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The Worst Day of Hezbollah Rocket Attacks in Haifa, Israel's HistoryDexter Phoenix Salem-News.com
Some journalists cover wars from hotel balconies while others sometimes get a little too close to the action.
(SALEM, Ore.) - Odd dreams - when your mind is overrun by information and experiences that the brain matter can not seem to absorb at a normal everyday rate. Even though I was extremely tired, the dreams kept on waking me up to a lucid but dreamy state.
All I can say is I'm glad I did not randomly get out of bed in one of those lucid semi-conscious moments, to go to the bathroom. If i did I would have probably been urinating out over the balcony, thinking I was somewhere else - like some damaged subconscious self-guiding system that had its wires crossed somewhere along the line.
I woke up feeling drained, and my body stiff. I felt like I had just done a gigantic triathlon that went on for days. I spent most of the day planning on what to do next, occasionally having a walk around Haifa, in close proximity to the hotel. The area was pretty deserted, with nothing much going on. The heat was extremely high, reflecting off the dry, dusty, concrete streets. Most of the shops were closed, for obvious reasons.
To be truthful, I was already getting very tired and jittery, thinking I was missing a great story somewhere in Israel that was war related. I hated walking around doing nothing, when all of this was going on around me. By the time I got back to the hotel, it was early evening.
I walked to the lounge on the bottom floor to watch the local news, only to be greeted by a bunch of journalists. Three of them were from Europe, and one from the States. The guy sitting closest to the TV (the Yank) looked the most weathered... well, that was an understatement!
This guy looked like he had been dragged through a barbed-wire bush, that had been drenched in cabin fever ointment, if there ever was such a thing. This grouchy looking, war-torn, abused looking guy was a well known American journalist who did dispatches.
He was a short, medium-built guy with a rough, unshaven look about him - he must have been in his early to mid 50’s, a guy I could envision meeting in some old dive bar in the woods, that was set in "Deliverance" country... All he needed was a dead raccoon on his head, and an old musket gun, eyeing up the local wildlife in a way that would even make bears want to run and hide. Not by fear of getting shot... more so a fear that no bear would probably want to admit to (I will leave that to your imagination).
This guy, as I found out later, was a battle hardened Marine from the Vietnam era, and probably had every reason to look the way he did... No matter how healthy you are, or how well you try to look after yourself, if you decide to spend most of your life in war zones, whether it be in the military, or covering stories, it will catch up with you. So for any vain individuals out there who are thinking about trying out this kind of work: No amount of sun beds, facial treatments, or expensive appointments with top Beverly Hills plastic surgeons will be able to cover up or cure the long lasting, visible side-effects of being stuck in nasty, unstable environments... predominantly the ones that are war-related.
The other journalists were all clean shaven young people that looked as if they had just come out of a new showroom of journalistic wannabes. They all appeared far too healthy and too normal, as well as looking too mentally stable, to qualify as battle hardened journalists.
Being the way I was, from the way I was brought up, I had always been attracted to the weird and wonderful things in life... so of course I had found myself drifting toward the American journalist, with the extremely inquisitive nature that I have.
By now I had realized how costly it would have been for me to keep on paying for a private room, and decided to join the others in the hostel part of the hotel. It worked out far more cheaply -- even though I am a bit of a loner and tend to like my privacy, as well as my own company. It worked out as a good choice in the end, to join all of them. If I stood by my guns and had not done this, the American journalist and I would still not be good friends now.
It did not take long for the rockets to come again; someone must have heard my complaining to the owners of the hotel about the lack of excitement and rocket amusement to help me pay for my survival.
As things got hotter in Haifa, so did our intense viewing of TV in the living room. We all started to huddle up and be glued to the TV as if it were some addictive drug that we needed, to keep our brains and adrenaline alive. Before we knew it, the rockets were starting to rain down around the area we were staying in. All of us were running out of the house and disappearing for hours on end, except for one other journalist -- the American guy, who always seemed to be muttering... "I need a drink, where is the f**king bar," and just walking around with his laptop looking for wireless signals to send his dispatches through, while all this chaos was going on.
The other journalists were running off to what I had thought was where the rocket attacks were taking place...instead, to my surprise they were taking cover with the hotel occupants (most of the time) in their underground air-raid shelter. I do remember the hotel owners trying to talk me into taking shelter with them, but I thought "no way!!!...I'm here to make money, and I got to find a way to pay for your over-priced rooms anyway."
There was one exceptionally bad day where the rockets did come extremely close to us; when they seemed to be landing over and over again. This time the explosions were extremely loud and sounded very nasty. I noticed again that everyone had disappeared -- so I raced out of the hotel with my camera and flash.
I could see huge, dark grey smoke clouds blooming over the building about half a mile away. People screaming and shouting in a panicky way. Sirens from Police, ambulances, and fire trucks racing around all over this area. My adrenaline was now going through the roof; it was chaos down here...and I loved it! I must have been the only guy here right now that had the biggest smile on his face.
I really needed to get to the areas that were being bombed as quickly as possible, so I decided to grab the only taxi driver here. I asked him how much it would cost, to drive me up to what he must have perceived to be his own doom..looking at me as if I was a raving lunatic.
He was now shouting and grabbing hold of me, to take me to the nearest shelter. Just as he was doing this, a rocket hit a building behind us. The explosion was deafening . You could hear the windows smash, as the shock wave and little metal ball pellets shot through people's windows.
