To Khiam, in the far south of Lebanon, to photograph Israeli bomb craters in which a British scientific team say they have found traces of enriched uranium. Spanish troops – along with Indian soldiers – now patrol this dangerous corner of Lebanon, and their UN vehicles hum past us as we drive under a white-bright winter sky.
All of this has a screen of irrelevance over it – journalists writing yesterday’s story for tomorrow’s paper – as the dangerous political war between supporters of the Lebanese government – Sunni Muslims and Christians – and the pro-Syrian forces opposed to it, especially the Shias, employ increasingly incendiary language. The Shia Hizbollah’s leadership demand an end to the democratically-elected Fouad Siniora cabinet, set up after the murder of the ex-prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, last year. The Christians are calling Hizbollah fascists. Tomorrow the cabinet is supposed to sign up to the new UN tribunal to try suspects for Hariri’s murder, even though all six Shia ministers (largely pro-Syrian, of course) have resigned.
Sure enough, Syria’s faithful Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, claims the cabinet is constitutionally unable to approve the UN’s tribunal, which just might point a finger at Emile Lahoud himself.
My driver, Abed, mourns for the French mandate of Lebanon under which he was born. The French, according to Abed, provided a respite between the brutality of the Ottoman Empire – Abed’s father was taken from his young bride only days after his marriage to fight for the Turks against General Allenby in Palestine – and the corruption of post-independence Lebanon.
I am not sure I agree with Abed. The French cruelly suppressed riots in Sidon with troops from Senegal and resisted independence. But in these fearful, sectarian days, it’s easy to see how the grand boulevards built by the French, the Parisian cafés and boutiques – all exquisitely restored by Hariri after the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war (150,000 dead, no less) – has become a useful myth, an oasis of colonial peace between Oriental massacres.
I visit the BBC office in the city centre to record an interview and talk to their Beirut correspondent, Kim Ghattas. We talk about the demand of the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for Shia street demonstrations, and I tell her I fear there will be another political assassination soon. I name two Christian leaders who might be murdered and whose killings could unleash the ghost of the civil war.
Pierre Gemayel shot and wounded. Minister for Industry. Maronite Christian. I remember my conversation with Ghattas – the two prominent Christians I had identified to her did not include the young Falangist MP. But I should have written about my general suspicions in this morning’s Independent. I have 38 minutes to write more than 1,250 words. Pierre Gemayel, son of ex-president Amin Gemayel, nephew of murdered ex-president-elect Bashir Gemayel, uncle of Bashir’s murdered two-year-old daughter Maya. Unmarried. Driving almost alone. Three gunmen. The hospital pronouncing him dead. The sixth prominent political figure to be slaughtered in 20 months. How many more before we hear gunfire?
Beirut’s newspapers are filled with pictures with Gemayel’s weeping mother Joyce (“those bullets ripped his face to bits”) and his wife Patricia (he was married – I got four phone calls today to point out my error). Drive to the scene of crime. There is Gemayel’s Kia in the road, still filled with blood, still backed into the van into which it rolled after Gemayel was shot.
An Australian journalist, Sophie McNeill of SBS Television, is counting the number of bullet holes in the driver’s cab (around 12), like a police constable – and probably making a better job of it than the real Lebanese cops, who wander among us, giving totally different accounts of the murder. Five killers in all, it seems. Didn’t even wear masks.
McNeill suggests we call a telephone number on the side of the damaged van – the driver must have seen the gunman when Gemayel’s car crashed into him. “Our office is closed today,” says the recorded voice. “We will be open tomorrow.” Like Lebanon.
To Bikfaya, where the dead man’s body lies in a closed coffin (yes, his face was indeed shot away). Thousands of Christians – and Sunni Muslims and Druze – in black. No shouting. No calls for revenge. Yet.
Half a million? 250,000? Crowd figures are as reckless here as in London or Washington. There are few Shia. I can think of only six who are attending this massive service for the dead at St George’s Cathedral, which stands next to the great Hariri mosque – and one of these is the Speaker of Parliament.
I had asked Rudi Polikavic to come with me, an old Christian militiaman opposed to the Falange in the civil war, with the scars of three bullets on his neck and arms. I receive a call from a friend, Amira Solh, who is with another Al Arabiya crew, asking where I am in the crowd. “I am on the mosque side of the church,” I shout, and Polikavic collapses with laughter. ” Fisky,” he roars, “that really is the story of Lebanon. Aren’t we are all now ‘on the mosque side of the church’?” Later, Rudi will listen with growing horror to ex-Christian militia leader (and convicted murderer) Samir Geagea, as the crowd applaud what sounds suspiciously like a call for retaliation.
Amin Gemayel, Pierre’s grieving father, who so honourably urged restraint rather than revenge in the immediate aftermath of his son’s murder, has told a TV interviewer that assassination may now “move to the other side…”. Does that, perchance, mean the Shia “side”? This is war-war, not jaw-jaw.
Shopkeepers have refused to close for a Chamber of Trade strike, called to protest at the congealed politics of the country’s leaders. Hizbollah has postponed its street demonstrations until next week. But Shias blocked the airport road to express their anger at funeral speeches insulting Nasrallah.
I fly out of Beirut for a brief trip abroad. Lebanese army vehicles stand in the darkness beside the airport road, their occupants’ cigarettes glowing in the night. Most of the army are Shia. What are they thinking as they drag on their cigarettes?
My flight soars over the dawn Mediterranean and there below me are two German warships, tiny grey arrows sliding through the ocean on UN duty to hinder maritime arms traffic to Hizbollah. But I think Nasrallah has quite enough weapons for another war. With good reason, I check my return ticket coupon to Beirut