Posted on January 26, 2012
The morning call to prayers echoes around the city, rousing its occupants from their sleep and jolting them back into the nightmare that has engulfed them. The first rays of the sun radiate outwards over the sea, illuminating the devastation and destruction below. The Corniche, hugging the seafront with its famous hotels, the Saint Georges, the Phoenicia and the Vendome all shattered, pock marked and charred black; the shops and chic boutiques on Beirut’s Fifth Avenue, Hamra, shuttered, padlocked and empty, their terrified owners sheltering in the cellars below; the up-market apartment blocs around Raouche, their windows boarded up, their walls peppered with bullet holes; and behind them on the airport road, the squalid refugee camps of Chatila and Borj Al-Barajneh barricaded and guarded by Palestinian fighters, loading their weapons for another day of killing. This is Beirut, one year into the civil war, reduced to a cauldron of hatred, savagery and barbarism. No more the Paris of the Middle East, the playground of the rich and famous; no more the bustling financial centre and booming economy. This is hell on earth.
In Ashrafieh in the Christian Quarter, a woman tiptoes around her apartment. There is no electricity and she guides herself with a small candle, which flickers in the darkness. She unlocks the sideboard and takes out the small, ornate box. She opens it, stares at the jewellery and selects a bracelet, placing it in her handbag. She covers her shoulders in a blue shawl and picks up her basket. She pushes open the bedroom door and peers in, checking that her teenage daughter is still fast asleep. She stares at the young girl, her head pressed against the pillow, her arms folded in front of her, clutching a small doll. A tear runs down her cheek. She wants to enter, to hug her, to reassure her that everything will be fine. But she knows that this will terrify her and she will never let her go. But she has no option if they are going to survive. The battle has been raging for weeks now and they have practically nothing left to eat or drink. The water supply was cut the previous week and all that remain are a few solitary standpipes that are exposed and the target for snipers.
“Goodbye, Fadia. Goodbye my little one, I will be back soon. Mamma will come back and protect you. Then we can eat again and smile again.” She waves, blows a kiss and closes the door gently.
She goes outside, checks that the hallway is safe and locks the door behind her. She moves down the stairs, listening for any sound that will signal danger, any noise that will force her back into their isolation. She reaches the front exit ten floors below and stares through the shattered windowpane. There is rubble on the streets, burnt out cars and bags of rubbish scattered everywhere. A few wild dogs, thin and emaciated scavenge amongst them. A streetlight tries to flicker into life.
She can see the small shop down the street about a hundred yards away and can just make out a light seeping under its entrance. If she can just keep to the doorways she will be safe. She moves the door slightly waiting for the shot, but nothing happens. She steps out, glances around and moves to the next doorway. She catches her breath and adopts the same manoeuvre. In and out. In and out, each one taking her closer and closer to the shop. Each one exposing her. Then she can see it on the opposite side of the road. All she has to do is cross the street. Ten yards, no more. Then she will be safe.
She takes a deep breath, clutches her basket and steps out. She runs, zigzagging across the road, then stops outside the shop, banging on the metal shutter.
“Let me in, please let me in. Please, I beg you.”
There is silence, then a small slot opens in the middle of the shutter and two eyes appear. She kneels down, pulls the bracelet out of her basket and dangles it in front of the opening.
“It’s me, Mrs. Manouk from down the street. Please open. We are desperate. Please. I beg you.”
She hears the hand on the bolt and the door opens. She steps inside and weeps. The old man places his arms around her, calms her and sits her down. He turns, pours out a small cup of tea and hands it to her.
“Welcome, Mrs. Manouk. I remember your husband. He was a good man. You are most welcome. I thought that everybody had gone. I have little left, but what is mine is yours. Come, sit and eat with me.”
She puts down the tea, takes out the bracelet and tries to force it into his hand. He backs away and just shakes his head. A tear runs down her face and she just nods and puts it back into her basket.
