When Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990, it wasn't clear to many Lebanese how or why. Warlords swapped their fatigues for the suits of political office, then issued an amnesty pardoning themselves. There was to be no reconciliation, no reckoning. It was a recipe for continued instability, as deep divisions never healed.
To begin to understand what is often referred to as Lebanon's state of collective amnesia, Assaad Chaftari, a militiaman-turned-peace activist, took us to one of Beirut's most famous war ruins.
‘And who might you be?’ asked the soldier at the gate of the ruined Holiday Inn. He wasn’t addressing us, but our companion from the mukhabarat, or army intelligence. We’d been instructed to pay the intelligence services a visit on our way to film the building. Now, apparently disgruntled at another army agency sending a minder along, the soldier assigned an additional one. At issue were the rows of tanks parked beneath this carcass of a building; filming all military installations is forbidden.
Permission to film inside the Holiday Inn, an iconic ruin left over from Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, is rare and was hard to obtain. The owners recently put it up for sale and, somewhat surprisingly given the building’s notoriety, were wary of media coverage that might tarnish its image.
So two minders – one, it seems, keeping an eye on the other – took us around the Beirut icon. They turned out to be kindly, managing not to look too crestfallen when we confirmed that we’d have to film the view from the top, and even carrying our tripod up about 24 flights of stairs (we lost count). As one look at the building will tell you, the lifts stopped working back in 1975; their empty shafts now fall eerily into darkness. Having long seen that ghastly edifice towering above the city, it was fascinating to see the interior, with its dizzying drops, battle scars, militia graffiti and trees growing in unlikely places.
It was Hezbollah’s turn to send a minder with us to Dahieh, in the southern suburbs. The Shi’ite party controls the area, and has become allergic to international media since it joined the war in neighbouring Syria. We had hoped to film the streets around and a few of the party’s giant billboards. But no such luck.
So it was just as well that we’d included a segment on Beirut’s famed nightlife. In the company of DJ Ladybug, we rounded off our filming with a cocktail at Sporting – a classic beach club that dates to the 1950s. And bar a few large bouncers, thankfully, there were no minders in sight.