Yussef Bazzi was just 15 years old when he joined one of the militia groups fighting in the Lebanese Civil War.
Yussef Bazzi was born in Beirut in 1966. As a young teenager Bazzi joined one of the militia groups fighting in the Lebanese Civil War, which began with sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims but escalated into a regional conflict involving the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Israel, and Syria. Bazzi fled to Africa with a relative four years before the war officially ended in 1990 and went on to work as a journalist in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. He eventually returned to Lebanon, where he is now a columnist for al-Mustaqbal and the editor of its weekly cultural supplement. Bazzi has also published four collections of poems.
The following narrative is excerpted from Bazzi’s autobiographical Yasser Arafat Looked at Me and Smiled (Diary of a Fighter), which was published in a bilingual (Arabic-English) edition in 2005 and later in French and German editions.
Mahmoud al-Taqi wrote my name down in the ledger and led me to the supply room: boots (rangers), khaki uniform, the zawbaa patch for my shoulder, an ammunition belt with three rounds, and a shiny metal Russian Kalashnikov, its 11cm barrel sawn off. Thus I became, in the summer of 1981, a member of the Central Emergency Forces of the Syrian Progressive Socialist National Party (SSNP) in Beirut. My salary was 600 Lebanese pounds and a pack of cigarettes a day.
I took part in a battle against the Murabitoun [a Nasserite militia predominantly made up of Sunni Muslims and allied with the Palestinian movement against Christian forces and Israel]. We climbed on to the roof of the Dar al-Handasah building in Verdun Street, and exchanged gun and missile fire with the Murabitoun guys in Tallet al-Khayyat. Suddenly, we saw a car speeding down Verdun Street in our direction, its occupants shooting at us. We showered them with bullets, shot two missiles from our B7s, and turned them into a burning lump of metal and flesh.
That dawn, we were sent back to the SSNP base and a different set of fighters were sent in. We ate chicken sandwiches from the Marrouche restaurant and were given bottles of mineral water and packs of cigarettes. We tied white headbands around our heads for identification, but also to set ourselves apart. Half an hour later, we received orders to join the group gathering near Hamra Street—we were preparing to mount an assault on [al-Murabitoun forces in] the Labban area [of Beirut].
In total, we were 200 fighters or more, setting off at the same time. My hands were cold and sweaty, my mouth dry, my jaw trembling. My ears were ringing and my eyes burning. Kissinger [the nom de guerre of a fighter who looked remarkably like the former U.S. secretary of state] was comforting; he told me to stay behind him. Rabih shot his RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] at the entrance of the building facing us. I saw Abu Wajeb running and pointing his machine gun to the chest of a man who was staggering and wounded; he emptied the entire weapon into his body; 30 rounds in one go. He threw the spent cartridge down, slugged another. He leaned against the wall. He threw a grenade into the entrance and yelled out to me: “Duck, you idiot!” I ducked; the grenade exploded. He motioned me to run inside. I ran and began shooting, my mind incapable of processing what my eyes were seeing. A thick fog, almost mythical, blinded me. I tripped over a corpse, fell, got up, my knees aching. Bullets were raining down on us from the upper floors of the building. I could hear the screams of one family, or maybe more than one. Bullets started hitting us from the rear. Our comrades were shooting at us by mistake.
The gunmen on the roof had disappeared; maybe they had jumped onto the neighboring roof and fled. Kissinger spoke into the walkie-talkie, informing headquarters that our corner was now clean. A new supply of ammunition and water was delivered. We left a bunch of guys to sweep up the area, and disbanded to scout and survey the region. At the end of the street, I saw smoke rising out of the Gamal Abdel Nasser auditorium, which belonged to the Murabitoun. On my left, at the end of another street, I could see that their offices had been destroyed. I picked up discarded weapons and supplies, precious loot which was quickly confiscated from me by the commanding officer. They ordered me to return to the base to rest and sleep, so I went home. My mother saw me splattered with dust and blood. I slept a lot, I slept shivering from the cold, I slept drowning in sweat.
I sat for my brevet exam at the Aïsha Bakkar School on June 4, 1982. There, my classmates and I heard the sound of warplanes and very loud explosions. News reached us in whispers: The Sports City and Fakhani districts were being intensely bombarded from the air [by Israeli warplanes]. We completed the exam and were sent home. I passed by the party headquarters—total and extensive mobilization. The next morning, I didn’t go to the exam and spent the entire day at the Verdun [Street] base. Weapons storage depots were open and young fighters were flocking into the city from the Bekaa and the North. We were cleaning our weapons, readying ourselves, smoking too much, drinking large pots of tea. The air-raids were constant; we had no idea what was going to happen. That afternoon, they took us to the American University Hospital to donate blood, but I was turned down: “You’re too young.” How I hated that. I wasn’t a full-grown man yet.
[Several days later] I went to the executive headquarters and demanded to join any frontline fighting. Wassef, Kissinger, Hassanb Abu al-Leyl, Ali al-Bezal, Mahmoud al-Taqi, Kifah, Michael, and others were about to leave for the Mathaf [Lebanon’s national museum, where people crossed between East and West Beirut] to reinforce the fighters there. They took me with them, albeit unwillingly, after I threatened to leave the SSNP for another armed movement or party.
Bombs exploded all around us, flak ricocheting off the metal on our car onto walls, balconies, behind us and in front of us. Building ablaze, ceaseless mounds of rubble filled the streets, electricity cables dangled like fantastical worms. As we drove at a mad speed, we glimpsed a few civilians amidst all the emptiness, in the entryways to buildings, near half-open shops. We saw the wreck of an ambulance car; an overturned civilian’s car, blood staining its doors; another car, split in half. Warplanes hovered in the sky making a roaring sound that pained our spinal cords, and the wind blew chills. My bladder too was on the brink of explosion.
