Thursday, July 27, 2006

First Crew Into Lebanon EXCLUSIVE

Conveniently I have forgotten my Passport.

Mayoun Al Ras
July 27, 2006

Being driven up the hills from Qiryat Shmona with Correspondent Mike Tobin it was past midnight and in the darkness I made a simple note that “ I had conveniently forgotten my passport”, which given what we were about to do made Mike burst out laughing with the absurdity of what I had said.

“ Do not worry “ he responded, “ I doubt that we will be asked for our passport as we enter Lebanon”

Only an hour earlier I had been relaxing and getting ready to join the rest of the Fox News team at a great little hotel for a cold beer before going to bed after a full day of shooting the action on the border and doing Anchor Camera for two and half hours from the windiest place in Northern Israel.

Mike walked up to me and commented, “ I hope you haven’t been drinking, we are going in”. I hadn’t and knew the ramifications of his simple question.

Now going in meant only one thing, we had been given permission to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) for nighttime “Limited Incursion Operation”. To be honest at first I was not keen at all and in fact declined when asked would I be comfortable going. No one is ever pressured and the right to say no is respected and never questioned.

The threat is not being attacked by Hezbollah soldiers, however the real and present danger is large land mines and roadside bombs these things can cripple and destroy tanks. I have seen this before in Iraq on the Syrian border, when we had driven down a road in an armored humvee being followed by a larger heavier US Marine, we past over the landmine without triggering it the heavier track hit this triple stack of landmines and exploded with the death of six Marines and multiple injuries with horrific burns.

I thought long and hard and knew that I had all the right night gear and was probably the most experienced cameraman for the job and accepted the assignment, so in the black of midnight we rolled up to a kibbutz high in the hills overlooking Lebanon. Now do not think that bureaucracy does not reach up into the mountains standing next to tanks about to invade, sorry “Limited Incursion” in a foreign country.

For the second time in one hour we filled in the papers, which meant that we could not sue the State of Israel in the event of anything happening. The US also makes you do the same, before going into Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was close to 1:30 am by the time we dropped into the belly of the beast. That is the only way to describe climbing down into a Puma tank used by the Combat Engineers, the purpose of this tank is to clear minefields and booby traps, so it does not have a turret but there are no shortages of guns and explosives on and inside the Puma.

I want you to imagine getting into an economy class seat row of three, wearing body armor and Kevlar helmets then being told to lift your legs up and sit like this in total darkness inside a metal box which is so loud that conversation is wasted. Then after five minutes having another person drop in and now four of us are crushed into a space that was barely enough for three. And that is what it feels like crushed to the point you lose feeling in your limbs in this hot and airless box.

I laugh when I hear other people in the media describe their “Embed” experiences, compared to the reality of frontline work.

For nearly two hours all you are aware of is the sound of the tank tracks, the roar of the engine and the smell of fuel. After taking a few shots with my camera and infrared light system, I closed my eyes and tried to block out the noise and the fears inside me. We were trapped inside and the only way out is to complete the mission, when you cross the line, there is always the tightening inside your guts of when you will come back, if things go wrong, well I never dwell on that.

It was the smell that roused me; the noise and grinding stopped and as the engine idled this smell descended thru the hatches as tight as they were. It was the smell of death, bodies rotting and putrefying, it is a smell that after a while you can identify every pore in your skin tries to close to avoid contact with the smell. And it is better to keep breathing thru your nose so that the smell does not contact your taste buds in your mouth. Out there close, real close by were dead bodies, dead Hezbollah fighters and one body cannot create that volume of odor.

We were obviously now in the town, where the mission objective was to recover the body of a dead Israeli soldier who had been killed earlier in the day in special operations. The hatch was opened and the stars filled the sky and across the valley were the lights of Israel. Everything here was black and using night vision glasses I could look around at what remained of a Lebanese village. Every building had some damage and tanks had chewed the area up.

You do not get long to take your time and create beauty in these areas, we had less than fifteen minutes and the tanks were going and you do not want to miss the last bus out. Filming in the black is hard to say the least and I use a small domestic handicam, just like the ones people have at home but with an extra two Infrared lights that give me sixteen more beams. You cannot capture the destruction, so with a calculated pace I worked the soldiers looking for angles and faces, the eyes look like demonic in this light. I watched the body of the dead soldier being strapped to the lead tank.

It was almost Viking “esk” in the way the body was carried and strapped down with honor, we are not permitted to film dead soldiers and risk censor issues, but my eyes were fixed on the procession and my mind was recording the moment for my own gallery of the horrors and truths of war, that replay and run thru my mind in the early morning hours when alone.

Mike came out from a briefing with the officer in charge of operations and we teamed up to shot an “As Live” from the scene. The only trouble being that my eye hard been burnt with the bright light from the viewfinder and I could not see where to plug in the microphone, the frustration of going this far and having this happen is so frustrating. So Mike had to shout into the camera and hopefully this would be OK. Mike is great in the situations and nailed a minute and half hit first time. The Tank Commander was yelling that we had to go and go now. Luckily he had a small dim light and I found with luck the correct plug in for the microphone and we had one and only one chance to nail it as this guy was going to move his tank, but since we were standing there Mike yelled lets go and I just prayed that it would be a good one take, and Mike once again hit the mark.

We climbed back into the belly it was now close to four am and the thought of pain and fear grips you once more. It is a weird feeling to feel safer outside of tank, but I do. Outside I can move and look after myself taking cover and refuge when under attack. But in the belly of the beast, you put a lot of faith, in that word “faith”

We all closed our eyes and became lost in our worlds, war can be a solitary experience even in crowd. And each one of us inside the tank occasionally looked around as the dawn light started to filter in amongst the noise, and faces became people once more, rather than shapes. You could see eyes and thru eyes the sense of relief as we crossed back across the border.

My passport was not asked for at the border and I do not think they asked for Mike’s either, must ask him tonight if actually had his on him or whether he had conveniently forgotten his as well.


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