” Roch says. “I still remember the rubble-clearing operation. At one point, the rescue team decided to stop the cranes so they could hear the voices of possible survivors. The silence was poignant and moving.”

Nov. 20, 1985 is another day that sticks out. “We were in the midst of the hostage-taking crisis of Western professors and colleagues. Terry Waite, then special envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury who came to Lebanon clandestinely in order to make contacts with the hostage takers of Terry Anderson–an Associated Press correspondent kidnapped in January that year–was supposed to brief us on his negotiations at the Commodore Hotel. This is when a pitched battle started between militiamen of the PSP and Amal factions. It was the start of the war of flags,” Roch remembers.

“The militias went into the hotel and started fighting. We had to crawl to shield ourselves. Coco, the parrot, was imitating the sounds of the weapons.”

The journalists were pulled into the unfolding events. “Outside, a civilian in his sixties was hit by a bullet in his throat while he was in his car. His wife entered the hotel, barely able to speak. Two photojournalists took her husband’s body out of the car, but he died of his injuries.”

The journalists remained stuck in the hotel for 24 hours. During this time, Roch recorded a radio report while she was lying on the floor of the hotel’s reception to avoid the shooting.

Sammy Ketz, AFP reporter in the Middle East:

“In a civil war, there are no good guys and bad guys”

Sammy Ketz first came to Lebanon in 1982 as a special envoy for Agence France Presse. He then worked as the deputy director and director of the AFP office for Beirut before leaving Lebanon in 1988. From his six years spent covering the war, one event in 1987 sticks out and affected him deeply.

“All the crippled, the blind, the disabled by the war, had gathered to protest at the Barbara checkpoint (in northern Lebanon), which at the time, defined the area under Syrian control from the one controlled by the Lebanese forces” Ketz recalls.

“These people who have suffered the war in their own flesh and blood met from each side of the checkpoint, separated by soldiers or militiamen. They were there to say: ‘Whatever side we are on, we have all been wounded by the war, and it must stop,’” says Ketz.

“There were all kinds of people from all walks of lives, and all of them were there: some on crutches, others were blind, some were burnt. This event went almost unnoticed at the time, but it affected me a lot. There were other more violent events, but the one that stayed with me the most was this one,” he says without hesitation.

“In a civil war, there are no good and bad guys. There are persecutors and victims. This was the recurring topic among colleagues who, once they arrived, wanted to choose between the two. I used to tell them: ‘There are no good or bad camps. There are persecutors and victims on both sides.’ This is what civil war is: people who decide to kill each other for specific reasons from both sides,” Ketz continues.

The march of the victims that day contrasted with the horror of combat. “What struck me was the people who came from all regions. The aim of the civil war was to divide people. But there, it was the opposite. People came to say: ‘Look at us. We killed each other. Was it worth it?’” he concludes.

In 1988, Ketz received the Albert London Prize for his coverage of the conflict in Lebanon. “I think that my article on this march was what impacted the jury the most”.

Tomas Alcoverro, Spanish reporter at La Vanguardia, based in Beirut:

“Despite everything, Beirut is my city”

Tomas Alcoverro was personally affected by a handful of events during Lebanon’s civil war. He still remembers their details even as his memory is fading.

“One day, I heard that machine guns were installed in my building. During the night, a lot of shots were fired from there,” Alcoverro says. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 also almost destroyed the building. “A house nearby was demolished by the Israeli air strikes, and this distressed me.”

Alcoverro says he rarely left West Beirut, where he lived, even though it was the most dangerous area of the city, especially for foreigners. But on a winter day in 1975, he had to go to East Beirut with an Italian colleague. “We drove through Aley and Bhamdoun. This is when a group of Druze militiamen arrested us and took the car, our belongings, including our personal papers. We had to go back to Beirut hastily.”

More than a decade later, in 1987, the kidnapping of foreigners had become common. Two of Alcoverro’s colleagues, who were also his neighbors, were taken captive.

“In the building where I have lived for the past 30 years near the Commodore Hotel in Hamra, my neighbors were diplomats (mostly French), press correspondents, Spanish and French as well,” he says. “One day, a terrorist group kidnapped one my neighbors, Roger Auque, a journalist at the time. He was detained for at least one year, if I can recall. He was not abducted from the building, but was my neighbor on the third floor,” he adds, still moved by what happened.

That same year, in the same building, another one of Alcoverro’s neighbors was kidnapped: British-American journalist Charles Glass. “He was my neighbor on the fifth floor,” Alcoverro remembers. Glass was released after 62 days in captivity. “The terrorists said that they mistook the target,” Alcoverro explains.

“These kidnappings scared me a lot. At the time, the preferred targets were British, American and French citizens because those countries used to send a lot of weapons to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, so the kidnappers wanted to put pressure on them. Naturally, I was scared to be captured, but I knew that, as a Spaniard, my country was considered to be ‘a virgin in the region of the Middle East,’” he says, with a hint of humor.

“I spent most of my life in Beirut,” Alcoverro adds, who has been working for La Vanguardia since 1965. Neither the war nor the kidnappings discouraged him. “I bought the apartment where I lived at the time in 1986, I think, because despite everything, Beirut is my city, Beirut madinati.”

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.

Maria Chakhtoura, journalist at L’Orient-Le Jour, based in Beirut: “The residents were clinging to us”Maria Chakhtoura is the author of two books about the Lebanese civil war: “Mémoires de Survie” (Memoirs of Survival), published by Editions L’Orient-Le Jour in 2007, and “Liban 1975-1978, la Guerre des Graffitis” (Lebanon 1975-1978, the Graffiti War), published in 1978 by...