When you're looking down the barrel of a gun aimed at you, there is no time for reflection. There is time only for action...
BOOM!! It penetrated the fogginess of my synapses and made me sit straight up. I looked around, spastically, for the source of the gunfire. No holes in my body and no blood on my clothes meant that I hadn’t been hit. This was a good start. As I peered out of the dirty window, I realized it was a car that had backfired. Whew…
While this was happening, music was wafting out of the tiny transistor radio next to the bed. The piano keys were being tinkled as the lyrics washed over me. “Through ’66 and 7, they fought the Congo War. With their fingers on their triggers, knee-deep in gore…” Was it just last week that I was dodging bullets, trying to survive this insane assignment given to me by my Editor? Holy Shit!! I thought. I’m stuck in a real, live version of a Warren Zevon song.
Grabbing hold of my faculties, it finally sunk in that I was somewhat safe, ensconced as I was in this rat-trap of a hotel. “Get your shit together man”, I thought. I was in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The harbor was but a few streets away from me. I could easily imagine the surrounding avenues filled with blood and bullets in the short-lived Republic of Biafra. The ghosts of professional soldiers-of-fortune, men like Hugh “Taffy” Williams and Rolf Steiner, still roamed these streets. Of this, I was sure. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Grabbing a drink, I pondered just how I managed to get out of Damascus with all of my limbs still attached, if not my mind. “Find your way to Syria. Get an interview with the rebel commander of the Free Syrian Army. Try not to get killed. And, be sure to keep your receipts”, she said. What the…??? A man could get seriously killed over there. Then again, did I really want to live forever? Let’s see… booze and bullets… this could be interesting. The fact that the Middle East was devolving into all-out war, again, didn’t seem to faze me. It would be an adventure, for sure. Was I crazy for actually wanting to do this? Yes, absolutely.
As I was in Europe already, I made a phone call and hopped a ride on a United Nations transport aircraft into Larnaca, Cyprus. Now it was time to play hopscotch, as there were no direct flights from Cyprus into Syria. Damn, the sanctions preventing Syrian Air from flying into and out of EU countries was making this journey tougher than it needed to be. So, I did what I always do best. I found the airport bar and contemplated my next move.
A somewhat nefarious and grizzled character, right out of a Frederick Forsyth novel, sidled up to me at the bar. He was the spitting image of Thomas Michael Hoare, straight out of Central Casting. Jokingly, I asked “where’s Black Jack Schramme?” With a Gallic shrug, he rolled his eyes and said “if you want to get into Syria, the best way is through Beirut, my friend.” How the hell did he know I was trying to get to Syria? With that, he wandered away.
So, now fortified with this new information (and a couple of whiskeys), I sauntered over to the Middle East Airlines counter and inquired of the woman behind said counter about a round-trip ticket to Beirut. She looked up at me, smiled and said “that will be 172 Euros, please”. No worries, as this was a bit cheaper than I thought it would be. With the flight booked, I walked back over to the bar, as I had about three hours to kill.
After draining another drink, my flight was called. Down to the gate, up the ramp and on to the plane I staggered. It wasn’t because of the booze, no. I couldn’t keep my balance as thoughts of diving headfirst into the oncoming rampant mayhem swirled through my cranium. I found my seat, buckled in and immediately passed out.
I was awakened by the stewardess, who said “we’ve arrived at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport. I hope you had a pleasant flight.” Shaking the cobwebs from my eyes, I strode purposefully off the plane and straight into MEA’s Cedar Lounge. I ordered a tall glass of rum and gazed in wonder out of the Lounge’s windows. This was one of the many reasons that Beirut was known as the “Paris of the Middle East”. With rum coursing through my veins, I surmised that there had to be Syrian rebels in Beirut. I mean, Damascus was only fifty-five miles away. So, they had to be here, right? At that moment, I knew exactly who I had to call… Farid Barbera. He was, and still is, a world-class “fixer” in this part of the globe.
We first met during the height of the Lebanese Civil War in 1982 in Beirut. He was able to secure me safe passage (if dodging machine gun fire as we crossed the Green Line each day, can be called “safe”) between the different factions within the city that were fighting for or against each other. Their allegiances changed almost hourly, it seemed. This culminated with him getting me inside the Holiday Inn as it was under siege for an interview, and back out again without getting killed. If anyone could set-up a meeting with Syrian rebels in Beirut, it would be Farid.
His wife, Sabah, answered the phone when I called. “Richard, my dear friend, it is so good of you to call. Farid will be apoplectic that he missed you”, she sweetly said. “No worries. I’m in Beirut at the Four Seasons. Just about like old times”, said I. “It’s not like old times, my friend, assuredly. But, it was good of you to call and I will have Farid contact you as soon as he returns.”
