Andrew Mills is a 26-year-old Toronto native and freelance journalist currently working for The Toronto Star in Beirut, Lebanon.
He's also my former classmate at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Mills had been in the Lebanese capital since April but was on assignment in Mumbai, India, before he returned to Beirut to cover the fighting that erupted July 12. That's when Israel responded with air strikes to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by the Hezbollah militia that operates in southern Lebanon.
When I spoke with Mills on Friday, 5,000 additional Israeli reservists were said to have been called to the Israel-Lebanon border, and the threat of beefed-up Israeli forces fed rumors that Israel was on the verge of a large-scale ground invasion.
Fighting continued Tuesday, and the death toll in Lebanon neared 400. About 40 Israeli soldiers and civilians have died.
WW: Where are you now exactly?
Andrew Mills: West Beirut, which has pretty much not been attacked by the Israelis. There's a feeling here that they won't attack this part of town. There don't tend to be many Hezbollah supporters here, although that may be changing as the war drags on. Hezbollah's headquarters are in the southern suburbs, not here.
So your part of the city is relatively untouched. But can you describe what's happening in the areas with fighting?
It's very tricky, because I'm about 5 kilometers from the places where many of these bombings have happened. They sort of happen daily and nightly. You don't know when the bombs are going to fall. There are no air-raid sirens that go off. There are no warnings by the Israelis. One minute you'll hear the jets overhead, and half a minute later you'll hear the explosions. The difficult thing is, it's so unpredictable. The only predictable thing is that it tends to happen at night—but it also happens during the day.
What's it like in the worst sections of Beirut?
Everyone has left, because, of course, they are afraid of being hit by another bomb. And so you see on television at night here this raw footage [where] they'll put a camera on the dashboard of a car and drive as quickly as they can through the neighborhood. And you just see entire buildings sheared in half. One half will be standing, and the other half will have overflowed into the street. You will see cars totally blown up. You don't see any people at all, because no one is there. They are too afraid. And it's silent. Beirut is normally very noisy, with lots and lots of traffic and horns and buses and trucks. But the southern suburbs are quiet; you hear birds chirping. It's just not normal to hear Beirut be so silent.
How does the fighting affect opinion of Hezbollah in Lebanon?
I am seeing some people who have always been against Hezbollah saying, "Good for Israel. We want Hezbollah out of our hair. We don't want them to be continuing to create problems for Lebanon by attacking Israel. We just want peace. Israel is doing the right thing by attacking Lebanon to try to get rid of Hezbollah." I would say that's probably the minority opinion. Most people are saying, "Look at how strong Hezbollah is. They have been able to attack deeper into Israel than ever before, and Israel has responded so incredibly brutally here in Lebanon." You know, people are actually lining up behind Hezbollah, people who weren't supporting Hezbollah in the past.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said Israel's attacks were hurting Hezbollah's military capabilities but not its popular support. Instead, Israel's strikes were weakening the Lebanese government. What do you make of this assessment?
I'd probably call that a correct assessment. The Lebanese government has looked quite helpless in the last 10 days. They didn't start this war. This is really a war between Hezbollah and Israel, except all of Lebanon has been pulled into it. And the only people who can really stop this are Hezbollah and Israel. The Lebanese government has been sidelined. It's almost as if they are not a party to this war happening on their turf.
What's the likelihood of Israel dislodging Hezbollah?
It's been two weeks now of Israel attacking Lebanon, and Hezbollah has managed to keep up its attacks on Israel, sending rockets further into Israel than they've ever sent them before, causing more damage—40 kilometers into Israel. It appears Israel's strategy isn't working. What has happened, though, is that the entire country of Lebanon is in crisis mode.
What's the worst-case scenario?
There are many worst-case scenarios, really. It's hard to pick just one.
Israel and the United States consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Iran and Syria provide financial support for Hezbollah, an armed militia and political party with a grip on southern Lebanon.
Mercy Corps is working in Lebanon to help people displaced by the fighting. To help, go to www.mercycorps.org or call 1-800-852-2100.