On living in a war-zone

Above: 1982 view of the Green Line in downtown Beirut. Becoming greener in a bad way. Credit James Case.

Wars that are fought within countries, rather than between countries, are for some reason called “civil wars.” But in truth they are often the most brutal and uncivil form of conflict imaginable—perhaps because the express goal of the warring parties is to definitively silence the dissident voices of their own compatriots on the “other” side or sides, rather than to win a military contest on a battlefield. Over the years I’ve reported on, researched, analyzed, and reflected on a number of different wars on three continents. But the experiences I had in the very first war I encountered were different from all those other wars, and taught me the most about the nature of war. Because there, for six years, I was actually living and raising a family in the war-zone.

Let me take you back to the summer of 1974. I had spent some months discerning what I wanted to do with my very mediocre degree from Oxford; and now I decided to go to some intriguing-looking spot in the Global South to become a foreign correspondent. This was a step many British male writers had taken over the decades. So why not me?

The spot I chose was Beirut, Lebanon, where I had a few friends already. I went to my bank in Oxford and took out a loan of, I recall, £100. I bought an air ticket, and took off for Beirut. By the end of 1974 I had a job in a local advertising agency; I was taking Arabic classes in the Jesuit university; I was writing book reviews for the local English-language daily; and I had met an interesting local guy called Souheil, also an aspiring journalist…

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