- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

A rooftop scare

Several years ago, we began arranging for reporters who work in conflict zones to undergo a rigorous training program designed to make sure they react appropriately if they find themselves under fire, in the middle of a minefield, or at risk of being kidnapped.

The training, available from several private security companies and often provided by former U.S. or British commandos, serves as much as anything to ease the consciences of the editors who send their reporters into danger. But reporter Betsy Pisik found it all coming back to her last week on the rooftop of an apartment building in the Lebanese city of Sidon.

She and another reporter had headed south from Beirut, sharing a car and driver to reduce costs. Unable to reach Tyre after Israeli bombs knocked out the last crossing over the Litani River, they turned back to Sidon, where their driver, a man named Moustapha, offered them sleeping space in his war-vacated apartment.

Most reporters in the field these days file their stories using a device called a Broadband Global Area Network, or BGAN, which allows them to connect their laptop computers to the Internet through a satellite link.

But it doesn’t work well in overcast conditions, which is why Miss Pisik and the other reporter found themselves on the roof of the building at 2 a.m., trying to transmit their stories.

Miss Pisik finally gave up and dictated her story by cell phone. No sooner had she hung up, she reports, than she heard footsteps coming up the stairwell.

“I assumed it was Moustapha coming to check on us,” Miss Pisik said. “It was dark. Then I heard the click of the AK-47, which sounded very loud coming across the roof.

“First, there was one man, and then there were two, and they began shouting at us. I don’t speak any Arabic, but I knew instinctively to stand very casually with my hands out to the side so they could see I had nothing in my hands.

“There was a lot of shouting in Arabic. The other reporter speaks a bit of Arabic, so she responded. By this time, there were three of them, and then there was a fourth.”

A late-night visit

The four were Hezbollah militants, all dressed in black clothes with colored tennis shoes and a wide range of weapons. The men seemed particularly interested in the BGAN, possibly fearing that it might be some sort of device being used to call in Israeli air strikes.

“I quietly folded up our gear and put it in a dark corner of the roof,” Miss Pisik said. “I remember getting close to one of them and saying in English, ‘I’m sorry to scare you.’ lt looked like he might have understood, but didn’t respond. They wouldn’t let us touch our cell phones.”

Eventually an older man arrived and took the two reporters down to the apartment, where Moustapha woke up and explained who they were. Satisfied, the gunmen apologized for the intrusion and left with a warning that Israeli drones were overhead and anyone seen on the roof could become a target.

That might have been enough excitement for one night, but there was more to come.

“We all staked out our sofas and were getting ready to sleep when there was a loud knock on the door,” Miss Pisik said. The visitor turned out to be Hezbollah’s chief of social services in Sidon, who uses the name Abou Ali, and an American-educated translator who wanted to be called Sam.

Abou Ali, it turned out, just seemed to want to discuss politics with the Americans. As Moustapha prepared cups of sweet tea, he spent the next two hours asking the reporters questions how Hezbollah is viewed in the United States and trying to persuade them that the group, with its schools and hospitals, is much more than a terrorist organization.

Then the two visitors departed almost as abruptly as they had arrived, saying mysteriously that they had other places to go that night before the sun came up.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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