“It’s The War In Syria … Coming Here”
By Jeppe Nybroe, Edward HallettOctober 21, 2012
Two eyewitness accounts from Sassine Square, where a car bomb on Friday left a key opponent of Syrian President Assad, among others, dead, and many wounded. First, the account of a photographer who ran from a shaken coffeeshop to the carnage.
The first sound was like hailstones hitting the window. Then came the big explosion. And panic.
I was sitting in Starbucks cafe in Sassine Square, Beirut when, in a matter of seconds, a quiet October afternoon turned into a scene of horror. Black smoke rising over the buildings almost covered the sun and glass from windows flew in the air, followed by a scary moment of silence where everybody froze.
Then the coffee drinkers on the terrace left their sandwiches to take cover under tables inside. I was running towards the smoke. Having covered war zones for more than a decade, I had grabbed my camera and started clicking non-stop.
In the middle of Sassine Square junction a schoolbus seemed to be stuck, the children inside screaming. Apparently the driver was in shock. A private security man from a nearby shop ran to knock on the bus windows, shouting at the driver to leave the scene.
I continued running down the side street with hundreds of people running away from the explosion. People's eyes were wide open, women and children crying, men shouting, windows and debris filling the street, the cars, the trees and the laundry hanging from the balconies.
Then a man took my arm holding the camera and pointed down to make sure I was careful where I was stepping, and at the same time asking me to take a photo. In the middle of the small street a chunk of human, bloody flesh in the midst of broken glass.
Seconds later a young woman approached me, her face, breast, arms and fingers covered with blood. She wiped away the blood dripping from her eyes. Another man took her arm, to keep her from stumbling, to comfort her, to get her away and bring her to safety. A third man joined, calling desperately for an ambulance, but the mobile network was down, overloaded from Beirutis calling each other to make sure their loved ones were not hurt.
Plumes of thick, black smoke hovered over the area.
"It is like Nine-Eleven!" a woman cried out in disbelief, referring to the terrorist attacks on USA September 11, 2001. She was standing, frozen, on a nearby corner with her teenage daughter, both wearing stilettos and mini-skirts. Twenty meters from the chic ladies, a car burning and a crowd of screaming, frightened people.
In these few minutes after the blast, nobody at the scene knew what had happened. When the explosion shook the Starbucks café, pieces of paint from the walls fell onto tables and into coffee mugs; a solid iron door handle next to me was blown out the door. Whatever exploded approximately 100 meters from the coffeeshop had the power — and destruction — of a bomb.
In front of a residential building with a few shops at ground level, a car that apparently had carried or was struck by explosives was still on fire. I followed the fire-fighters to the car as they prepared their hoses. Then another small explosion came, maybe the gasoline from the car; everyone took cover.
More injured people came out from the clouds of smoke that swirled around the small street, a normally very peaceful, almost sleepy residential area of Lebanon's busy capital.
Now human flesh, ripped in small pieces, confronted residents either fleeing the scene or going back to look for missing people, all tip-toeing between death and destruction.
Panic was still everywhere, in the eyes and the cries. People coughing from the smoke, working their mobile phones again and again, though at this moment they could not get a line out; their families and friends could not know if they were among the killed or injured. When my own phone started working again, text-messages began flooding in, but still it was impossible to get a text or line out of the area.
I ran back to the coffee shop, hoping to get online and search for information on the explosion.
At Starbucks life was almost normal again. The lattes and the brownies back on the tables, everyone discussing "the bomb", some with despair, others just shrugging, guessing.
"It's the war in Syria," a man, sipping an espresso, says, "now it's coming here."
I get the news that at least eight are killed, more than 70 injured, [officials later revise the death toll down to three, with more than 80 wounded] and I share the disturbing facts with the people around me at the cafe. Their faces seemed prepared for bad news.
"But really, that many killed?"
"Then it's really serious."
"Then Beirut can turn really ugly again," said two old men, smoking cigars, glancing down the road at gathering police, reporters, soldiers, bystanders, tv-trucks and ambulances.
