March 23, 2012

A TEAM-BUILDING EXERCISE:

PAINTBALLING WITH HEZBOLLAH IS THE PATH STRAIGHT TO THEIR HEARTS (MITCHELL PROTHERO, 3/23/12, Vice)

With me out of the game, another teammate eliminated, and a third being held hostage, that leaves only one remaining member of Team Sahafi (Arabic for "journalists"): Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger captain who retired after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and has since become a noted counterinsurgency expert. When he's not playing paintball in the basement of a Beirut strip mall, Exum is flying to Kabul to advise the US military or writing papers with phrases like "population-centric" in their titles. He also heads up abumuqawama.com, a blog revered by War on Terror geeks. The main thrust of Exum's strategy is to separate insurgents from the broader population. Tonight, however, as two Hezbollah fighters drag and push his comrade-turned-hostage toward him, Ranger Exum makes little effort to separate good guy from bad and shoots all three of them repeatedly. This delights our opponents, who appear to appreciate the lack of emotion shown by the American warrior. Finally, they relent--no one can doubt they have been "killed"--and forfeit the game.

We all convene back in the arena's cantina, where there are snacks and weird murals suggesting that paintball is the best way to deal with one's inner aggression. If the initial introductions between the two sides had been slightly tense--the fighters seemed nervous about being identified, and we were anxious about them backing out--the realization that they had just attempted to use a hostage as a human shield during a paintball fight loosened things up. The Hezbollah guys all laugh when Exum jokes that he killed Ben to keep him off some Al Jazeera reel. And they respond--pointing at me--that after the next game "the Germans will have to negotiate for this one." It's a somewhat sick inside joke: German diplomats are usually tasked with negotiating Hezbollah-Israeli prisoner and body swaps.

Soha--my Lebanese girlfriend, who agreed to serve as a translator/liaison--decides that Team Hezbollah's use of actual military hardware, their hostage-taking tactics, and, most of all, their refusal to leave the game when hit means that the rules need clarifying. She has a few words with the arena's confused manager, who five seconds into the first match quickly realized he was hosting a very peculiar party tonight and who, for the first two games, was too intimidated to remind the four guerrillas to adhere to the posted rules. So it's up to Soha to badger both him and the Hezbollah boys so that they quit it with the cheating. In setting up the ground rules for the game, the Hezbollah team members sent word that "no Lebanese" could be present, concerned that someone would recognize them and tell their bosses they were breaking some serious rules. But Soha charmed them within a few minutes, and her presence slowly became welcome.

Quickly, Soha brokers a deal: Everyone agrees that, for the rest of the game, only head shots will count as kills. Also, "outside equipment" is officially banned. During the first two games, it was clear that Team Hezbollah had little fear of nonlethal paintball fire; they'd all been hit multiple times and stubbornly stayed in the game. But they seem to respect the notion that when someone is shot in the head, he's done. Plus, it'll be more fun if everyone's harder to kill. We decide to call the first two games down the middle: one win for them, the other for us.

This gets Coco's attention. "Really?" he asks. "But Hezbollah always wins." [...]

My motivation for brokering the match was largely driven by the simple journalistic need to better understand the group. Hezbollah's highly professional press office is quite friendly toward Western journalists--eagerly taking meetings and repeating the same bland propaganda spewed by their official outlets. Requests for access to its foot soldiers, however, are always ignored. Even the idea of such a meeting happening is taboo. Partly, it's an institutional thing. Top Hezbollah boss Hasan Nasrallah likes to joke about how taciturn his fighters can be, once explaining that when the 2006 war broke out, his security detail moved him to a location so secret he didn't know where he was for 34 days.

After more than five years in Beirut, I'd never once found a way to interact closely with Hezbollah fighters. So I wondered: What might I learn if I could get them out of their tightly disciplined environment, into a place where they might relax a little and trust me enough to reveal even a fleeting truth or insight? The rest of Team Sahafi is composed of similarly minded foreign correspondents.

Our roster includes Ben Gilbert, a radio and print reporter who moved to Lebanon in 2006 after a year reporting from Iraq; Nicholas Blanford, who has been reporting on Lebanon and Hezbollah for 17 years and who just put out Warriors of God, an exhaustive military history of the group; the impossibly tall and baby-faced New York Times photographer Bryan Denton, who has been in Beirut for the past five years, covering various outbreaks of violence and the 2006 war with Israel, before deciding to cover the revolution in Libya; and Exum, our secret weapon. Our only nonjournalist, Exum was the key both to getting the fighters to show up and to our having any real chance at winning. He left the army before his 30th birthday and is now wrapping up a PhD in "insurgency studies." His take on the situation was that it'd serve as an indispensable bit of field research.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at March 23, 2012 4:09 PM
  

blog comments powered by Disqus
« THE SALTINE CELEBRATION: | Main | NO ONE DISAGREES, BUT THE EPA: »