In fact, I had been to Shebaa a couple of times as a reporter but I had only ever seen the Farms from a distance.
I had, however, visited neighbouring Bastara, a rather desolate pocket of land home to a rundown farm belonging to the Zohra family. Though no one disputed Bastara’s Lebanese appurtenance, it existed in a weird geopolitical bubble, cut off from Lebanon by the vagaries of topography, politics and land mines. The farm had been handed back to official Lebanese control after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 but a fence put up during the Occupation still separated the farm from the rest of the country.
Getting there meant taking what passed for a road from Kfar Shuba, the nearest village. More rut than road, the track was a car-killer. It wound across the lower slopes of Jabal al-Sheikh through untended fields strewn with piles of gravel and rocks the size of small children. Israeli army outposts capped the crests of several peaks higher up. The view from the track was breathtaking, you could see down into the Houla Valley and almost over the hills of Upper Galilee to the coast. From higher up in the outposts, it must have been possible to see Haifa and possibly beyond. No wonder the Israelis refused to relinquish this part of Lebanon.
After about twenty dusty minutes of bumping along the track, the ‘border’ appeared. On the other side, a well-maintained Israeli army patrol road followed the fence, both uphill to the outposts and down onto the plateau below.
Turn left and it would be an easy drive to the Shebaa Farms. Not that you’d get there before being shot. Turn right and a short drive led to the Bastara Bubble. In those first months after the withdrawal, it was still possible to drive along this patrol road to the farm, passing the remains of the outpost, blown up during the withdrawal. Beyond it, the road continued down to where one day, the borders of Lebanon and Syria might meet again, but which for now remained occupied land.
The most important thing to remember about navigating this road, after getting the necessary UNIFIL and military permissions of course, was to drive slowly and visibly. This let the Israeli soldiers in the outposts, as well as any militias hidden in the hills, know you were not up to anything sneaky, though you still chanced one or both sides shooting or shelling you anyway.
The Zohras were a family of goat-herders. They’d remained on their farm throughout the Occupation because firstly, the land was theirs and secondly, because without it, they had no way to make a living. Mohammad Zohra, his brother Qassem and Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima had clung onto their farm even after Israeli soldiers razed their olive groves and fruit orchards, temporarily confiscated their goats, even after Mohammad’s wife, unable to get to hospital because the soldiers refused to open the gate to let them through until it was too late, had died.
I never got to see Mohammad Zohra on his land. On my first visit, a few weeks after the withdrawal, he’d gone down into Marjayoun to get supplies and so, we had tea with Qassem and Fatima. On my second, a few months later, he’d finally been driven out of Bastara under a vicious barrage of tank and mortar fire that had killed his entire flock of 250 goats in a matter of moments. When I found him, he was hunched over a stove in a friend’s home in Kfar Shuba, crying. For the first time in his 75 years, he told me between sobs, he had nothing and nowhere to go.
“What is this war to me? I’m just a goat-keeper,” he said, twisting a glass of tea mournfully in his hands. “It’s always the small, unimportant people like us, never the big players, that suffer.”
Driving slowly to Bastara afterwards, we had taped the word ‘press’ along the side of the car and the roof and were flying large white flags from both windows. It was fair to say that we were nervous.
As we drew into the Zohra's farm, the stench of death was pervasive. A couple of Mohammad’s guard dogs, who had run off during the shelling, barked half-heartedly at us but stayed crouched in the grass by the road, unwilling to enter the charnel house their farm had become.
I was travelling with a Jordanian colleague, Lara, who worked with me at the Daily Star in Beirut. She’d volunteered to help me search the house, document the attack and try to find a stack of documents Mohammad Zohra had asked us to bring back, if we could find them.
There was a large hole in the roof of the house created by a shell, which had landed without exploding, so the living room was a mess of rubble and dust. We didn’t want to stay any longer than necessary, so Lara volunteered to keep looking for the documents, while I headed to the goat pens, source of the stench, to make notes and take photos.
Charging around a corner, camera in hand, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a very scruffy and very startled-looking young man in camouflage gear. The encounter caught us both off guard and so it took me a few seconds to register that he had a machine-gun, angled up at my chest.
I’d only been in Lebanon for a couple of years at that point and my Arabic wasn’t great, but I was freaked out and he was speaking far too quickly for me to understand, anyway. Or rather, shouting. Slowly putting my hands up, letting my camera fall around my neck and trying not to do anything stupid, I replied with the only words I could still remember.
“Inglizi. Sahafi. Biktoub muqallet an al hadath. ” I said, continuing in English and pointing at myself, the farm and up towards the outposts and back to the shelled remains of the house. “I’m a British, a journalist. I’m writing an article, about what happened.”
My new companion looked every bit as freaked out as I felt. I have no idea how that conversation might have ended had Lara not been with me. Not terribly well, I imagine, for he was growing increasingly flustered but just then, Lara stepped out of the house. Without missing a beat, she also raised her hands and began to slowly walk over, speaking loudly in Arabic, saying her name was Lara and asking if everything was alright. Even in my fright, I understood that she was speaking in Arabic so that the man could hear that at least one of us wasn’t a foreigner.
Without lowering his gun, he beckoned Lara forwards, asking her why we were at the farm and where she was from. She told him that she was a journalist, that she’d come to report on the shelling and that we’d spoken to Mohammad Zohra that morning in Kfar Shuba. She also added that although she was Jordanian, she was of Palestinian origin and her family originally came from Nablus. We both agreed afterwards that this lucky coincidence defused a very dangerous situation. It certainly saved us a lot of complications.
As she drew near, two more men emerged from behind the house and followed behind her. We now had three machine guns trained on us. Reaching my side, Lara and the scruffy man began a short but very intense conversation.
I didn’t follow much of it but I heard the word ‘Nablus’ a couple of times, so it sounded like they were talking about Palestine. Whatever Lara said seemed to reassure the man, at least enough that he decided it was better to let us go rather than detain us for questioning. Or worse. Waving his machine-gun towards the car, he barked at us to leave. We didn’t need telling twice. Thanking them all profusely and waving like idiot tourists, we got in the car and drove back up the patrol road as slowly as we could. It must have taken Lara every ounce of her resolve to not hit the accelerator but we both understood that any sudden move now could easily get us shot, either by the three men, other militias or the Israelis.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally drove through the fence and ‘back’ into Lebanon. Hearts pounding out of our chests, we began to laugh hysterically as relief flooded our systems. Once our nerves had settled, I asked Lara what she and the man had been talking about. She confirmed my suspicion that we had stumbled into a trio of Palestinian fedayeen, guerrillas, most probably members of the PFLP, a radical and rather violent faction supported by Syria. It was likely they were scouts and had taken up position in Bastara after the Zohras had been driven out.
The rapid fire conversation had mostly been about determining whether Lara really was from Nablus, as she claimed. It was sheer luck that the man’s mother was from Nablus, so he’d quizzed Lara about places, people and street names, and had even tried to trick her by asking about a bakery in the town, but pretending to get its name and location wrong. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated gambit, but it was only after Lara had politely corrected him that he’d finally relaxed enough to decide it was less hassle to let us go. As our hysteria subsided and we drove back to Kfar Shuba across a rocky, unforgiving landscape made beautiful by a rush of endorphins and the golden caress of the setting sun, I imagine we were both thanking serendipity for saving our skins.