I moseyed downstairs and hopped in a cab to take me to the Four Seasons. The city was much more beautiful than the scumhole that it was in 1982. The driver had the radio on and it was playing an old, familiar tune. “Nuclear arms in the Middle East. Israel’s attacking the Iraqis. The Syrians are mad at the Lebanese, and Baghdad does whatever she please…” Much to my surprise, Farid was waiting for me at the front door. “Ham-della alla alsalama, my great friend!!” Farid said through a grin. I poured myself out of the cab and embraced him like the long-lost brother that he was. We had been through too much together to not see each other as brothers.
As we ambled to my suite (my Editor IS paying for this, right?), I outlined to him why I was here. “My friend” he said, “most assuredly we can get you that interview. He comes to Beirut frequently to secure arms for the Free Syrian Army. I will call you tonight with the time and place. I presume that money is not a problem on your end?” “Farid, my brother, money has never been an issue”, I said. I’ve had great success at writing bribes off as business expenses. He drank his coffee as I drank more rum, secure in the knowledge that I could pull this off without having to resort to being fired at. Oh, how wrong I was in that thought.
Farid called that evening, as promised. The meet would happen at the Holiday Inn tomorrow, at 10 a.m. What the hell? I always suspected that Karma had a wicked sense of humor, and this was the ultimate Karmic prank. Well Rick, you’ve really gotten yourself into a pickle this time. As I crawled into bed for what I knew would be a restless night of semi-sleep, I basked in the thought of if I died, that I would haunt my Editor for all of eternity.
The next morning, I grabbed a cab for the ride to the Holiday Inn. From the Four Seasons which is just west of the Green Line (from the civil war), it was but a short ten minute ride south-west to the Holiday Inn. Although they have built a new hotel, the pock-marked remains of the 33-story hotel are still standing. Farid met me, once again, outside the front entrance. With a look of consternation on his face, he steered me to a doorway leading into the old tower.
All at once, a rush of memories washed over my senses. With one step through the door, I had travelled back in time to that day in 1982 that seared itself into my cortex. I could still hear the sniping gunfire and the pounding of RPG’s against the side of the building. I could almost smell the burnt cordite of thousands of bullets stitching the walls. “What the hell, Farid?” He shushed me quickly while leading me to the stairs. As we trudged upwards, it was like everything had been left untouched.
As we arrived at the tenth floor, he opened the door and went to a room a few feet away. “This is where they said the meeting shall take place” he said. There was a foreboding in his eyes that was slightly un-nerving. Well, I thought, better to have lived on the edge than to die without ever seeing what was on the other side. With that, I opened the door to the room and stepped inside.
Three men were standing there with guns in their hands. I smiled at them, as I ever so slowly reached into my briefcase for the bottle of whiskey I kept there. Still smiling, I placed the bottle on the table and sat down. Farid said that he would wait in the hallway with one of the other men. That left just three of us in the room. Slowly, they seemed to relax as I poured a glass for each of us. I’ll just do the interview, quickly, and get the hell out of Dodge, I thought to myself.
Before I could even begin to ask the first question, the door burst open and a flood of masked men poured into the room. I could feel the bullets whip past my head as the two men with me were gunned down. Well shit. So much for that interview, I thought. My Editor was going to be pissed. The leader of the masked ensemble approached me and said that these men had to die. I knew better than to ask why, for I already knew the answer to that. The only thing I asked them was who had sent them. “Brigadier Hassan Aizora”, was all he said. Left unsaid was the warning that I needed to go away. With that, they turned and shuffled quickly out of the room.
I poked my head out of the doorway to see a very frightened Farid standing above the lifeless body of the third rebel. “Do you know who...” he started to say, before I cut him off. “Yes. They were from the Syrian 15th Special Forces. Not men to be trifled with, I suppose. Farid sardonically said “we’re lucky to be alive, my friend.” I laughed heartily at hearing him say this. “You and I, Farid, we do lead charmed lives.”
Although he was still a bit shaken by what had happened, he drove me to the airport. With promises to keep in touch, I bought the first ticket out of Beirut. It just so happened that there was a Kenya Airways flight to Lagos, Nigeria that was boarding in thirty minutes. I bought the ticket and climbed aboard. What the hell, I thought caustically, Africa for the New Year would work out fine.
Upon arriving in Lagos, and in search of a story, I hopped on the first flight to Port Harcourt. That just so happened to be a turboprop airplane that really seemed to be made for bush flying. I quickly downed some rum outside the terminal, before climbing aboard for the flight to Port Harcourt. It’s a good thing that I did, too, as our pilot seemed to want to fly on the deck the whole way there. I could tell I was going to like this guy.
Touching down at the airport, our pilot asked me if I needed a lift into town. I said “sure”. And away we went with him driving like a banshee from hell. We dumped my kit at the Torox Hotel before painting the town red, and every other color you could think of. Time to go native, I suppose. The local “bug juice” was tasty and it packed one hell of a punch. My liver was screaming not halfway through the night. Just before the sun broke through the eastern horizon, I asked him from behind bloodshot eyes what his name was. “Taffy”, he said. “Just call me Taffy.”