Broadman & Holman Publishing
Thursday, 21 November 2002. 01:30.
A full moon. A glow seemed to rise from the sand, allowing them to drive with their headlights off. The fi ve Jeeps kept to 40 kph on the dark road that wound southward between hills and wadis. In the third Jeep, Major Skaff allowed himself the brief luxury of picking out Pegasus in the sharp winter sky before he compulsively scanned the rocky terrain for signs of Hezbollah fedayeen. He was leading this patrol to check out rumors of increased activity near Shaaba Farms, the disputed area where three Israeli solders had been kidnapped two years before.
The ridge road ran from the town of Marjeyoun down to Qlaia’a under the ominous gaze of Shqif Arnoun—the castle called “Beaufort” by the Crusaders—to the west. Christians and Muslims had fought for this ground for centuries, trading possession of the castle as their fortunes rose and fell. In the 1970s the Palestinian Liberation Organization had used the strategic placement of the castle to shell civilian settlements in northern Israel.
That was when Skaff, then a young recruit of the Southern Lebanese Army, had been a driver in a similar convoy, shortly before the civil war broke out between Christians and Muslims in 1975. Traversing this very ridge on a mission, he had come under fi re from the castle. His evasive driving had saved the convoy and drawn the attention of General Lahd.
The intervening thirty years had been a generation of unremitting war. Israel, tiring of mounting civilian casualties and the Lebanese government’s refusal to expel the terrorists, invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 and captured the castle. Eighteen years of occupation followed, during which Skaff had risen through the SLA ranks while working openly with the Israelis to keep the various Muslim factions at bay. When he had started, Hezbollah did not exist. Now the radical Muslim army controlled the south and dealt severely with the Christian resistance.
As the occupation had grown increasingly costly and casualties mounted, the pressure increased for Israel to withdraw. When the SLA collapsed in 2000, Israel destroyed what was left of the castle walls and pulled back behind the Blue Line specifi ed by the UN. The SLA scattered. Thousands fl ed to Israel or went into hiding. Those who didn’t were imprisoned and tried as enemy collaborators. As Hezbollah gained control of the area, the anticipated slaughter of Christians didn’t materialize. But any SLA militiamen emboldened to return were also imprisoned.
As he scanned the distant ruins of the castle in the moonlight, Major Skaff refl ected on change and constancy. Where PLO guns had once rained death on Israel and Lebanese Christians, now tourists snapped pictures and rushed home to post them on the Internet. And the same General Antoine Lahd who had brought him up in the ranks and fought beside him for decades had fl ed to Paris. Only a week ago he had opened a fancy restaurant in Tel Aviv called Byblos. It had a nice ocean view.
True, Lahd had a death sentence hanging over him for treason and war crimes, but so did Skaff. And so did many of the two thousand SLA in Lebanese prisons.
But some things had not changed. Southern Lebanon was just as dangerous for the men in these Jeeps as it had been when Skaff was driving instead of commanding. Skaff was drawn from his refl ections by a dark shape ahead. At the end of the ridge the road snaked through an outcropping of rock. He had passed through it many times, always with reluctance. This night he felt a peculiar sense of revulsion as he squinted at the misshapen lump of stone looming before him.
He nudged his driver and nodded toward the rocks. Hassan nodded back. He could feel it too. Skaff reached for the radio to signal the lead Jeep. A lifetime of guerrilla fi ghting had convinced him that such premonitions were not without merit. His transmission was brief, but they were already entering the outcropping when he put the radio down.
Five seconds later a rocket hit the grille of the lead Jeep.The explosion lit the rocks towering over them. He saw the silhouettes of two men blow out on either side of the vehicle, which was tossed onto the nose of the next Jeep. Hassan narrowly missed them, skidding left and stopping next to the driver of the lead Jeep, who was lying half off the road.
The two Jeeps behind slid sideways to a stop in the road as machine gun bursts echoed from beyond the lead Jeep. Skaff was exposed to the attack. He dove from his seat to the rear of the second Jeep, between two men already returning fire with an Uzi and an M-16.
He rolled to his feet and yelled to the two back Jeeps, motioning for them to form a double barricade with their vehicles, keeping the men covered both in the front and the rear in case the attackers attempted to sandwich them in the gap. Skaff turned back, confi dent that his men needed no further direction. This mission called for battle-hardened veterans, and he had personally selected the nineteen men who were with him now. Every man among them had proved himself in years of combat. Some even owed their life to his cool command in battle. Some had returned the favor multiple times.
Skaff scanned the forward battle to account for the remaining eleven men, his position shielded by the lead Jeep transfixed on the grille of the second. To the left, Hassan was pulling the driver of the first Jeep to safety. The other two men from Skaff’s Jeep were covering him with sporadic fire from their Uzis. Ahead, the driver of the second Jeep was placing a case of grenades handy to his partner, who had fitted his M-16 with a grenade launcher and was set up in the backseat. Skaff was standing beside the other two passengers in the second Jeep. That left the three passengers from the lead Jeep.