My ears were ringing from that last explosion... hearing the irate taxi driver screaming at me while grabbing on to me like he was drowning. He stumbled over his wobbly-panicky legs, and in doing so pushed me up against a large shop window. As he did this, another rocket landed on the same road as us.
As this happened I remembered seeing the whole shop window bow outwards (and thought to myself, "wow, I had no idea windows were that flexible!") Then the windows bowed back in until the whole unit of windows smashed into little pieces. I grabbed hold of him and twisted hard as he fell, landing on him instead of the glass, as we fell through the broken shop window.
I recall seeing his eyes staring up at me like a mad cow's eyes on stalks. His whole body froze stiff in rigid fear. I quickly got up, feeling a bit odd myself, my adrenaline pumping through my veins like some nitrous oxide being pumped through me. My heart was beating so hard, it felt like it was actually skipping a beat. I managed to help my driver up off his feet. His arms were bleeding a little after landing on the broken glass. I shouted at him to get in the car and just take me to the large plume of smoke -- "I'll pay you good American dollars if you get my ass up there NOW!"
By now he was speeding up towards the area, occasionally stopping by panic stricken people, asking them questions about what is happening up there. This kind of thing annoyed me a little, in my business and experience, every wasted second or minute counts, when you want to get that perfect shot. Then there is the competition to worry about, as well. In places like this, you can guarantee most of the local news teams will be racing their way to get there, to see who can get the story out first.
Why do I say local news teams? Well, most of the large news teams like CNN, or FOX news, for example, tend to keep a safe distance from all this drama and chaos...due to their companies' insurance policies, I suspect. Most of the big international news teams were all stationed in the biggest, most expensive hotel in Haifa, living and enjoying there stay as comfortably as possible while draining their company coffers. All of them sat up on a large balcony walkway, looking down at the city with all their cameras and wires laid out, with their little tents keeping them cool, happy and content in the high heat of Haifa.
I thought to myself: "You lot are way overpaid. It's extremely frustrating; when you have us hard-working freelance photographers, or photojournalists out there taking all the risks, and just about breaking even (without any insurance!) on the money we might make. While overpriced large news team cameramen and journalists sit around taking advantage of the news companies' huge budgets, complaining about being treated unfairly, or not getting paid enough for the environment they're stuck in... and that includes large international newspapers as well!
By now I had arrived at the worst area in Haifa; people were running all down to this one building. I shouted at the taxi driver to stop, and asked "how much?" He told me he would come with me, and I replied that I could not afford to have him sitting around waiting for me.
He then insisted that this place is very dangerous for me to be, as it is the Arab quarter, and they are very aggressive towards journalists or photographers. He then insisted he would not charge me any more, so I reluctantly let him come along with me. As I came to the main area of destruction, I noticed a whole house was burning and now collapsing. All the Arabs (as per normal) were all screaming at each other and running around panicking. No one seemed to have noticed me while I was taking pictures, but as the light started to fade, I had to revert to using flash (reluctantly)...not a good idea amongst this crowd!
I was the first photographer to arrive, and for 35 minutes I had the whole scene to myself. I was running back and forth trying to barge my way through the hot, sweaty human wall of people. I found the best view to get at this burning house, now crumbling down upon its household occupants, which was in the next door neighbor's garden.
Hundreds of Arabs were now jumping over the wall trying to grab the people out of their burning house. As I started to use my flash more often, I heard some people having a huge argument with the poor taxi guy, and pointing at me. The taxi driver was then waving me to come over in an aggressive way, like his life depended on it. As I ran back to him he shouted for me to leave right now, or I would be “stabbed” by the owners of this house. As he was explaining this to me, a large group of very irate Arab people came up to me and were screaming and shouting at me, pushing me back and flailing their arms around. The taxi driver pulled my arm and shouted to me to leave NOW!
As we left the entrance to the house, I could see that the ambulance had arrived and the doors were open. The police had blocked the road off in two sections; now I was trapped inside this little zone of confusion. I ran to the ambulance and waited for the bodies to be brought out. By now a local news camera man had arrived with a rather sadistic smile on his face, probably knowing he is going to get a pay raise for his exclusive video coverage of all of this.
I saw a camera flash on the roof top of someone's house; it was another local newspaper photographer, that I used to see riding around on his off-road motorcycle all over Haifa like a maniac everywhere he'd go, to cover the rocket attacks. This guy must have been one of the luckiest news photographers here, as he seemed to be getting all the action work in this city.
But apparently he did not have the balls to be down here in the ringside seat in the middle of all this, he must have thought I was a raving maniac when he saw me flashing my camera off continuously, while they finally brought one badly burnt body out that was strapped in on an ambulance stretcher. He was probably zooming on me at the same time hoping to get another story out of this -- “photographer beaten or stabbed to death by annoyed Arab locals”. Well, I thought, at least the ambulance is close to me.
As they pulled out the burnt body, I saw that the person was still barely alive. All the locals decided to try to push the stretcher into the ambulance, thinking they were helping in the process, but instead being more of a hindrance to the ambulance medics, who had to constantly push the locals back, while at the same time teetering and trying to push this poor guy into the ambulance.
The ambulance soon drove off, and I was still standing there going through my photos to make sure there were some good shots, ignoring the sounds and panic that was engulfing me -- thinking to myself "should I wire (sending through ftp) these pics off now?" But if I did that, I might miss something else while in the process.
Dexter Phoenix has worked as a staff and freelance photographer since the mid-1990's and has a wealth of professional experiences on his resume. We welcome his presence to our staff at Salem-News.com.
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