Borderland The author entering West Beirut, 1982 (David Turnley)
This story is being co-published by CJR and by The Big Roundtable, a new digital home for narrative journalism.
Bright, bright light. So bright it blinds me. The man with the rifle, who is about to kill me, has me standing up against the wall. I can’t stop fixating on the light. I can’t do anything. Can’t bend. Can’t run. Can’t do anything.
So this is how it ends? Strange. I am young. Shouldn’t I have more time?
It’s not the burning yellow sunlight, but an intense white light that distracts me most as I wait here on this miserable, stinking, war-pocked street of bombed-out buildings in bombed-out West Beirut.
I’m the afternoon show for a crowd of people waiting to see somebody beside themselves get blown away.
I wait here just up the hill from a pile of rotting food and garbage, standing next to a partially collapsed, bullet-riddled wall. Waiting my turn.
My suitcase is at my side, where I dropped it in the dirt. I am facing a short, plump, balding gunman in need of a shave. He is pointing a high-powered rifle at my chest.
I guess I’ll die soon. Bullets. I’ll tumble backwards. Maybe forwards. Who knows. I’ve never done this before. When it’s over, I imagine that they will leave me here with the rest of the blood-splashed vestiges of war that fill this part of Beirut.
It is another gate to hell here: the last checkpoint on the way in or out of besieged, maddened, and desperate West Beirut. I am a reporter. It is August 1982.
The day I arrived, a middle-aged Lebanese man told me of seeing a man run out into the street after an Israeli bombing attack hit his house and killed a member of his family. The man slit the throat of the first person who passed by—an Arab, it turned out, just like the enraged man, an Arab trapped in the vise of war. “He was crazy from the war,” the Lebanese man said. “War is crazy. Be careful.”
I try to seem calm. But I feel a shiver, and the scene in front of me is fading out quickly because I am fixating on the white light coming from nowhere and everywhere.
It floods out the callous jerk in the camouflage military jacket facing me. The more I focus on it, the more buttons and wheels shut down in my head.
As the wheels turn off, I feel like I am in a swoon. I am not sweating. I seem to be breathing regularly. A few nights ago, when the fighting in the street got really violent here, I had trouble catching my breath in the basement of the low-budget hotel where I and a few other journalists were waiting it out. But I am not struggling to breathe now, and I am not shaking either. I’m glad for that.
I had faced a situation like this before, at a Syrian border checkpoint not long ago. My body shook so much then, despite my desperate efforts to stop it. The soldiers insisted we were Israelis, or that we were working with the Israelis, because our passports didn’t show how we had entered Jordan on the way to Syria. We had, in fact, come from Israel. But foolishly we—myself and two colleagues—had no idea that the lack of an entry stamp to Jordan would make us suspect.
Naïve journalists. First-timers to war.
On that day, I remember looking outside and seeing a bus whose markings showed it was bound for Istanbul. I fantasized about leaping through the window, rushing to the bus and yelling in Turkish for them to save me. My Turkish was so good then, from my days as a US Peace Corps volunteer there, that the escape plan came almost naturally to me. Ultimately, hours later, the Syrians walked us to the border and drew the narrow, wooden gate down behind us. In the total darkness, they ordered us to walk back to Jordan.
Hours after that all-night confrontation with Syrian soldiers, I could not shake the feeling of being and acting so vulnerable. I was horribly ashamed of my fear, and worse, realizing that I had been out of control.
But for all the hours I cowered before the bluffing bullies, for all the time we stood there in that small room with only a single window, our faces lit by a naked light bulb while young soldiers shook their guns in our faces—for all that, the Syrians never said they wished to kill us, not like the gunman now says he wants to do to me.