Michael Young

How I shot a militiaman


Journalist, Lebanon

It must have been in late 1984, or early 1985 that I took this photograph. I had recently bought a Minolta camera but could find nowhere to use it. On my first outing with it, to Douar, my film was confiscated by the army. “This is a military zone,” the officer told me, and he kept my roll of film, denying me inestimable views of armed birds and fortified trees.

A few days later, I was on the balcony of my apartment in Tallet al-Khayat, and again took a few snapshots. The buzzer rang soon thereafter, and a militiaman belonging to the Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt was at the door. “This is a military zone,” he warned me, and was about to take the film when I said, “You’re as bad as the army. Which part of this country is not a military zone? I just bought this camera and I haven’t seen a photo yet.” He let me keep the film.

The militiamen had taken over our neighborhood in 1984, thanks to the so-called “February 6 Intifada” against the Lebanese Army and the government of President Amin Gemayel. This particular group was led by Imad Naufal, a Syrian Druze let loose by Jumblatt into the wilds of western Beirut to tame the lesser creatures around him. When the Amal movement opened an office too close to our building, the PSP boys spent half a day attacking them with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, until the office was closed down.

At night, they would sometimes set up roadblocks at the intersection below our building. However, the street lamps were not working and the militiamen usually hid behind a parapet to avoid being shot at by rival militias. And so, unknowing drivers would arrive at high speed, seeing nothing, hearing even less, until the PSP boys would shout at them to stop, oddly enough in classical Arabic, Qif!, and begin firing almost at the same time. One night they must have killed a person, though all we could hear was a woman screaming in the darkness.

They were surreal years. Sometimes the boys would play with guns, and once, a militiaman accidentally shot another. The next morning the one who had pulled the trigger wore a T-shirt with the photograph of his dead comrade on the front, the word “Martyr” emblazoned underneath. Sometimes the boys would play with cars. A militiaman, in fact the individual shown here, arrived one day driving a 1975 Pontiac Trans-Am. After skidding around in circles in the middle of the crossing for several minutes, paralyzing traffic, he turned toward a large sand dune at the edge of the sidewalk. He drove the Trans-Am several times into the pile—a fiberglass and steel heap defying a mineral one, then drove away.

Which leads me to this picture. After my first encounter with the vigilant militiaman, I took my pictures from under the half-closed shutter of a room overlooking the street, so as not to get caught. One day I heard the PSP boys making more than the usual noise. I got out the camera and raised the shutter of my window ever so slightly. A fight was brewing, everyone was running, and I got off a shot, not sure of what I had captured. When I developed the film several days later, this is what came out.

I can’t remember his name, but I like his feral grace, and the white shoes.

Later on, Naufal played a crucial role in what became known as the “War of the Flag”, a brutal militia battle that spread throughout western Beirut between the PSP and Amal. The fighting had started when Naufal had walked to the Channel 7 station down the road and replaced the Lebanese flag with a Druze one, in what was a deliberate act of provocation.

I was in Washington at the time, and not long afterward I received a Lebanese newspaper that described an incident at the Khaldeh triangle. One Imad Naufal had been killed in an ambush, the paper reported, while his brother had been injured. I assume that the Syrians demanded Naufal’s head from Walid Jumblatt, so troublesome a young man had he become, even if I doubt that he did much without orders.

I read the item and wondered what it would take to finally wake up.


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