At a sharp turn in the road between the villages of Meiss Al Jabal and Houla along the Lebanon-Israel border, a small patch of scarred asphalt still sparks my memory from a decade ago.
May 23, 2000 marked the third day of Israel’s headlong retreat from South Lebanon and the border zone it had occupied for 22 years. The western and central sectors of the zone had already collapsed, with militiamen from the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army (SLA) fleeing across the border the night before.
At around noon, I was watching a procession of captured SLA armored vehicles grind through the nearby village of Aytaroun when I heard my name shouted and saw a familiar face emerge from a shop. It was Abed Taqqoush, a long-time driver for visiting BBC journalists.
Abed hurried over, grinning broadly, eyes bulging with excitement. He handed me a can of Pepsi and slapped me on the back.
“Isn’t this amazing?” he said, gazing at the chaotic scene around us.
We were joined by veteran BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen and his cameraman Malek Kenaan. Bowen said he was going to Aadayseh where the SLA had blocked the road, denying access to Marjayoun and the eastern sector of the zone still held by the Israelis. Taqqoush and the BBC team departed and I followed a few minutes later. Along the way, at Meiss Al Jabal, I pulled over to call The Times newspaper.
As I spoke to one of the editors there was an explosion just to the north, loud enough to be heard down the phone line in Wapping, east London. A thin column of smoke rose gently into the sky ahead. Motorists heading south flagged me down and said Israeli tanks were shooting at cars. It was a little later that I learned Taqqoush had been killed in the explosion.
The BBC crew had stopped on a corner opposite the Israeli settlement of Manara. Bowen and Kanaan left the car and walked 100 meters back down the road to record a news piece, using as background Manara and the wreckage of a car in which a civilian had been killed by Israeli tank fire the day before.
Bowen, who was wearing a distinctly unmilitary pink shirt, saw what looked like a military observation position at Manara and waved to indicate his friendly intentions. Taqqoush remained in the car chatting on the phone to his son.
An Israeli tank positioned on the border beside Manara fired a single round into his Mercedes, engulfing the car in a ball of fire. Bowen was speaking to the camera when the blast occurred; wreckage from Taqqoush’s car flew into Kanaan’s camera shot.
The horrified pair ducked behind a wall and were pinned down for an hour by machine gun fire while the flames stripped Taqqoush’s car to its metal skeleton. It was not until four hours later that Taqqoush’s body was removed.
The Israeli army subsequently claimed that the tank crew at Manara had suspected Bowen and Kanaan of being Hezbollah men preparing to fire an anti-tank missile.
Pink shirts are not the customary garb of Hezbollah fighters, nor do their anti-tank teams fire from the middle of roads in broad daylight within clear view of their target and begin the operation by giving a cheery wave to their intended victims.
The Israelis killed several other civilians during the withdrawal, all of them by tank fire. But Taqqoush had the tragic distinction of being the very last Lebanese civilian to be killed during Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon.
The next day, the Israelis completed their withdrawal from Lebanon. The blackened carcass of Taqqoush’s car was towed away a few weeks later.
While, over time, long grass and thistles smothered all traces of the burnt earth, a melted patch of asphalt remains on the road where his Mercedes was engulfed with flames — a permanent cicatrix to jolt my memory and somber my mood every time I pass by.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London