My chest and wrists still hurt from the arms of the men who tackled me, twisted my hands behind my back, and tried to rip my phone out of my hands this afternoon. They were enraged because I refused to delete a photo of ancient ruins I shot on their construction site.
“Lock the door,” one of the foreman said earlier today, and moments later the giant doors of the site were sealed. I was surrounded by 5 to 6 men looking at me menacingly–prepared it seemed–to do anything to shut me up.
Here’s how it all went down:
At around 4PM today, I heard ruins were being removed from a major construction project in Beirut. The site is known as District S, a multi-million dollar luxury apartment project situated on a massive plot (right) near Martyrs Square and the Mohammed Al Amin Mosque:
As I pulled up to the site around 5PM, a crane pump was being slowly hoisted over the excavation site, ready to fill the foundations with cement. I thought time was running out, so I hurried to find a parking spot and walked over.
I saw a hole in the fence and tried to take a few shots. Nothing was visible but bulldozers. A man with a walkie talkie saw me and yelled that photos were prohibited. He sent me to the main door. There two men stood, one with greased hair, a white shirt and a metal cap visible in his mouth.
I asked if I could see the site and he refused. “This is private property, no pictures.”
“But this is our history. How can it be private property? There are ancient ruins there.”
He apologized and repeated that I could not access the site.
Another man appeared, easily the tallest on site with light, almost pale skin. He was built like a bouncer.
“You see this fence,” he pointed behind him. “This is private property.”
“I love history,” I said. “I think it should be shared.”
“You want history? Go look over there.” He pointed to the downtown area.
“I want to see what is here,” I said.
“Do you want to have coffee,” he asked, with a smile.
“Sure, but I want to see the ruins first.”
“There are no ruins!” he said, repeatedly. “There’s nothing to see here.”
The site door opened behind him and I tried to get look. “Close the door,” he shouted.
“What’s the secret,” I said. “Are you hiding something?”
One of the men standing behind him was radioing back-up. Soon “the boss” showed up.
He was wearing suit pants and a silky button shirt, slightly opened–gray or grayish hair. Clearly not the type to get his hands dirty.
“There is nothing here,” he said parroting the previous response.
“If there is nothing, than why won’t you let me see it,” I asked.
“Fine, you want to see? Look,” he pointed at the open doorway.
He ushered me inside and stood in front of me. All I could see was a big pile of dirt and rocks to my right. And in the distance, to the far left, I could see a foundation being laid.
“You see there is nothing,” the boss said.
“What about over here,” I said, pointing to the middle area that was not visible from our standpoint.
“Can I go over there?”
“Sure,” the boss nodded, hesitantly.
As I walked down the small dirt hill, an ancient rock wall structure appeared before me. The rocks were rectangular, dark, almost grayish from what I can remember in that moment. They were about 1-2 feet in length and carefully fitted together. I glimpsed a small team of men moving them out of place using a small crane.
Without hesitating, my first reflex was to take a shot on my camera phone.
“No pictures,” the boss said.
“Why, this is history.” The boss was not impressed and stared dead on.
“Erase the pictures please.”
The light skinned foreman, the tall bouncer-like guy, stepped in. “Erase the pictures now!” The other men –there were about four of them, looked on.
“I would like the owner of this project to tell me that. I know he is a prominent man. Would he let this happen?
“Erase the pictures,” the boss said, his patience wearing.
“I would like to talk to my lawyer,” I told them. “I want to leave now.”
“Close the door!” the bouncer man said. “Don’t let him leave!”
The men surrounded me. They continued to press me to erase the photos, their tone getting louder and louder.
Out of nowhere, one of the workers standing nearby grabbed my phone and I bent down, holding on to it for dear life. He squeezed my wrists, wrestling me.
As I struggled, I could feel another pair of hands around my chest, the nails digging in. Still holding my phone, he wrestled my hand backwards. Finally, fearing they would crush my phone, I gave up.
“Fine, I will erase them, I will erase them!”
The boss looked on, cooly.
I swiped open my iPhone, and began to punch in the access code. As I was doing this, I began to complain about how they had treated me. Suddenly the dark worker man tackled me again, this time his nail dug into my wrist. I struggled until the boss told him to stop.
“I’m doing it,” I screamed. “I have to unlock the phone!”
He let me go and the big tall guy looked on. “Erase everything.”
I erased the two pictures I took of the rock wall. “Erase everything,” he repeated.
He looked at the pictures I had taken outside of the site–mainly of the wall– before I entered.
Then he saw the shots I had taken previously through the wood fence.
“Look at what he did,” the foreman exclaimed, alerting another site staff member, with a walkie talkie and a very dark complexion.
“Maybe he is a spy,” the other staffer suggested suspiciously. “The police are going to come and arrest you.”
He pushed his phone in my face to show he had called the police.
“Fuck you and your history,” the foreman added.
The men continued to curse at me. Finally the boss left.
“Are you proud of yourselves,” I asked, out of breath.
“Keep him here till the police come,” one threatened.
Two young construction worker boys blocked the door again.
“Let him go,” the bouncer-looking guy said.
The boys were not moving, so I began to pry the door toward me.
“Let him go, let him go,” the foreman said.
I made my way to my car and noticed one of the worker boys had followed me.
Some of the men who roughed me up or watched, congregate outside moments after I left. I took this picture from my car.
When I got home, I went to report this event to the local police station near my house.
“Forget it,” the officers in charge said after explaining my story. “It’s your word against theirs. You have no witnesses, maybe they will make something up about you.”
They were right. If the men on site were willing to beat me up to please their boss, they would certainly lie for him. And I was sealed in, no one from the street could witness how they had repeatedly assaulted me.
I left the police station feeling that Lebanese citizens have no protection under the law. The wealthy developers can smash us like ants, if ever we dare to upset them.
UPDATE: More journalists have been threatened and assaulted at the site, from The Daily Star and Reuters. Apparently District S is owned by a Lebanese firm called Estates and the planning was done by London-based Allies and Morrison Architects. Will these fine companies accept the violence perpetrated by their contractor’s staff?
UPDATE 2: See what District S was hiding and how their PR staff tried to troll me. Luckily my story has since received a lot of attention from local and international media.
UPDATE 3: Over one year after this post, new pictures finally reveal some of the ruins that were removed from the site.