BEIRUT: In 1982, Lebanon was in the throes of the Civil War, the Palestinian Liberation Organization had just been evacuated from Beirut and Richard Walker was a young quartermaster and Navy photographer who knew little of the country beyond the shoreline he could see from the deck of the USS Manitowoc. Walker recalls President Bachir Gemayel’s visit to the ship, which he photographed, but by the time the film was developed, Gemayel had been assassinated.
“As an enlisted person, my knowledge of the military operations and all the political happenings were not things that I was privy to,” Walker told The Daily Star by phone from his home in Washington state, where he edits a local paper.
He does, however, remember the day he found a photo album that would stay with him for over 30 years, a window into his own past, a country he barely knew and a family he never met.
“I remember us going in, our ship docking. I remember visiting the harbor on land and taking photographs,” he says slowly, carefully. “In the harbor there was a lot of rubble – the harbor area had been shelled – and there was this album kind of sticking up out of the rubble and I thought it looked like something important to someone.”
Walker picked up the album, having the vague notion he would return it to its rightful owners. Inside, photos in black-and-white and color showed what appeared to be a large, boisterous family or group of friends. Nights on the town, days on the beach, a chalet nestled in snow. Silly poses and crinkled noses. There, amid the rubble, captured stills of better days. On the cover page, someone had scrawled the name Didi, and the date 1975.
There was a letter written in English as well, and a postcard in Arabic sent from Spain and addressed to a Lydia Gatehouse in London.
Having no idea how to return the album, Walker kept it. The album stayed with him after he returned to the United States, through marriage, children and moves. It moved from boxes to drawers, always safe and always at the back of Walker’s mind.
“Everybody just seems so happy in these pictures,” he says. “What was it they called Beirut? The Paris of the Middle East? I kinda get that impression from these photos, that it was just a wonderful place to live.”
In the years since, Walker has periodically returned to the album and pondered who the smiling people in the pictures might be, and what happened to them.
“I just want them to have the album back,” he says. “There are a lot of memories here and they are entitled to have those back.”
Walker admits to having “mixed feelings” about whether he did the right thing by taking the album.
In a follow-up email to The Daily Star, he wrote: “As a person of indigenous Mexican ancestry, I am acutely aware of the loss that occurs when cultural items are removed from where they belong. I apologize to the family for having this album and am sorry I didn’t take measures to repatriate it much earlier.”
Walker hopes that publishing his story, along with the pictures, will help locate the family and return the album to them.
“When you’re a civilian reading the newspaper or watching an event on television ... you think about it for a bit and you turn the page or change the channel,” he says. “When you’re right there, the magnitude and the reality of the events ... the impact ... this album reminds me of that as well. It’s a family album, but it reminds you of how real all that was.”
Anyone with information that might help identify and locate the album’s owner is urged to contact The Daily Star.