I saw the blast wave coming down the Corniche. My home is only a few hundred metres from the detonation and my first instinct was to look up, to search for the high-altitude Israeli planes that regularly break the sound barrier over Beirut. There were customers coming bloodied from their broken-windowed restaurants and the great cancerous stain of smoke rising from the road outside the St George Hotel.
Beirut is my home-from-home, home from the dangers of Baghdad, and now here was my Baghdad in Lebanon, a St Valentine’s Day massacre in one of the Middle East’s safest cities. I ran down the Corniche, everyone one else fleeing in the opposite direction, and walked into a mass of rubble and flaming cars. There was a man, a big plump man lying on the pavement opposite the still-derelict, war damaged hotel, a sack, it seemed, except for the skull, the top missing. And there was a woman’s hand in the road, still in a glove. There were bodies burning in a car, flaming away, a terrible hand hanging outside a motorist’s window.
There were still no policemen, no ambulances, no fire brigade. The petrol tanks of the cars were starting to explode, spraying fire across the street. No one could take in the extent of the damage because of the heat and the smoke. Then I recognised one of Rafik Hariri’s bodyguards, standing in terror. “The big man has gone,” he said. The Big Man? Hariri? At first I thought that Lebanon’s former prime minister, “Mr Lebanon”, the man who more than anyone else rebuilt this city from the ashes of civil war, must have left, “gone” away, escaped.
But how could he have escaped this funeral pyre? A group of cops ran into the devastation, and a man, another bodyguard, ran shrieking towards a set of burning Mercedes limousines crying “Ya-allah”, calling upon God to be his witness. Hariri travelled only in a convoy of heavily armoured Mercedes. No wonder the explosion was so massive. It would have to be to rip open the armoured doors. I followed a plain clothes detective past a still-burning car – there was another body inside, cowled in flames – to the edge of a pit. It was at least 15ft deep. This was the crater. I slowly clambered down the edge. All that was left of the car bomb were a few pieces of metal an inch long. The blast had sent another car, perhaps one of Hariri’s, soaring through the air into the third floor of the empty hotel’s annex, where it was still burning fiercely.
Hariri, I kept repeating. I had sat with him many times, for interviews, at press conferences, at lunches and dinners. He once spoke most movingly about the son he had lost in a driving accident in America. He had said many times he believed in the afterlife. He had many enemies in Lebanon, Syrians who suspected – correctly – that he wanted them out of Lebanon, real estate enemies – for he had personally purchased large areas of Beirut – and media enemies because he owned a newspaper and a television station..
But he could be a good and kind man, even if he was a ruthless businessman; I was compared him to the cat which eats the canary then cheerfully admits that it tasted good. He sent the quotation off to his friends. His hand was one of the mightiest I had ever shaken.
I could not see his body. But amid the smoke and fire, I looked beyond to the new Beirut centre ville, the reconstructed centre of this fine city which Hariri’s own company – he owns 10 per cent of the shares in Solidere – was building from its Dresden-like ruins. He had died within metres of his own creation.
This was a bomb that took a long time to construct, a long time to plan. Parked outside the wall of an empty hotel, few would have looked at the car or noticed that it was weighed down on its axles by the weight of explosives, as it must have been.
The perpetrators were ruthless men, heedless of the innocent. They wanted to kill Rafik Hariri. Nothing else mattered. In the surrounding streets men and women were emerging with blood all over their clothes. Thousands of windows had smashed into them and they stood there, dribbling blood on to their shoes and trousers and skirts as the first ambulance men screamed at the firemen to clear their hoses from the pavements.
The length of the street was slippery with water and blood. I counted 22 cars exploding and burning. The Saudi billionaire who dined with kings and princes – whose personal friendship with Jacques Chirac helped Lebanon ride its $41 bn (£21.7bn) public debt – had ended his life in this inferno.
In private he did not hide his animosity towards the Hizbollah, whose attacks on Israeli occupation troops before their 2000 retreat would set back his plans for Lebanon’s economic recovery. And while he tolerated the Syrians, he had his own plans for their military departure. Was it true, as they said in Beirut, that Hariri was the secret leader of the political opposition to the Syrian presence? Or were his enemies even more sinister people?
Lebanon is built on institutions that enshrine sectarianism as a creed, in which the president must always be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim – like Hariri – and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Anyone setting out to murder Hariri would know that this would reopen all the fissures of the civil war from 1974 to 1990.
Thousands of weeping followers of Hariri gathered outside his palace at Koreitem last night demanding to know who had killed their leader. Hariri men toured the streets, ordering shopkeepers to pull down their shutters. Were the ghosts of the civil war to be reawoken from their 15 years of slumber? I do not know the answer. But that black cloud that drifted for more than an hour over Beirut yesterday afternoon darkened the people beneath with more than its shadow.