And then a text from a friend of mine. She had been supposed to drop by for afternoon coffee. But then the explosion changed Friday, the 19th of October in Beirut. The text said: "I'm on my way to give blood at (the) hospital. I'll come to sassine (square) after."
Edward Hallett: When a Bomb Went Off In My Square
It's actually quite an ugly square — Starbucks, KFC, and Costa Coffee are all in close proximity and streams of unregulated traffic beep their way across it night and day. Tonight though, Sassine Square is no longer the reminder that I don't live in the 'Old Beruiti' neighbourhood I had hoped to settle in when I first moved to Lebanon. It had become, after all, my square, where I go on a daily basis to check my PO Box, pay my phone bills and have meetings.
It is the square that either I, or my loved one, could so easily have been traversing this afternoon at 3pm. Indeed, exactly 24 hours earlier I'd been standing where the bomb went off.
The irony for me is that at the very moment it detonated today I was walking around Bab al-Tebbaneh, the ghetto in Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, that has been at the epicentre of the Lebanon's violence in recent months. Precisely the place you don't want to be if the country's proxy Syria war is ignited. Today though, Bab al-Tebbaneh was my sanctuary from the violence that hit the Christian residential neighbourhood of Sassine Sq., Achrafieh in Beirut.
When I returned home to the square, a few hours after the explosion, it felt like sleep-walking, an alternative reality. A sea of glass, bits of mangled cars flung across the pavement, and local cafes streaming images of what they had just lived through: bleeding children being carried out of smoke-filled streets, bits of flesh poking out from underneath a car, old women howling in pain.
These are the people I pass on the street everyday. School children no different from those who filed out of the London school I used to live near. Certainly as unsuspecting that their day would be punctuated by a deafening blast that gives way to blood, chaos, sirens and... cameras.
Cameras arrived in their droves at seemingly impossible speed. Industry and freelance, present and correct. Satellite dishes erected. Swarms of photographers jostling with those carrying the wounded to safety. All this before you could say BREAKING NEWS. Faster, better organised, than the military? Within minutes of the blast, two emails arrive asking for my girlfriend's location: 'Is she near?' 'Can she get any footage?'
Should she go? The excitement, a bit of cash, we have the right equipment...
We decide against it. We're filmmakers not journalists. And besides, it's our square.
Who? Why? "We will never know who is really behind this. Not today, not tomorrow, not for one hundred years," says Andre, cafe owner and all round local hero. Won't we? I think to myself. Isn't it already starting to feel quite transparent? A car bomb next to the administrative offices of the Anti-Assad March 14 coalition. Outspoken critic of Syrian regime Wissam Al-Hassan dead. Aren't we supposed to read: a weakened and weakening Syrian regime playing 'the Lebanon card'?
What do I know? Certainly less than Andre. However, I do know that if it is indeed a 'card' that has been played, then it's about as ugly a card as it is possible to imagine. These people having glass or metal dislodged from their bodies are just like you and me. I know this because it could so easily have been me. They are the people I've stood behind in queues at the national telephony centre just next to the blast, and the people who smile at me at me without fail on my morning paper run. They weren't just caught up in the cross-fire. They weren't only the collateral damage from an assassination targeting 'anti-Syrian regime' officials. They were the target. If you want to assassinate someone you put a bomb in his car, or your use sophisticated poisoning techniques or a sniper. You don't use enough explosives to blast out a whole block of buildings.
And what makes it all so unspeakably heinous is that the arbitrary injustice of it all would seem to be precisely the point. The more outrageous, the more unwarranted and brutal, then the more likely it is to provoke further acts of violence up and down the country. Lebanon is like a can of petrol, they say. Leave it alone and it's fine. But it only takes a match...
Let us hope the metaphor doesn't hold this time. But sure enough, even as I write, I hear that rival residents in the Tripoli neighbourhoods of Bab Tebbaneh (Sunnis) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawites) have started exchanging fire. No doubt in response, or dare I say it, in coordination with, the horrors perpetrated today in Sassine Sq. Lebanon.
On reflection, it would seem I've spent my day moving between two centres of murderous violence. All in blissful ignorance of what was to follow my departure from either place.
Lucky for some.