By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on The Hindu.
Near misses are legion in Lebanon: of a boy who hurries up his father and finds he has saved them from a car bomb, of a woman who goes back to her house to get her pocketbook and escapes from a shell on her front walk
At around 9.30 a.m. on December 27, 2013, Anwar al-Badawi, a taxi driver from Hadath in south Beirut, bid farewell to his friends after a coffee near the Starco Building in central Beirut and walked toward his job. A massive bomb in a gold-coloured Honda CR-V blew to bits a car passing by that carried a former Finance Minister and Lebanese Ambassador to the U.S., Mohammed Chatah. Al-Badawi was terribly hurt, eventually taken to the American University of Beirut Medical Center where he lapsed into a coma and later died. He was one of the victims of the blast. The others included Chatah, the likely target, his bodyguard Tarek Badr, several bystanders — bank guard Mohammed Nasser Mansour, a Syrian national Saddam al-Khanshouri, a Lebanese-American on vacation Kivork Takajian — and, most tragically, 16-year-old Mohammed Chaar. Moments before the bomb exploded, Chaar and his three young friends had taken a self-portrait. His friends wore dark colours, while Chaar had a bright red sweater. In later pictures, he would be found lying on the side of the road, the sweater’s colour masking his young blood.
On December 29, at the funeral for Chaar in the Khashoggie Mosque, Sheikh Ahmad al-Omari, one of the leading Sunni clerics in Lebanon, said that the Sunnis of Lebanon had become targets of Syria’s “criminal Ba’ath regime,” who he accused of killing Chatah. Chatah’s sons, Omar and Ronnie, were present during this speech. As leader of the Muslim Scholars Association of Lebanon, Al-Omari had been crucial to the fatwa from June urging Muslims to go across the border and fight the Assad government. Like Chatah, he too had been a strong critic of the role of Hezbollah both in Lebanon’s polity and in Syria. In his speech at the mosque, Sheikh al-Omari called Hezbollah (the Party of God), Hezb al-Shaitan (the Party of the Devil). This kind of sectarian language set the mood for the reaction by many mourners to the presence of the Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani. Calling him an agent of Hezbollah, some people refused to allow Qabbani an exit. When he was evacuated in a military vehicle, the protesters threw shoes at it. That Qabbani is a leading Sunni cleric did not protect him from this rise of sectarian sentiment.
On January 2, a car bomb went off on al-Arid Street in Haret Hreik in the southern suburbs of Beirut leaving eight dead and almost 100 injured. Despite all talk of a “Hezbollah stronghold,” the bomber parked behind a school bus, near the al-Jawad restaurant and set off his bomb. It was a callous act, intended to create mayhem among the civilian population. Television channels read out the names of the dead and wounded solemnly. Among them was Malak Zahwa, 16, a student at al-Kawthar school, whose uncle said her face resembled that of an angel (in Arabic, Malak means angel). Not far from her had been Ali Khadra, 17, who planned to attend engineering school next year. Adnan Awali, 62, was driving through the area when the explosion obliterated his car. There are no celebrities among them; no famous politician who had been assassinated. This was run-of-the-mill terrorism, intended to create tension in the city.
Families and near misses
Zacharia Chaghouri knows a thing or two about tension. Like al-Badawi, Zacharia drives a taxi. When he was a boy during Lebanon’s civil war, Zacharia, his brothers and friends liked to play marbles. One day they were playing on the street besides their building when a woman drove up in a car. The boys gathered around her, jostling to chat with her, trying to one up each other in telling her kindly that she should not park her car on their street. A minute later, she was gone. Because there were too many boys and the space for marbles was not large enough, Zacharia suggested they go to the other side of the building. As they walked away, the car exploded. Some of the boys were hit by the blast. Zacharia would not go into the details. His narrative shifted to his mother, who came running out of the building yelling out for what she imagined were her lost sons. It turned out that none of her sons had been injured badly or killed — but they had run further away, pushed by the blast and its consequences.
