Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Lebanon is counting the cost in human lives of the Syrian conflict

A Lebanese policeman stands at a damaged balcony where a rocket struck an apartment in a building, at Chiyah district south of Beirut (AP)
A Lebanese policeman stands at a damaged balcony where a rocket struck an apartment in a building, at Chiyah district south of Beirut (AP)
Soldiers patrol the Lebanese border with Syria (AP)

Loulou Awad’s blood still stained the concrete of her broken home, the latest Lebanese innocent to pay the price of Syria’s war.

Her almost equally broken father Abdullah pressed the hands of his grieving family and their friends, thanking them for sharing his grief at the loss of his daughter. He was 60 and now looked 100. She was only 20, a Shia Muslim in a Shia town, a student with little reason to expect death on the rooftop of the villa high in the hills above Hermel. But far away to the north-east, a rime of brown, flat smoke hung over a distant Syrian city called Qusayr. That is where death probably came from.

“We were eating dinner downstairs at about 8.15 when a missile hit some land close to us,” Abdullah said, speaking with great care so that we should understand the nature of his tragedy. “Well, we all ran up to the roof to see the explosion and the smoke. We were all there, and that’s when the second missile came in and hit the roof and it killed Loulou.” The black-dressed neighbours clucked their tongues at this terrible little story. A cousin muttered that he thought Lebanon was closer to civil war. I said I doubted it. “You are wrong,” he replied. “This missile came from Arsal over there. They have a different religion there.”

 

Probably not. No one I met in Arsal heard any rocket fired from their town. But there are corpses aplenty in the Bekaa valley these days: dozens of them – at least 110 dead in the past 10 days alone, according to the most reliable Hezbollah supporter in Baalbek – for these are the “martyrs” of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s new campaign to help the Syrian regime re-take Qusayr from the rebels.

 

Village after Shia village I passed through north of Baalbek had hung brand new yellow-framed photographs of the men who set off for Qusayr less than two weeks ago to win another war against Israel – or so Mr Nasrallah would have us all believe.

 

Black-bearded Abbas Ali Muqdad  had been brought home to Maqne. Mohamed Fouad Rabah, a cloth wound round his head, smiling broadly in that deadly picture came back to Jdeideh; al-Haj Mohamed Abbas Younis returned dead to Talia. Ali Haj Majed Dendash was buried in Hermel itself. And speeding past my car in the Bekaa, sirens howling, went the four-car funeral convoy – smoked glass windows, yellow Hezbollah banners floating from the roofs – of Hanni Mohamed Nasser. I glimpsed his “last” portrait on the back window of the fourth car. Grim-faced I thought.

 

Come to think of it, that made 111 Hezbollah dead in 10 days, a fearful casualty toll for the Lebanese Shia militia which drove the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000 and fought them to a standstill in 2006. And all at the hands, it seems, of the men they call “terrorists” – the anti-Assad rebels who are still clinging to parts of Qusayr and probably also killed Loulou Awad. Hundreds of Hezbollah wounded have poured back across the border, nine of them taken to Baalbek hospital on Monday night alone.

 

Two thousand men left Lebanon for the great battle in Syria, I was told in Baalbek. So if these figures are true, that’s more than 5 per cent Hezbollah fatalities in less than a week and a half.

 

But come back now to Arsal, just 20 miles from Hermel, the place where the people have a “different religion”. They don’t, of course. They are Sunni – not Shia – Muslims who live in this rough hill village of car workshops, cheap vegetable markets and young men who have a habit of wearing military trousers. The Lebanese here support the Sunni rebels – the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra (Front for Victory) and the Free Syrian Army – and they pray for the downfall of Bashar al-Assad. Nor are they happy with the Lebanese army which tries to prevent them sending weapons across the border to their rebel Sunni Muslim allies. And this led to another tragedy: the death of three Lebanese soldiers, as innocent in their way as Loulou Awad.

 

“Local” people, as we call them – the lynchpin of rumour, falsehood and wisdom in equal measure – all agreed that “local” Sunni Muslim gunmen, supposedly belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, pulled up in a car at a Lebanese army checkpoint on the road north of the town just after three in the morning. There appears to have been a firefight in which the three soldiers were killed. But of course, no soldier would talk to us there. Several were draped in bandoliers of machine-gun bullets and all looked very, very angry.

 

For this is not the first time soldiers have been killed around this scruffy, some might say Salafist town. Nor have soldiers been the only casualties. Six weeks ago a young man called Khaled Humaide is said to have been shot here by the army and – so they say in Arsal – the gunmen in the car were his relatives. A revenge killing then? Perhaps. But male residents of this town have been infuriated by the Lebanese government. Why, they have been asking, was the government ready to prevent them helping opponents of Assad – who probably killed Loulou Awad – while allowing Assad’s allies to cross the border to help him?

 

Which is why they hate Hezbollah, which besieges Hermel, just over the hills to the north-west. As I chatted to the grieving relatives outside Loulou Awad’s home, another missile exploded in the centre of town – and by the time I reached the smoke and fire, there must have been 100 Hezbollah fighters in the streets, black-uniformed, some of them, camouflage-uniformed others, two-way radios and FN rifles in their arms. I must have been arrested by Hezbollah seven times in half an hour as I prowled the streets looking for the building hit by the explosion. These men were sweating and shouting and they were also very, very angry. Nor was a single Lebanese soldier to be seen.

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