I saw the blast wave coming down the Corniche. My home is only a few hundred metres from the detonation and my first instinct was to look up, to search for the high-altitude Israeli planes that regularly break the sound barrier over Beirut. There were customers coming bloodied from their broken-windowed restaurants and the great cancerous stain of smoke rising from the road outside the St George Hotel.
Beirut is my home-from-home, home from the dangers of Baghdad, and now here was Baghdad in Lebanon, a St Valentine’s Day massacre in the streets of one of the Middle East’s safest cities. I ran down the Corniche, everyone else fleeing in the opposite direction, and walked into a mass of rubble and flaming cars. There was a man, a big, plump man lying on the pavement opposite the still-derelict, war-damaged hotel, a sack, it seemed, except for the skull, the top missing. And there was a woman’s hand in the road, still in a glove. There were bodies burning in a car, flaming away, a terrible hand hanging outside a motorist’s window.
There were still no policemen, no ambulances, no fire brigade. The petrol tanks of the cars were starting to explode, spraying fire across the street. No one could take in the extent of the damage because of the heat and the smoke. Then I recognised one of Rafik Hariri’s bodyguards, standing in terror. “The big man has gone,” he said. The Big Man? Hariri? At first I thought that Lebanon’s former prime minister, “Mr Lebanon”, the man who more than anyone else rebuilt this city from the ashes of civil war, must have left, “gone” away, escaped.
But how could he have escaped this funeral pyre? A group of cops ran into the devastation, and a man, another bodyguard, ran shrieking towards a set of burning Mercedes limousines crying “Ya-allah”, calling upon God to be his witness. Hariri travelled only in a convoy of heavily armoured Mercedes. No wonder the explosion was so massive. It would have to be to rip open the armoured doors. I followed a plain-clothes detective past a still-burning car – there was another body inside, cowled in flames – to the edge of a pit. It was at least 15ft deep. This was the crater. I slowly clambered down the edge. All that was left of the car bomb were a few pieces of metal an inch long. The blast had sent another car, perhaps one of Hariri’s, soaring through the air into the third floor of the empty hotel’s annexe, where it was still burning fiercely.
Hariri, I kept repeating. I had sat with him many times, for interviews, at press conferences, at lunches and dinners. He once spoke most movingly about the son he lost in a driving accident in America. He had said he believed in the afterlife. He had many enemies. Political enemies in Lebanon, Syrians who suspected – correctly – that he wanted them out of Lebanon, real estate enemies – for he had personally purchased large areas of Beirut – and media enemies because he owned a newspaper and a television station.
But he could be a good and kind man, even if he was a ruthless businessman; I once compared him to the cat which eats the canary then cheerfully admits that it tasted good. He sent the quotation off to his friends. His hand was one of the mightiest I had ever shaken.
I could not see his body. But amid the smoke and fire, I looked beyond to the new Beirut centre ville, the reconstructed centre of this fine city which Hariri’s company – he owned 10 per cent of the shares in Solidere – was building from its Dresden-like ruins. He died within metres of his own creation.
This was a bomb that took a long time to construct, a long time to plan. Parked outside the wall of an empty hotel, few would have looked at the car or noticed it was weighed down on its axles by the weight of explosives, as it must have been.
The perpetrators were ruthless men, heedless of the innocent. They wanted to kill Rafik Hariri. Nothing else mattered. In the surrounding streets, men and women were emerging with blood all over their clothes. Thousands of windows had smashed into them and they stood there, dribbling blood on to their shoes and trousers and skirts as the first ambulancemen screamed at the firemen to clear their hoses from the pavements.
The length of the street was slippery with water and blood. I counted 22 cars exploding and burning. The Saudi billionaire who dined with kings and princes – whose personal friendship with Jacques Chirac helped Lebanon ride its $41bn (£21.7bn) public debt – had ended his life in this inferno.
In private, he did not hide his animosity towards the Hizbollah, whose attacks on Israeli occupation troops before their 2000 retreat would set back his plans for Lebanon’srecovery. And while he tolerated the Syrians, he had his own plans for their departure. Was it true, as they said in Beirut, that Hariri was the secret leader of the political opposition to the Syrian presence? Or were his enemies even more sinister people?
Lebanon is built on institutions that enshrine sectarianism as a creed, in which the president must always be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim – like Hariri – and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Anyone setting out to murder Hariri would know how this could re-open all the fissures of the civil war from 1975 to 1990.
Thousands of weeping followers of Hariri gathered outside his palace at Koreitem last night, demanding to know who had killed their leader. Hariri men toured the streets, ordering shopkeepers to pull down their shutters. Were the ghosts of the civil war to be reawoken from their 15 years of slumber? I do not know the answer. But that black cloud that drifted for more than an hour over Beirut yesterday afternoon darkened the people beneath with more than its shadow.
LEBANON THIRTY YEARS’ WAR AND PEACE
Post 1948 Major influx of Palestinian refugees builds tensions between Christian Maronites and Muslim Shias. Yasser Arafat establishes PLO stronghold in Lebanon.
1975 13 April Civil warstarts.
1978 14/15 March Israel invades and occupies south Lebanonbut UN forces it out.
1982 6 June Israel launches second invasion after assassination attempt on Shlomo Argov, its ambassador to the UK.
1982 14 September Israel occupies west Beirut following assassination of the president-elect, Bashir Gemayel. Hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps are murdered.
1983 17 May Israel and Lebanon agree on Israeli withdrawal, with a security buffer in south Lebanon.
1983 23 October Bombs kill 241 US Marines and 56 French paratroopers, right. Militant Shia groups claim responsibility.
1987 1 June Prime Minister Rashid Karami killed. Salim Hoss becomes PM.
1988 22 September Lebanon has two governments. East Beirut goes to the Christians under General Michel Aoun.
1989 14 March Aoun declares waronSyrian forces.
1989 22 October Taif agreement signed.
1989 22 November Prospective president Rene Moawad assasinated.
1990 13 October Civil war ends as Aoun flees.
1992 31 October Rafik Hariri becomes PM.
1998 24 November The army chief, Emile Lahoud, becomes President.
2000 24 May Israel moves troops out of south Lebanon.
2000 October Hariri becomes Prime Minister for the second time.
2004 September UN Security Council resolution 1559 demands that foreign soldiers leave Lebanon.
2004 September Hariri stands down as PM having opposed the extension of Lahoud’s term.
2005 14 February Hariri killed in a car bomb attack.