Such memories of near misses are legion in Lebanon: of a sniper whose bullet went past a young woman, of a boy who tells his father to hurry up only to find that he has saved both of them from a car bomb, of a woman who goes back into her house to get her pocketbook to be saved from a shell that landed on her front walk. There is a trauma that gets distilled out of these close calls, and of having to cry over the bodies of dead friends and relatives, or even of dead strangers.
More than two decades later, Zacharia and his twin brother, Yahya, go to have their morning coffee with their father and mother. Their 80-year old father has just been released from hospital, where he had surgery on his foot. Yahya is wearing a red jumper. He heads north in his car to a job. Not long after the earth in Beirut shakes with the December bomb blast. Yahya and Zacharia’s mother watches the images on television — cameras were on the scene almost as quickly as the ambulances. She sees the still image of the body with a red sweater on the road, and thinks immediately of her son. Cell networks were down in Lebanon, so Zacharia, his heart in his mouth tells his mother that he has nonetheless heard from Yahya, who is fine. He is indeed well. The boy who died was sitting with the son of one of Zacharia’s friends. It is a small world. A bomb two decades earlier had spared them. Another bomb would kill one of their children. He had nothing to do with the politics of the blast.
Rumours and a silence
Beirut is flush with rumours. Not long after the December blast, Mohammed Chatah’s final tweet about Hezbollah went viral, and a day later, his letter to the new Iranian government was released. In both, Chatah warned about Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon, and called on Iran to stop its military assistance to the group. This implied that Hezbollah had killed Chatah. That Chatah was a critic of the Syrian regime pointed the finger at Damascus. In a few weeks, Chatah was to depose before the U.N. Special Tribunal on the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, whose death is often laid at the Assad government’s door. The motive seems easy to establish. But since the motives are so easy, it is also reasonable to assume that those who want to put pressure on Syria and Hezbollah could very well have killed Chatah as a sacrificial lamb. That theory is part of the ether as well. Nothing is provable.
I had asked a former chief of police in Lebanon what it is like to have to do his job without being able to close the files on these bombings. He told me that the police force is often able to draw a firm line between an assassination and its author, not simply through motives but by careful forensic analysis. But there is a political price to be paid by the country if the actual authors of these deeds are revealed. Who killed Prime Minister Rafic Hariri? Who killed An-Nahar editor Gebran Tueni and journalist Samir Kassir? Who killed Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyah? There are the obvious suspects — Israel, Syria, one faction or the other inside Lebanon. The actual investigations are written in hieroglyphics. To name names is too dangerous. “Who killed President Kennedy?” Zacharia asked provocatively. The answer is as mysterious, and any questions raised about it are easily dismissed into the realm of conspiracy thinking. It is likely that the actual author of this bombing will also not be named in a court of law.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hastily pledged $3 billion to the Lebanese government so that it can buy French arms for its military (since the Israelis will likely censor the shopping list, most of the weaponry will be for maintenance of internal security rather than a threat to Israel). There are rumbles of discontent about this as well. Saudi-inspired groups, such as those led by Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, have attacked and killed Lebanese army troops. Now the Saudis will arm both sides in what will certainly turn out to be a very dangerous conflict. Not long after the Saudi announcement, the Lebanese Army arrested Majid bin Mohammad al-Majid, the leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades — the al-Qaeda type operation in Lebanon. Al-Majid, wanted for the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November, was privy to a lot of secrets about the shadowy world of Saudi involvement in the region. He died in custody on January 4. The al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the January bomb blast. They said it was at their bidding that Qotaiba al-Satem, 19, drove the jeep into Beirut. But even this is just a claim, a rumour that al-Satem’s family in Akkar (Lebanon) deny.
Rumours will be the only justice for the dead. They will get no answers that they would care to hear. A 16-year-old with his friends and another with her stepmother, a taxi driver on a walk, a man standing on the street — what do they care about the reason that killed a former government minister and a senior political leader? Their deaths will not be celebrated for themselves. They find themselves pawns already in more killings to come. That is the threat of these bombings — not that they happen, but for what they portend.
(Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair in American Studies at the American University of Beirut.)