In the house of mourning, an old Lebanese home of cut stone, they did not show Pierre Gemayel’s body. They had sealed the lid – so terribly damaged was his face by the bullets which killed him – as if the nightmares of Lebanon might thus be kept away in the darkness of the grave.
But the Maronites and Greek Orthodox, the Druze and – yes – the Muslims who came to pay their condolences to Gemayel’s wife, Patricia, and his broken father, Amin, wept copiously beside the flag-draped casket. They understood the horrors that could unfold in the coming days and their dignity was a refusal to accept that possibility.
Down in Beirut, I had been watching the Lebanese detectives – they who had never solved a single one of Lebanon’s multitude of political murders – photographing the bullet holes in the pale blue Kia car which Gemayel had been driving, 13 rounds through the driver’s window, six of which had broken out through the passenger door after tearing through the Lebanese Minister of Industry’s head and that of his bodyguard. But in the family home town of Bikfaya, mountain cold with fir trees and off-season roses and new Phalangist banners of triangular cedars, the black huddle of mourners spoke of legal punishment rather than revenge for Gemayel’s murder.
It was a heartening moment. And who would have imagined the day – back in the civil war that now haunts us all again – that the Druze could enter this holiest of holies in safety and in friendship to express their sorrow at the death of a man whose Uncle Bashir was the fiercest and most brutal enemy of the Druze?
Bashir’s best friend Massoud Ashkar, a militia officer in those dark and terrible days, spoke movingly of the need for Lebanese unity and for justice. “We know the Syrians killed people during the war,” he said to me. “We are waiting to find out who killed Sheikh Pierre. These people wanted to restart a civil war. We must know who these people are.”
Ah, but there is perdition in such hopes. With the sadness of those who still expect recovery when all such possibility has been taken away, some of the local Christians gathered in the Beirut suburb of Jdeideh where the three killers had blasted away their MP on Tuesday afternoon. His car, Lebanese registration number 201881, the hood smashed upwards where it had been rammed by the gunmen’s Honda CRV at 3.35pm and its rear still embedded in the van of a waterproofing company into which it rolled when Gemayel died at the wheel, was photographed a hundred times by the cops. They were watched silently by the men and women who, less than 24 hours before, had not heard the silenced pistol which killed him, and thought at first that the minister was the victim of a road accident. No one would give their name, of course. You don’t do that in Lebanon now.
“I was asleep when I heard some very mild sounds, like gunshots but not loud enough,” a white-haired man told me on the balcony of the old family home where he was born. “Then I heard a crash and several real gunshots. I got up, put on my clothes but didn’t see any gunmen. A neighbour went over and came back and told me it was Sheikh Pierre and then I saw him carried from his car covered in blood and put in the back of a van.”
Scarcely an hour earlier, Pierre Gemayel had been up in Bikfaya, only 200 metres from where his body lay yesterday, honouring the ominous statue of his grandfather – also Pierre – who had founded the Phalangist party which his grandson represented in parliament.
No one mentioned, of course, that this same old granddad Gemayel, a humble football coach, had created the Phalangists as a paramilitary organisation after being inspired – so he told me himself before he died in 1984 – by his visit to the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Hitler’s Germany. As usual, such uneasy details had long ago been wiped from the narrative of Lebanese history – and from our journalistic accounts of the grandson’s death this week.
Pierre Gemayel Jnr, however, had been an earnest MP as the witness to his death made clear. “You see that house over there with the awnings?” he asked me. “Well an old lady had died there and Sheikh Pierre was coming here to express his condolences to the family.” The dead woman’s home was scarcely 30 metres from where Gemayel’s car had come to rest. He must have been slowing down to turn into the side road. Everyone here knew he was coming to the house on Tuesday morning, so the neighbours said, which meant – although they did not say this, of course – that he had been betrayed. The murderers were waiting for the good MP to pay his condolences, knowing that the man’s own family would be receiving condolences themselves a day later. They didn’t even wear face masks and coldly shot a shopkeeper who saw them.
The Lebanese have been responding to the international outcry over Gemayel’s murder with somewhat less rhetoric than President George Bush, whose promise “to support the Siniora government and its democracy” was greeted with the scorn it deserved. This, after all, was the same George Bush who had watched in silence this summer as the Israelis abused Siniora’s democratic government and bombed Lebanon for 34 days, killing more than a thousand of its civilians. And the Lebanese knew what to make of Tony Blair’s remark – he who also delayed a ceasefire that would have saved countless lives here – when he said that “we need to do everything we can to protect democracy in Lebanon”. It was a long-retired Christian militiaman, a rival of the Gemayel clan, who put it succinctly. “They don’t care a damn about us,” he said.
That little matter of the narrative – and who writes it – remained a problem yesterday, as the Western powers pointed their fingers at Syria. Yes, all five leading Lebanese men murdered in the past 20 months were anti-Syrian. And it’s a bit like saying “the butler did it”. Wouldn’t a vengeful Syria strike at the independence of Lebanon by killing a minister? Yes. But then, what would be the best way of undermining the new and boastful power of the pro-Syrian Hizbollah, the Shia guerrilla army which has demanded the resignation of Siniora’s cabinet? By killing a government minister, knowing that many Lebanese would blame the murder on Syria’s Hizbollah allies?
Living in Lebanon, you learn these semantic tricks through a kind of looking glass. Nothing here ever happens by accident. But whatever does happen is never quite like what you first think it to be. So the Lebanese at Bikfaya understood yesterday as they gathered and talked of unity. For if only the Lebanese stopped putting their faith in foreigners – the Americans, the Israelis, the British, the Iranians, the French, the United Nations – and trusted each other instead, they would banish the nightmares of civil war sealed inside Pierre Gemayel’s coffin.