Israel attacked Syria yesterday, which means shit’s probably about to hit the fan.
Hezbollah has built a multi-million dollar theme park celebrating its military victories over Israel. It’s the latest PR offensive from the Iranian-funded Shia Muslim militia its followers call the “Party of God.” Host Ryan Duffy heads to Lebanon to visit this bizarre tourist site to learn how this group that started as a ragtag militia in the 1980s has skillfully used propaganda to transform itself into a military and political force to be reckoned with, and how anti-Hezbollah groups are trying to compete in this war of words.
“If the initial introductions between the two sides had been slightly tense—the fighters seemed nervous about being identified, and we were anxious about them backing out—the realization that they had just attempted to use a hostage as a human shield during a paintball fightloosened things up. The Hezbollah guys all laugh when Exum jokes that he killed Ben to keep him off some Al Jazeera reel. And they respond—pointing at me—that after the next game “the Germans will have to negotiate for this one.” It’s a somewhat sick inside joke: German diplomats are usually tasked with negotiating Hezbollah-Israeli prisoner and body swaps.”
Paintballing with Hezbollah
We figured they’d cheat; they were Hezbollah, after all. But none of us—a team of four Western journalists—thought we’d be dodging military-grade flash bangs when we initiated this “friendly” paintball match.
The battle takes place underground in a grungy, bunker-like basement underneath a Beirut strip mall. When the grenades go off it’s like being caught out in a ferocious thunderstorm: blinding flashes of hot white light, blasts of sound that reverberate deep inside my ears.
As my eyesight returns and readjusts to the dim arena light, I poke out from my position behind a low cinder-block wall. Two large men in green jumpsuits are bearing down on me. I have them right in my sights, but they seem unfazed—even as I open fire from close range, peppering each with several clear, obvious hits. I expect them to freeze, maybe even acknowledge that this softie American journalist handily overcame their flash-bang trickery and knocked them out of the game. Perhaps they’ll even smile and pat me on the back as they walk off the playing field in a display of good sportsmanship (after cheating, of course).
Instead, they shoot me three times, point-blank, right in the groin.
From this distance (well within the 15-foot “safety zone”), paintballs feel like bee stings. I raise my hands in pain and confusion, signaling to the referee that I’m leaving the game. But the bigger one—a tall, muscular farm boy from the deep south of Lebanon who tonight is going by the name Khodor—isn’t finished with me yet: He wraps his giant hands around my body and tries to throw me over his shoulder with the kind of deftness that only comes from practice. I’m quick enough to break free and flee, but my teammate Ben isn’t so lucky. Khodor and his partner move past me in perfect military formation, plunging deeper into our defenses. Soon they apprehend Ben, pushing him ahead of them, human shield-style.
Just before hostilities begin, Team Sahafi lines up for a group shot. From left: Andrew Exum, Mitch Prothero, Nicolas Blanford, Ben Gilbert. Bryan Denton, who also played, is not pictured because he was behind the camera.
Yes, I remind myself, this is really happening: Four Western journalists (two of whom alternated in and out of our rounds of four-on-four), plus one former Army Ranger-turned-counterinsurgency expert, are playing paintball with members of the Shiite militant group frequently described by US national security experts as the “A-Team of terrorism.” It took nearly a full year to pull together this game, and all along I’d been convinced that things would fall apart at the last minute. Fraternizing with Westerners is not the sort of thing Hezbollah top brass allows, so to arrange the match I’d relied on a man we’ll call Ali, one of my lower-level contacts within the group.