Butchery was the word that came to mind. Twenty-three Lebanese soldiers and police, 17 Sunni Muslim gunmen. How long can Lebanon endure this? Just before he died, one of the armed men – Palestinians? Lebanese? – we still don’t know – shot a soldier right beside me. He fell down on his back, crying with pain, and I thought he had slipped on the road until I saw the blood pumping out of his leg and the Red Cross team dragging him desperately out of the line of fire. Not since the war – yes, the Lebanese civil war that we are all still trying to forget – have I heard this many bullets cracking across the streets of a Lebanese city.
And the dead. Five of the 17 gunmen were killed after paramilitary police stormed an apartment block in 200 Street in the centre of Tripoli. One lay on his back like a child, water from a broken hydrant streaming over his corpse. Another lay crumpled in a doorway amid glass and the Kalashnikov rifle he was still firing when he died. “How young they all were,” a woman remarked with a kind of weariness, and I noticed the dead were also bearded, the little stubble beards al-Qaida’s men like to wear.
The bloody events in Lebanon yesterday passed so swiftly – and so dangerously for those of us on the streets – that I am still unsure what happened. Clearly, an al-Qaida-type group tried to ambush the Lebanese army – and succeeded all too appallingly; 23 dead soldiers and police is a fearful figure for a tiny country such as Lebanon. But was it really a Syrian plot, as Fouad Siniora’s government suggested? Was this the long hand of Syria stretching out once more across Lebanon’s green and pleasant land?
So here are a few facts. A group of armed men tried to rob a Tripoli bank on Saturday and got cornered in an apartment block. Others holed up in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp north of the city. When I arrived yesterday, army tank fire was bursting in the camp and black-hooded policemen were preparing to storm, Iraqi-style, into the city-centre building. But the robbers were said to have stolen only $1,500. Was that worth this massacre? And is “Fatah al-Islaam” – which has existed in the shadows of the camp for months – really a 300-strong armed group?
Certainly the dead gunmen were real. I found two more heaped together in Tripoli, covered in spent ammunition clips, the apartment building on fire – so hot I could not get up the stairs – but families still struggling down. One woman carried a baby. “Only four days old, he is only four,” she wailed at me. One family I found huddling in their bathroom, 12 terrified Lebanese who had spent 24 hours in this tiny room as bullets swept the walls of their home. So what in God’s name happened in Lebanon yesterday?
Well, Mr Siniora claimed it was an attempt to destabilise Lebanon – a good guess, to put it mildly – and Saad Hariri, son of the former prime minister murdered here more than two years ago, called the armed men “evil-doers who had hijacked Islam”. This is the same Saad Hariri whom at least one American reporter – I refer to Seymour Hersh – suggested was indirectly helping to funnel Saudi money to these same gunmen in a recent article in The New Yorker. The Shia Muslim Hizbollah are supposed to be the bad guys in this scenario, not a Sunni group.
But Tripoli is the most powerful Sunni city in Lebanon – so powerful that not a drop of alcohol wets its restaurant tables – and the men and women running in terror across Tripoli’s streets yesterday were also Sunnis. So are the Syrians really concocting an “al-Qaida” in Lebanon? And who are its enemies? The Nato army of the UN force in southern Lebanon, perhaps? But surely not the Lebanese army, the very same army which bravely prevented civil war last January? Yet in 2000, an al-Qaida-type group also ambushed the Lebanese army in northern Lebanon. Was this, too, supposed to be a Syrian invention?
Showers of bullets were still tracing their way over Tripoli last night and the army was said to be preparing to move into the camps. Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s clapped-out organisation, announced it was on the side of the army, a wise decision after yesterday’s bloodbath. “A dangerous attempt to undermine Lebanon’s security,” was the response of a government whose Shia cabinet ministers abandoned it last year in the hope of bringing the whole Siniora administration down. But where do we go from here?
And who were the dead men I saw yesterday, perforated by bullets, partly torn open by grenades? Silent testimony is all we receive from the dead. One of them had big eyes above his fluffy beard, eyes which stared at us and at the police who jeered at his corpse. I wonder if they will not come to haunt us soon. And if we will discover what lies behind this terrible day in Lebanon.