Hope amid tragedy

A huge crowd mourns Lebanon's assassinated former leader, while a few dare to wonder whether his death will somehow lead to long-awaited independence from Syria.

Published February 16, 2005 6:26PM (EST)

The crowds began forming in the early morning hours Wednesday outside the house of the deceased Rafik Hariri. Two days prior, Hariri, the billionaire former prime minister of Lebanon, had been assassinated on the Beirut waterfront in a massive explosion that knocked windows out of buildings over a mile away.

Lebanon was in its second day of mourning, and in the mostly Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Qoreitem, men and women made their way to his house to pay their final respects. So too did large crowds of young Lebanese men, waving flags, chanting, singing and marching. Some people even brought their children, and I watched as two young boys jousted with their matching Lebanese flags. The boys could hardly have understood the significance of the moment, but nonetheless, their fathers must have felt their sons needed to be there just to be able to say, years down the road, that they had bid the great man farewell.

The red and white Lebanese flag, of course, was everywhere, but so too were makeshift black flags, waved side by side with the national flag. I know the bearers intended their banners to be symbols of mourning, but I couldn't help thinking they could have just as well been the black flag of anarchy -- since that's what many fear Lebanon is on the verge of slipping into.

When the bomb went off on Monday, I was walking with my girlfriend, Tara, a little less than a mile away. Nonetheless, we could both feel the explosion reverberate in our ribcages, which was the first sign that what we had just heard was not just a demolition charge from a nearby construction site. Still, we had no idea just how big the bomb was until we arrived on the scene 10 minutes later.

I had felt explosions reverberate in my body before, and it's an eerie feeling, like someone has just shocked you with a heart resuscitator or punched you full force in the solar plexus. Once, as an Army Ranger on a mission in Iraq, I had ordered the use of fragmentary grenades to clear a room in the midst of a firefight. The resulting concussion bounced off the walls and shook those of us in the adjacent rooms; I could imagine what it had done to the people inside before we even entered.

By contrast, the bomb in Beirut had done the same thing from almost a mile away, and unlike the grenade, it wasn't even in a confined space where it could reverberate off anything. So I shouldn't have been shocked when I arrived and saw how big the crater caused by the bomb was, but I was.

Later that afternoon, I discussed the blast with a friend, a former United Nations official who lived in Lebanon during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 (a war that Hariri helped mediate from abroad before he returned to his native Lebanon and became prime minister). We both estimated the explosive charge to have been massive, over 300 kilograms in weight. The crater it left in the middle of the Corniche was at least three meters deep and 20 wide, astonishing given all the asphalt and rock it had to blast through.

The first culprit on everyone's minds was Syria. Hariri had resigned as prime minister in protest of Syria's meddling in Lebanese affairs, and those opposed to the current pro-Syrian prime minister, Omar Karami, had been courting him of late. (Syrian troops' presence in Lebanon was legitimized by the Arab League after Lebanon's civil war, but U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the troops' withdrawal, has emboldened Lebanese opposed to their presence.) Later in the day the groups opposed to Karami would issue a statement placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of Damascus.

For the rest of the day on Monday, Beirut remained in a state of shellshock. Without even being told, shops and restaurants shuttered their businesses midafternoon. People went home to their families, city residents back to their villages in the mountains and the south. Many of those who remained dressed up in their best dark suits and made the drive to Qoreitem to pay their respects to the Hariri family.

Tuesday was much the same. All stores and restaurants remained closed for the duration of the mourning period. Tara, a photographer, sent her pictures back to New York, and then we both headed out of town, up north to the coastal town of Byblos in search of a good restaurant still open.

When we arrived back in town that night, Beirut remained a ghost town -- the streets still empty, the stores all still shuttered. The only signs of life were the glossy pictures of Hariri that had suddenly sprouted up everywhere -- on apartment buildings, on billboards, on windows and on cars.

An American friend called me once we arrived back in town. A group of resourceful expatriates had gathered up enough groceries and liquor for an "end of the world" dinner before the next day's funeral, where anything seemed likely to happen. I contributed a fifth of bourbon, and we all crowded around the dinner table, exchanging our best guesses late into the night as to what might happen next. We laughed at one another's gallows humor and the sad state of affairs in tiny, hapless Lebanon. Halfway through, however, one of our Lebanese friends excused herself, and I quickly realized how callous we had been. For us, as Westerners, everything that happened in Lebanon took place in the third person. For us, a trip out of the country was just a passport away. For her, however, this was the only country she had -- and she was smart enough to know in what awful direction it appeared to be heading.

