I was in a car with my friends when I read Mitchell Prothero’s epic article on paintballing with Hezbollah for VICE Magazine. It just so happened that I was going to Beirut a couple of days later and I simply could not miss the occasion to recreate such a scenario. Luckily I had a friend who was able to indirectly get in touch with people in Hezbollah. I tried contacting VICE writers Prothero, Andrew Exum and Bryan Denton on Twitter in order to find the same venue that they had all used but I was unsuccessful (who said Twitter is good for communicating?). By sheer luck, after visiting various locations, we found the same one.
Throughout the evening, I kept thinking of Mitchell Prothero’s article and tried to recreate some of the situations he described. Needless to say, I failed miserably. However, our game had a very different dynamic because my team was mainly composed of Syrian students that are opposed to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. It was really fun seeing them pretending to be members of the Free Syrian Army and chanting revolutionary slogans such as “Curse your soul Hafez” (Bashar’s father) and “The people want to overthrow the regime” while at the same time reflecting on how far the protest movement has gone in Syria that people now openly criticize the regime and no longer hide. Even more interesting was the fact that the people in charge of the venue were all Syrians from Homs’ Baba Amro district which was heavily bombarded two months ago. They were genuinely excited after finding out about the nationality of the players on my team and joined in some of the chanting without fear. They even taunted one of the members of the staff who used to work for the Syrian secret police, an act which was simply unimaginable before the Syrian retreat from Lebanon in 2005.
Of the two Hezbollah young fighters, one of them totally looked the part: he had dark black hair, a perfectly trimmed beard and was of very pale complexion. He could have been Iranian if it weren't for his bling watch that stood out from his modest clothing and shoes. This one was also the more reserved, often shying away from group discussions and rarely smiling. The other man could not have looked more normal; he had brown hair, wore a tracksuit and was even skinnier than the other one.
It was clear that the two members of Hezbollah new exactly what they were doing: they would constantly move around and never camp on the paintball field, firing in rapid sequences and always conserving enough ammunition by the end of each round. They even instructed the others on their team to react to the code word “Ya Hussein” (a very important historic leader and martyr revered by Shiites) and shoot in every direction to cover them. Their teammates said that as soon as the matches started, they would vanish like ghosts and just do their thing. At one point, after a few players had decided to take a break, we were going to be six while they would only be three. Nevertheless, when I asked one of them how they were going to manage this numerical inferiority, he responded with a big smile: “God is with us.” During that game, I peaked from my position for not even a second and got hit straight in the face. Though outnumbered, they still won that round.
At some point, I asked them where they learned how to shoot like this. They simply blanked on me.
Our last game was basically a massive shoot-out session in order to empty our magazines. I decided, in a mix of adrenaline and foolishness, to go all-out and flank the opposing team on the right just so that I could say to myself that I had managed to shoot a Hezbollah fighter. My plan worked perfectly and I got two out of three like that. I can hardly describe my pride. However when I was running back behind a pile of sandbags and jumped over it, I tripped and landed hard on my stomach, in what was probably the most embarrassing moment of the night, along with that solid head-shot.
At the end of the evening, the discussion logically veered towards the current situation on the other side of the border and the Syrians loudly expressed their points of view. It was fascinating for me to see the silent guys from Dahieh with their slightly awkward smiles facing their neighbours that seemed to have acquired a new freedom of expression.