He spotted Saif on the right. He had been thrown clear onto the sand without apparent injury. He was crouched behind a boulder, occasionally returning fi re with his Desert Eagle .50- caliber side arm. Failing to sight the other two, he shouted to the driver, who had acquired an Uzi.
He nodded forward. Skaff crawled over the middle of the Jeep to the hood. Sayyed was wedged between the lead Jeep and the grille of the second Jeep, most likely dead. Rafik was lying on the hood of the second Jeep. Skaff checked for a pulse. Nothing. He closed Rafik’s eyes and whispered a short prayer. Skaff couldn’t play favorites with his men, but this loss was harder than any other would have been. At nineteen, Rafik had already spent four years with Skaff, rarely more than fifty yards from his side. Four years of relentless, driven hate. Skaff had been Rafik’s ticket for revenge. Perhaps now he had found the peace revenge had not been able to bring him.
Skaff was crawling back to get a weapon when the second rocket hit the bottom of the lead Jeep. The gas tank exploded, sending most of the shrapnel back toward the attackers. The force of the blast threw the second Jeep back fi ve feet, knocking over the two shooters behind. The grenade launcher and the man with it fell into the front seat. The driver was standing to the side. He returned fi re with the Uzi.
Skaff helped reposition the grenade launcher and crawled out of the Jeep. The two in back were already fi ring again. He scanned the area and then dove toward the two Jeeps in the rear. Of the eight men between the Jeeps, one had taken a round in the right shoulder but was still fi ring left-handed, propped against a door. Three were facing the rear but indicated they hadn’t seen any action, yet. Two were covering the walls on either side with M-16s, but also hadn’t seen action. The fi nal two had grenade launchers on their M-16s. They waited until they saw several volleys of tracer bullets originating from a single location. Then they fi red three seconds apart at the source. The machine gun fi re stopped. Skaff slapped them on the back. Perhaps they would get out of this thing alive.
Then a rocket hit Skaff’s Jeep. Hassan was behind a curtain of stone, fi ring with an Uzi, having propped the injured driver in a cleft in the rock. But the other two were using the Jeep for cover. One tumbled backward, clear of the Jeep. The other was knocked down as the Jeep rolled over, pinning his leg under it. Skaff ran through a volley of automatic weapons fi re and pulled the fi rst man to his feet. They raced to the Jeep, joined by Hassan, and rocked it back over. Then they dragged the injured man to safety next to the injured driver.
Skaff felt a shudder of unease ripple through the adrenaline-laced focus that always came over him in combat. If this kept up, the whole team would be shredded before they had used half their ammo. He grabbed Hassan’s arm and yelled into his ear over the din.
“We have to take out that rocket launcher or we don’t get out of here. Take those three and circle around.” Hassan nodded and stepped away but Skaff grabbed his arm. “Take a radio.”
He let go, and Hassan ran to the rear while the others laid down covering fi re. Skaff used the opportunity to race to the front two Jeeps and get the four there away from the vehicles and behind the cover of the rocks. As they ran for cover, another rocket hit the top of the lead Jeep, sending fragments of the grille and fenders fl ying in all directions. Skaff ran through the explosion back to the rock curtain. When he fell against a boulder the injured man pointed at Skaff’s leg. He looked down and saw that his left trouser leg was slashed in three places. Blood was seeping down to his boots. He looked around to see how the others had fared.
Saif seemed to have been hit in the arm by something. He was now fi ring the Eagle while holding his upper arm with the other hand. The other four seemed to have escaped unscathed. Skaff’s radio had not survived the rocket. He nodded to the man next to him, who wielded an Uzi while he made it to the two back Jeeps, getting an Uzi and a radio. He turned it up all the way and slung it over his shoulder. Then he began fi ring at the source of tracers beyond the rubble of the Jeeps.
Looking for some encouragement, Skaff probed his memory. In almost three decades of fi ghting, he didn’t recall anything quite as dire as the current circumstance. He had two confi rmed dead, one unconscious, three wounded but still fi ring. Almost a third of the force. The numbers were bound to increase as long as that rocket launcher was working. His calculations were interrupted by Hassan’s voice squawking through the pandemonium.
“We got the rocket launcher, but I think they have another on the left. And now we’re pinned down, so we’re going nowhere.”
The last word was drowned out by a rocket blast on the rock curtain above the injured men. Skaff doubted he could get a team around the other side. Even if he did, the enemy would be expecting them. No way around. No way through. He scanned the sheer rock walls on either side. No way over. The fedayeen had chosen their positions well and appeared to have ample men, weapons, and ammo. It seemed likely that most of this team would share the fate of Rafi k and Sayyed. Probably all. The thought sickened Skaff, turning the adrenaline in his veins to bile in his throat.
There was one last hope, but it might be too late. He selected another frequency on the radio and shouted over the gunfi re, “Lehafi l Levanon Sanctzia. Lehafi l Levanon Sanctzia. (Activate Lebanon Sanction.)”