Wednesday morning, as the crowds began to gather around Hariri's mansion in Qoreitem for the funeral procession into downtown, I ran into my same group of friends standing by a busy intersection not two blocks from my apartment. The Lebanese friend I was worried we had offended had copies of all the day's newspapers in her hand, and I asked to see them. On the front page of one, I saw a remarkable photograph that filled me with both a sense of hope for the country and at the same time fear.

Hariri's two sons, Sunni Muslims, stood together in the photograph side by side with the Druze chieftain, Walid Jumblatt, and the Maronite Christian patriarch, Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. They were all receiving mourners, together, inside the Hariri residence.

To someone with little background knowledge of Lebanon and the Middle East, such a photograph would seem unremarkable. But for anyone with even a passing understanding of the sectarian conflict that engulfed Lebanon from 1975 until 1990, the image of the four men standing united under the headline "Hariris Snub Government Overtures" was nothing short of amazing. For now, the leaders of once bitter rivals have put aside their differences in united contempt toward the current regime, widely dismissed as puppets of the Syrian government.

And as one of the keenest longtime observers of the Middle East, David Hirst, noted in the Guardian, Syria "is on the defensive. So are its Lebanese allies, inside and outside the regime."

For that reason a friend of mine felt the attack on Hariri was a "message" -- meant to remind those calling for Lebanese independence to remember who really remains in charge of the country.

The day of the funeral, however, belonged to Hariri and the opposition. Tara and I followed the procession for a while through the crowded, crazy Beirut streets until we had had enough and took a shortcut to the unfinished mosque that was being built by Hariri downtown, where the funeral was to be held. Already, tens of thousands of people had gathered, and we worked our way down to the VIP seating section just in time to snap pictures of the American ambassador arriving.

I chatted with one of the men on his security detail for a while and asked him if he had ever seen such a mess as far as security was concerned. The crowd had by now grown to hundreds of thousands, and I kept one arm around Tara to keep her from getting swept away in the flood of shouting, chanting men and women. The Boy Scouts of Lebanon, of all people, kept a semblance of order, linking their arms to hold back the crowd. I tried to imagine the Boy Scouts doing the same thing in America, out there in their uniforms with their merit badges, and the ambassador's security man and I chuckled as -- against all odds -- the scouts managed to keep people from killing one another outside the mosque.

Tara and I traded her camera back and forth, me holding it high above my head in an effort to get some pictures of the wild crowd as they pushed against one another for space.

The two of us then spent 15 minutes fighting our way through the crowd to get another angle, and we saw several people being led away on stretchers by the Red Cross, most of them casualties of the heat. Once again, the Boy Scouts, together with the Red Cross and a phalanx of Druze clerics, managed to keep some sort of order outside the mosque. We narrowly avoiding being trampled as bearers started unloading the coffins carrying Hariri's security detail killed in the blast.

We then crept around the corner, where we saw a group of boys climbing over the walls of the unfinished mosque. We followed them in and then followed a smaller group of people to the roof of the mosque, where we looked down on the crowd as the service came to a close.

Forty feet below, in the street, one of the valiant scouts was bleeding from the head as the result of some unseen blow. He would be OK, though, and as his mates helped him to the Red Cross station, I watched his fellow scouts attempt to put his bloody blue beret back on his head as he limped away. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The whole scene was just so awful and beautiful and confusing and hopeful.

And that, I realized, is the city of Beirut and the country of Lebanon in a nutshell. Now perhaps more than ever. In a time of mourning and fear, there is also a sense that this horrible tragedy really might change things for the better, that somehow this will force the last cards left in Syria's hand, that although the death of a man as financially powerful as Rafik Hariri might mean the start of a long night for Lebanon's economy, it might also signal the start of something else, perhaps even the long-awaited independence of the Lebanese people.

The majority of the predictions, of course, have been far more negative. Most prognosticators never even bothered to imagine a Lebanon without Hariri because it was just too awful to comprehend. Most people fear Lebanon is about to slip back into the abyss of open warfare. But in a country that has already survived 15 year of brutal civil war, the greatest natural resource left in Lebanon is hope. And maybe, just maybe, that will be enough this time.

By Andrew Exum

Andrew Exum, a former Army captain, is the author of "This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism."

MORE FROM Andrew Exum

Related Topics ------------------------------------------