Forty days had passed since the beginning of the [Israeli] invasion [of Lebanon], and I couldn’t remember the last time I had taken a shower. Added to my own filth were layers of sweat that had dried on my skin during those scorching summer days. Plenty of dust and sand had covered me during my shifts at the cannon, which, with every shot fired, would hurl all the earth in the ditch over us as if from a giant blower. The extent to which I was soiled was mythical, beastly; there was no water for bathing. Now, when I remember myself, I would say that I regarded the neglect of my personal hygiene as part of my demeanor as a fighter, as additional evidence of my “commitment” to the war—a visible sign of the effort I invested. That filth was the unconscious expression of my eagerness to earn recognition from the guys, all my seniors, who treated me like a kid, and referred to me as “that cub.”
I knew that we were finally going to a real battle.
Beirut was completely empty as its streets totally cleared [after a militia uprising transformed the city into what one observer called “a playing field for armed gangs”]. We got to Ghobeiri; echoes of the fierce fighting reached us and settled in our nervous systems. The scene was inhuman. At the entry to the Mouawad market, we felt we were at the gates of hell—vast destruction, rubble. Groups of young men advanced to the front on both sides of the street, their backs hunched from the loads of ammunition they carried. Not a single breath of fresh air, only dust and the smell of gunpowder. Through a breach in a wall, we entered a building and decided to transform it into a meeting point for logistical support. I stood by the window staring at the cannons going off in the middle of the street, exploding powerfully, and shells of various sizes blowing up above me, in front of me, behind me, balconies collapsing only a few meters away.
After being supplied with attack missiles and additional boxes of bullets, I loaded a B7 on my back. Ali al-Atweh lugged the trunk of bullets, and we set off under the command of Ali Shmeysani from the Madi neighborhood to the Sfeir district, to our target at the Muaallem station. To our left, Hizbullah [Hezbollah] was heading to the Mar Mikhael church, and to our right, Amal was heading to the Abyad neighborhood.
The road was exposed and the cannons in Yarzeh fired heavily. As the offensive started, our shelling of their positions from ours in the mountains and Beirut stopped. Since the Hizbullah fighters reached their destination early, the weight of the entire defense line was now focused on us. They bombarded us with 23mm and 57mm mortar shells, exploding between our legs and above our heads. We tried to reach the building ahead, but we hit one of their barricades; it was reinforced on the ground level, and on the upper floor, an RPG combed the entire distance that separated us from them. They nearly massacred us. In unison, we fired all our ammunition. We reloaded, split into two groups, one for cover, the other for attack, shifting roles. Ali al-Atweh went ahead of me and lay on the ground; a bomb exploded less than five meters away. I crouched, frozen, and checked whether he was OK. He wasn’t hit. I looked behind me, saw al-Shanbura with his hands on his stomach, blood gushing out. He frowned in silence; the guys to my right fired five B7 rockets at once, in a wave. Ali al-Atweh, Ofa, and the rest of us worked up our courage and advanced, our Kalashnikovs spewing out bullets in a wave of fire, with no retaliation. The guys stationed in a barricade behind covered us with a formidable arsenal in the direction of the RPG and the fortified barricade. It seemed as though they had retreated. Another minute and still no response.
Other fighters leapt from both sides of the building and threw hand grenades—no response. We swept the building, floor by floor and found no one, only a fire on the first floor, scattered military supplies, traces of soldiers, personal belongings, and ammunition. We discovered a new weapon; we called it the mini-bomb. It was an American-made copy of the single missile launcher—very light, short, folded on the inside. If you pulled it from one end, its barrel became as long as a B7, but it could only be used once. We found large quantities of these new mini-bombs.
As soon as we went out into the fenced backyard of the building, a heavy shower of bullets fell on us. We huddled near the fence, the rest of the guys behind us unable to cross the yard to reach us, and we were stuck. We just had to wait for rescue or for darkness to fall. Our comrades took over a building that had access to the source of sniping, and they fired at it. We received the sign that we should risk crossing; we leapt as the bullets buzzed in front of our faces. Death was deriding us.
My eyes were wide-open; they watched, but my brain couldn’t see. A strange haze shrouded my sight, and there I was bold, shooting bullets like a madman. I ran and ran while shooting, exhausting all my ammunition. I leaned against the wall of a nearby abandoned building, three of my comrades beside me, another was barricaded along in front of us, on the corner. I grabbed more ammunition, decided to rest for a minute or two. Hundreds of shells were exchanged without respite. It was impossible to count the mouths of guns firing at that instant, and we were right in the middle of it. Farruj gathered his courage and entered the building; we followed him. I nestled myself in the doorway. We were on the main Sfeir road, facing a block of buildings and to my left the Muallem gas station; my heart beat like a drum, thirst parched my throat.
[A] family emerged out of the darkness, their heads peering out of their shelter. The guys finally arrived and gathered around. There were moments of calm, barely enough time for us to spread out. We found two abandoned army tanks. At the gas station we found a lot of trunks and ammunition. Sandwiches and cigarettes were delivered to us; reinforcements arrived. Hours later they mobilized us; it was dawn and we had not slept. The shelling started, intermittently. Bodies of three dead Lebanese Army soldiers were brought in.
I don’t know who pulled the gold teeth out from the dead soldier’s mouth, but someone took out the cleaning knife of the Kalashnikov and used it to pry each tooth out, saying: “They’re worth five grams of cocaine.”
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue (Vol. 32, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Experience | The Child Soldier
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