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Lebanon Golf Club: From war to recovery

By James Montague, CNN
  • Lebanon's 47 year old golf course can be found in southern Beirut
  • The club is in the middle of a poor Shia Muslim, Hezbollah-supporting suburb
  • The course was destroyed when Israel invaded in 1982
  • Now rebuilt, journalists speculate that the course sits on a Palestinian mass grave

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- The southern, dirt-poor Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh holds many secrets. After all, this is Hezbollah's stronghold, the powerbase of the militant Shia Muslim organization that has dominated Lebanese politics in recent years.

Bombed out buildings, destroyed during the Lebanon War in 2006, still litter the roadside. The whereabouts of the movement's leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose ubiquitous portrait stares back from countless road-side billboards, is unknown.

But there is one secret that hides behind uniform gray walls, as if ashamed of its presence: Lebanon's only golf course.

The Golf Club of Lebanon is an expanse of rolling greens and pristine fairways; state-of-the-art gyms and turquoise swimming pools; beautifully arranged flower beds and starched white polo tops, all in the midst of tightly-packed slums.

The newly constructed headquarters of Al Manar, the television network of Hezbollah, considered a terrorist entity in itself by the U.S. government, sits next door.

During the civil war we had tough time, but the members are a combination of all parties, sects and religions
--Jihad Husseini, President Golf Club of Lebanon

And like most things in Beirut, it is a survivor of a difficult past. Destroyed by Israeli tank tracks during their 1982 invasion -- an event recently revisited by Ari Folman's 2008 film "Waltz With Bashir" -- the course was rebuilt amid claims that underneath the grounds lay the graves of those killed in a massacre.

"All the club was destroyed completely, we built the club up from zero," the golf course's greenkeeper Ali Hammoud told CNN while taking a break from fixing a sprinkler on the 15th hole.

"The front nine took about seven or eight months, but the back nine took three years to rebuild. There were mines, there were some rockets and bombs, things like that, but the Lebanese army helped us remove all these things."

While military detritus may have posed danger to those restoring the club from the rubble, it has been speculated the fairways are also the final resting place of a tragic tale.

Some journalists suspect the golf course to be the site of a possible mass grave, dug after a massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militias following the 1982 invasion. The club vehemently denies these allegations.

The slaughter of refugees at Sabra and Shatila began when the Phalangist Christian militia, then an ally of Israel, entered the Palestinian camps.

The disputed death toll ranged from the official Israeli figure of 700, to the Palestinian Red Crescent figure of 2,000. At the time of the atrocity CNN reported that 800 bodies had been accounted for.

Israel held its own inquiry, with the appointed Kahan Commission indirectly blaming then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and top military figures for the massacre. Sharon, a future Israeli prime minister, was forced to resign.

British journalist Robert Fisk, who wrote "Pity The Nation" about the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, has repeatedly claimed the golf course as the burial site of many of the missing bodies.

"There are perhaps 1,000 murdered Palestinian civilians under the golf course near Beirut airport, dumped there by Israel's Phalangist allies after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres," Fisk wrote in the British newspaper The Independent.

"No one will dig them up. Golfers play without reflecting upon what lies beneath the verdant 18th hole."

Others have agreed with the sentiment, though not the numbers: "I'm positive that dozens of people were buried there with the help of bulldozers. The bulldozers were used to get rid of the dead bodies," Dr. Bayan Nuwayhed al Hout -- author of "Sabra and Shatila: September 1982" - told CNN.

"This particular spot [the Lebanon Golf Course], among other spots, were famous for the killings [and burials] inside big pits ... [but] there is no one big mass grave."

The issue of mass graves is particularly contentious in Lebanon. Despite positive public pronouncements from Lebanon's government, including the president, urging movement of the issue there has been little action on uncovering the atrocities of the past.

According to Amnesty International -- and given Lebanon's fraught sectarian mix of Christians, Druze, Sunni and Shia Mulisms -- this is unsurprising.

"Some argue that uncovering the past may stoke up passions and return the country to civil war-type violence," explains Neil Sammonds from Amnesty International's Middle East Programme, who is currently researching a report on the issue of civil war-era mass graves in Lebanon and the golf course area.

"Yet the families are requesting truth, not justice, which is something everyone should be able to accept."

The club's president Jihad Husseini is adamant that the bodies were buried elsewhere, beyond the tall walls that protect the golfers from the outside world.

"What happened by the club is an area that is really a cemetery, which we don't see," he said when asked about the graves.

There were mines, there were some rockets and bombs but the Lebanese army helped us remove all these things
--Ali Hammoud, greenkeeper
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"We cannot see that area; it is covered by trees and shrubs. It is an area adjacent to the club and it has nothing to do with the club itself." Husseini's assertion is backed up by the club's general manager Mohammed El Khatib.

"It [the mass grave] is not here; it is over there, over that wall," he said, pointing to the eastern wall during a tour of the course in his golf buggy.

While the graves will remain totems to Lebanon's past, its future -- with Hezbollah's influence growing -- is far more uncertain.

"There is no problem here with 'the neighbors.' They take care of us and they take care of the club," replied El Khatib when asked what Hezbollah made of having a golf course in its own backyard.

But his voice lowered as he drove back towards the first tee and the exit. "Please do not say anything about politics. Hezbollah are here in this area, all around us. They have been good to us."

Husseini insists that the golf club has always tried to provide respite from the sectarian strife that has split Lebanese society. "During the civil war we had a tough time, but the members of this club are a combination of all parties, sects and religions, and we are like a family," he recalled.

Sitting beneath a cloudless sky, the opulence inside its walls could not have been further removed from the images of war and genocide.

Started in 1923 by Western diplomats eager for a game, it didn't move to the current site until 1963. Since then it has been building its membership.

"We have about 2,900 people using the club now, but this is coming from 900 families," Husseini said in the shade of his large boardroom earlier that morning. Golf -- Husseini explained as he handed over a white Golf Club of Lebanon-branded baseball cap -- is still a tiny sport in the small country. But it's growing, helped by $40 green fees and free lessons.

"We are teaching children free of charge in some schools, free lessons in the summer. This year we have more than 95 young people playing. Golf is gaining popularity slowly but surely."