Across the Green Line, in the Muslim West of the city, the fighters slurp down their breakfasts, defecate behind the walls and take up their positions behind the barricades and wait. Wait for the first shots that will signal the start of the fighting and another day of carnage. The snipers move into their positions in the burnt out buildings and the first crackle of gunfire echoes above the rooftops. Tracer bullets illuminate the sky and the whoosh of the RPGs, homing in on their targets is followed by a crescendo of explosions that echo around the narrow streets.
Thin slivers of light penetrate the room, rousing the man from his sleep. He wakes, shaking his head, feeling for the amphetamines that will jerk him back to life. He moves his hand off the gun clutched to his chest, searching for the bottle amongst the debris that litters the room. Squashed coca cola cans, plastic bottles, used cigarette packets, rotting fruit and spent bullet shells. He locates it, prises the cap off with one hand and tips the contents into his mouth, chewing the pink and purple tablets whole and gulping them down. He sits up, places the gun on the floor beside him and drags his knees up towards him, loosening the laces on his boots and taking them off. The sounds of the prayers resound around his room and he douses his hands in the water from the bottle by his bed. He unrolls the small, woven mat, kneels forward and outstretches his hands pointing them away from the sea and towards Mecca. He bows his head to the floor, touches it repeatedly and chants.
“Alluah Akbar, Alluah Akbar,” he shouts.
He chants the words from the Koran, stands up and pours the water over his head, face and feet. This is his moment of absolution. His moment when he is cleansed once again. Cleansed of all the horrors that surround him. Cleansed of all the crimes that he has committed.
He stands up, picks up his gun and opens the door slowly. He checks that the way is clear and walks to the lift shaft standing like a giant chasm at the end of the corridor. He moves forward, unzips his flies and urinates into the abyss, squeezing his nostrils against the stench of the excrement and the rotting corpses in the darkness below. He returns, closes the door and surveys the scene in front of him.
The light has intensified now and he can see the boy’s body by the window, its eyes wide open, staring at him almost in a trance. A small blob of congealed blood marks the spot in his forehead where the bullet has entered, extinguishing his life in an instant. The body has been there for two days now and it’s starting to smell and is covered in flies, buzzing around its head and filling its nostrils and ears. They move in unison, almost bringing his face back to life. His hand still clutches the gun he was firing when he died. He had just appeared one day at the height of the fighting and had taken up his position on the opposite side of the room, firing off round after round of bullets at the buildings across the Rue de Damas in the Christian quarter. The man hadn’t taken much notice of him at first. He had been too preoccupied with his own shooting and staying alive. Then, when the battle had subsided, he had looked at him, slumped in the corner, exhausted and smoking a cigarette. He couldn’t have been much older than sixteen. His face was clean-shaven but his hair was long and held back from his face by a red and green bandana. He wore khaki trousers, torn and stained and a T-shirt soiled with sweat.
He had tried to speak to him, to find out his name, to strike up any kind of conversation, but the boy had just sat there, staring into space, chain-smoking his cigarettes, flicking the butts into a pile by his feet. He had tried to warn the boy to be careful; to understand the simple rules of self-preservation; to minimise the risk of giving his position away. But he had just laughed and once the fighting had started again, he just stood there firing at anything that moved. He hadn’t even heard the shot that eventually killed him. One minute he was laughing hysterically, squeezing the trigger and congratulating himself on yet another kill. The next, he just froze as the bullet impacted with his brain, shutting down his vital organs. He had twisted, slid down the wall in slow motion, and then collapsed in a heap.
He doesn’t know why he has left him there. Normally, he would dispose of the bodies straight away, dragging them to the lift shaft and then just pushing them into the chasm below. This time, however, he has kept him for two days. Perhaps it is because he was younger than all the rest. Perhaps it is because he reminds him of his younger brother, one of the many slaughtered in the refugee camps in the early days of the war. Perhaps he just wants somebody there to keep him company and to talk to. It didn’t matter whether they were dead or alive.
