FOR SIX SAVAGE DAYS, BEIRUT WAS BATTERED BY THE WORST BOMBING IN 14 YEARS OF WAR
THE AGONY OF BEIRUT
FOR SIX SAVAGE DAYS, BEIRUT WAS BATTERED BY THE WORST BOMBING IN 14 YEARS OF WAR
Pope John Paul II called it “genocide” and laid the blame squarely on the Syrians. UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar took the unusual step of convening the Security Council on his own initiative and secured a unanimous call for an immediate ceasefire. In response, the unprecedentedly heavy bombardment that had savaged both sides of divided Beirut for six straight days eased considerably. At its height, thousands of terrified civilians had been forced to cower in underground shelters, while above them fires raged out of control, hospitals ran out of critical medical supplies and—with burial impossible—the bodies of the dead were dumped outside the mortuaries. But, even though the heaviest pounding in 14 years of intermittent civil war abated at midweek, there was little indication that the Lebanese capital’s long agony was about to end. In fact, it seemed that the slaughter could start up again at any moment should Syria and its Lebanese Moslem allies renew their attempts to subdue the country’s besieged Christian minority.
As the carnage of the previous six days gave way to relative calm, the superpowers remained uninvolved. But France— which has historic links with Lebanon—ordered the 6,100-ton destroyer Duquesne to the eastern Mediterranean, followed by the 32,800ton aircraft carrier Foch. A French foreign ministry statement said the warships would “provide any assistance that may be necessary” to protect the estimated 7,000 people who hold dual French-Lebanese citizenship. But it was not clear how the show of force would help advance France’s intensive diplomatic campaign—including the dispatch of a junior minister to Beirut last week—to stop the fighting, which has claimed at least 740 lives in the past five months.
Beirut and its environs had been suffering under intensive artillery exchanges since March, in the latest phase of a civil war that—with Syria playing a self-proclaimed peacekeeping role—has raged intermittently
since 1975. Over 14 years, the horrors of that conflict have become a matter of grisly routine. But with world attention in early August centred on Lebanon because of the terrorist murder of U.S. hostage Lt.-Col. William Higgins, Christian warlord Gen. Michel Aoun stepped up his campaign to drive the 40,000 Syrian troops out of the country. The Syrians and their allies fought back fiercely, and within days so many shells were crisscrossing the
skies over Beirut that observers reported seeing some of them colliding in midair.
By the end of last week, Maclean ’s Correspondent Lara Marlowe reported from Moslem West Beirut that an estimated 90 per cent of the city’s 1.5 million people had fled. During the lull following the UN ceasefire call, thousands of citizens emerged from underground shelters to load battered cars with bedding, clothes and even refrigerators and flee—Moslems to the south and Christians to their northern enclave. With their departure, the rubblestrewn streets were left deserted and silent, except for the sound of the occasional shell fired between the Christian and Moslem sectors.
Broken glass lay ankledeep on the sidewalks, and it was impossible to find a city block without shell holes or charred buildings. Among the very few civilians remaining were Lebanese journalists employed by Western news agencies. At the height of the barrage, Associated Press correspondent Farouk Nassar, 57, had what he calls “my closest call in 14 years of covering this civil war.” It happened when he went to his apartment on the sixth floor of the AP office building to snatch an hour or two of sleep. “I dropped off immediately,” he recalled, “and the next thing I knew my head hit the floor. For a moment I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I hadn't even heard the explosion.” Nassar had been thrown out of bed by a missile that hit an unoccupied apartment one floor above. It blew out all his windows and doors but left him uninjured.
Another journalist who had a close call was Najib Khazzaka of Agence France-Presse. He took refuge in a hotel bar during a particularly heavy barrage and sipped a whisky to steady his nerves. A shell hit the building, and “suddenly bottles of whisky, gin and brandy began whizzing past me.” Then, said Khazzaka, “I looked down at my hand and saw that my glass of whisky had been blown out of it.”
