What do you do when you have a masked Hizbullah militiaman aiming his gun for your temple?

As a Western journalist working in the Middle East this is always a deep-seated worry, no matter how unfounded. Though you try to prepare yourself for many scenarios this question is never answerable.

Foreign journalists are always chasing the Western fascination that is Lebanon’s Hizbullah party and for many they are an interesting sociological phenomenon waiting to be written about; engaging in battle with them however is not in the journalist’s job description.

In an unassuming part of the square in the heart of Dahieh where the March 8 faction hold their rallies, the paintballing quad ‘Special Forces’ is nestled between the Hizbullah-affiliated cafe Buns ‘n’ Guns and a cluster of high-rise residential apartments showing their own signs of war.

Journalists from various Western publications yesterday waged war against the green and yellow of the city in a paintball match.

With nothing but the thin gauze canopy above us cutting the Beirut sky, we battle against the opposing side, negotiating our way in a hazy light around the all-too-real war “props” which pock-mark the landscape of the quad; concrete outhouses, metal drums, barbed wire and grenades.

Our masks disconcertingly muffle the sound around us, allowing us to hear only the steely silence of our own regular, deep breathing, the eruption of automatic gunfire overhead and the incongruent Muslim call for prayer from the nearby Qa’im mosque.

This is not child’s play: with no real rules, questionable health and safety regulations and undefined boundaries this is more like all-out war. It is a far-cry from the lazer game center ‘Quasar’ our parents took us to in our respective London, New York and Stockholm cities.

 “People take it very seriously here, “a fresh-faced employee with a severe haircut at the quad warns me, “yes it is a game, but it is also a sort of training.”

I understand what he means when I see the local children standing outside the fencing looking on at the battle playing out, mimicking our war poses with military precision.

“It’s mostly teenagers seeing how to handle guns. This is a competition, and people do get hurt” he adds as he knocks over a tin target from a 20-meter range with enviable aim.

One 16-year-old speaks reluctantly, bringing up an unavoidable connotation to the game that no one has yet dared talk about: “The [2006 Israeli] war made me angry, I felt powerless. I come here often on the weekend just to forget that feeling. Some people learn how to use guns from TV, some from their friends, some from paintballing, and some have lived through enough to have learned it firsthand.”

It seems this mantra ‘being armed is being prepared’ is still at the forefront of many people’s minds in south Beirut.

Many more paintballing quads similar to this one have sprung up in Lebanon since the 2006 war, which saw the resistance fight neighboring Israel, and it has seen a huge growth in popularity, noticeably in Hizbullah strongholds. The one in Dahieh opened up just under a year ago and according to its employees it makes good business.

It is not surprising then that the original purpose of paintball was to enable the US military to teach troops how to handle weapons, to aim and learn strategies of combat.

Some venture to say the country’s recent interest in paintball is a playing-out of the mass venting of frustration of a dispossessed youth; others simply dismiss it as a military-themed game, not dissimilar to the plethora that already exist. Either way it is having quite an effect in this South Beirut town.

And it is completely understandable as I dart around in the close dusk air, shooting the enemy with a concentrated force and a concentrated venom; it brings a form of catharsis. But we are lagging; unaccustomed to the heat and hopelessly untrained we topple like dominoes in a stiff breeze. The Western journalists are out of practice, out of breath and out of luck in the Dahieh.

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