Few Beirut war stories have that element of grim humor. Aziza Qobayassi, nine months pregnant, was critically wounded when a shell from the Christian side hit her West Beirut home on Aug. 14. She died shortly after arrival at the Makassed Hospital, and fifteen minutes later her child, a girl, was delivered by caesar• ean section. Her husband, Hussein, immediately named the child after his wife. “I have lost Aziza,” he said, “and now God has given me another Aziza.” But, after four days in an
incubator, baby Aziza died, and hospital authorities were unable to find Hussein: he had taken his wife’s body to southern Lebanon for burial because all the cemeteries in Beirut are overflowing.
Despite the intercommunal hatred engendered by the fighting, not all Beirut Moslems blame Aoun for the misery they are enduring. Said Fadi Sinno, 22: “Maybe he is the only real Lebanese in this country because he wants to get the Syrians out.” But Sinno conceded that most of his co-religionists wanted the Syrians to stay “because they are afraid that the Christian army will come and kill them.”
In their campaign to crush the once-dominant Christian community and confirm their tutelage over Lebanon, the Syrians are aided by a number of Moslem and left-wing factions. They include Amal, the mainstream Shiite group headed by Nabih Berri, which has about 6,500 men under arms; the 4,000-strong Druse militia of Walid Jumblat’s Progressive Socialist party; the Party of God, or Hizbollah, which has some 3,500 fighters, owes allegiance to revolutionary Iran and is believed to be holding most of the at least 15 Western hostages in Lebanon; and various radical Palestinian groups who oppose mainstream PLO leader Yasser Arafat as too moderate.
Leaders of all those groups, as well as the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers and Syrian military intelligence chiefs, gathered in Damascus last week for a council of war. They discussed strategies for the defeat of Aoun and committed themselves to a unified assault on his 20,000-strong army and its 6,000-strong Christian militia allies. Officially, the Syrians deny that they have been directly involved in the fighting, claiming that they are still carrying out the peacekeeping role under which they entered Lebanon in 1976 as part of a multinational Arab force.
With their Lebanese allies, the Syrians deploy an overwhelming superiority in numbers and firepower. But the Christians—now armed and supplied by Syria’s Arab enemy, Iraq—are proving tougher than expected. Last week, shortly before the war council, they won a decisive battle in the mountains overlooking Beirut. It took place at Souk el-Gharb, once a swank resort where oil-rich sheiks kept lavish summer residences to escape the heat of the Gulf. The Rolls-Royces and Cadillacs that used to jam its narrow streets have been replaced by the tanks and armored personnel carriers of Aoun’s 8th Brigade—the unit which on Aug. 13 rebuffed a major assault by Jumblat’s militia and the Syrian army.
It was a critical victory for Aoun. Perched on a ridge, Souk el-Gharb commands a panoramic view of Beirut, its airport and its suburbs. The little town is the strategic gateway to East Beirut and the 300-square-mile Christian enclave to the north. Aoun himself had said, “If Souk el-Gharb falls, it’s all over.”
Jumblat later tried to play down the setback. “It was just a raid,” he told Maclean’s. “We never meant to take Souk el-Gharb.” But sources close to his militia in West Beirut gave differing accounts. They said that the Syrians had been pressing Jumblat for months to attack the town and that he could not refuse any longer. “They promised him all the help he needed, and their 41st Brigade was supposed to support them to the finish,” said the source, who asked not to be identified. The 41st Brigade is commanded by Gen. Hashem Moallak, who led the brutal assault in 1982 on the rebellious Syrian city of Hama, massacring as many as 25,000 civilians.
Despite the psychological boost provided by the war council, Jumblat appeared pessimistic during the drive back to his ancestral village of Mukhtara in the Shouf mountains east of Beirut. If Aoun wins or Lebanon is formally partitioned, he said, the Christians would try to take the Druse-held mountain region to link up with the pro-Israeli Christians of southern Lebanon. Declared Jumblat: “We will never again accept Maronite [Christian] domination. I would prefer union with Syria, with all their Mukhabarat [security police] and lack of political freedom.”
Descending the mountain road toward Jumblat’s village, his Land-Rover sped past a grove of magnificent cedars, the country’s national symbol. The ancient trees are dying from a disease for which there is no known cure. So, it appeared, was Lebanon itself.
JOHN BIERMAN with LARA MARLOWE in Beirut and CHRIS DRAKE in Nicosia
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.