He fiddles in his pocket, pulls out the packet of Marlboro and lights up, sucking in the first nicotine hit of the day. He picks up the rifle and caresses it, hugging it to his chest. He kisses it and cleans it methodically, stroking it with his hand. First the barrel, then the trigger and finally the butt. He feels in his pocket, pulls out the optical sight and locks it on to frame, polishing the glass. He stares at it. A Dragunov SVD, the pride of the Russian army. Semi-automatic, 10 rounds, range 800 to 1300 metres, velocity 830 metres per second. He had only acquired it a week ago and it had transformed his life. No more bolt-action, no more delays. He can let off a round of shots in no time at all. That was the difference between living and dying.
He stands up and walks over to one of the windows covered with a metal grill. All the others have been blocked in with breezeblock and offer him some semblance of security against the snipers on the other side. He peers out at the city below him. It is daybreak and the first exchanges have just started. The streets are deserted and he can just make out the movement of heads above the barricades dissecting the main roads. Nobody dares to venture out. Everybody is scared. This is the phoney war, a stepping-stone to the madness that is about to engulf this city of forgotten dreams. Yet, there is nothing phoney about the sheer mindlessness of the atrocities committed on both sides. People shot in their beds and armchairs; bodies dragged through the streets behind cars; buses machine-gunned without warning; and the relentless fear of being taken hostage and tortured. And yet the killers assume it is all a game, their faces covered in bizarre masks for fear of identification. They strut the streets dressed in all manner ghoulish costumes before taking their positions in the burnt out buildings, ready for the day’s killing. Many of them try to combine their fighting with work as the city enters its death throes. Office workers in the morning, killers in the afternoon.
He is in the Holiday Inn, a tall, ornate building overlooking East Beirut near the boundary that separates the warring factions. Christian Phalangists on one side; Shiites, Druze and Palestinians on the other. Once home to the tourists that had flocked to the city in its heyday, it is now a bombed-out wreck, riddled with bullet holes and craters caused by rocket propelled grenades and heavy artillery. Its upper floors are burnt black from the fire that had engulfed it and its neon sign, which had shone like a beacon over the downtown area, hangs precariously high above the entrance, with only the H and L remaining. Someone had scrawled an E between them, a potent reminder of the barbarity that prevailed.
But for him, it is a sanctuary, a refuge from the horrors outside. To him, this is home. It is all he has left. There is nothing else. There is nowhere else to go. His family had been wiped out in the massacre at the refugee camp in Tal Zataar some months ago and now he is alone, totally alone. He has moved progressively higher in the building as the intensity of the battles had escalated and the lower floors had descended into hand-to-hand fighting and total carnage. But here on the26th floor, he is immune to it all. This is his place and God help anybody who tries to take it from him. This is his last place of refuge.
The young girl wakes, dropping the doll to the floor and stares up at the ceiling. She turns expecting to see her mother beside her, but the bed is empty. She sits up, assuming that she is in the next room and calls out to her.
“Mama, Mama. Are you there?”
She waits and calls again. Then she stands up nervously and moves into the lounge. She feels for the candle on the table, lights it and stares around. She moves to the couch, where her mother normally sleeps but finds no one there. She moves quickly into the kitchen, then the bathroom, each step increasing her anxiety and panic. She tries the front door but it is locked. Then she realises that she has gone. She has done what she promised her she would never do. Leave her. Leave her on her own in that cesspit of violence and despair. She shudders and starts to shake, trying to contain her panic. She’ll be back in a moment. Don’t worry. She has probably just gone upstairs to try and get some on water off the neighbours. She’ll be down in a moment. Just calm yourself. She’ll come back. She sits down and waits in the darkness, her blanket wrapped around her shoulders, her arms and legs trembling.
He removes the metal grill. No sudden movements. Nothing that will give his position away. He raises the rifle, staring through the scope, trying to focus on anything that moves. There is nothing. He sits down and waits for the boy to arrive. He is always punctual. He has to be. 7 am every morning without fail. After that, all hell will break loose and the mindless killing will start.
He hears the footsteps on the stairs and turns with his rifle cocked and pointed in front of him. You could never be too careful. Then he hears the familiar voice calling his name and relaxes. He opens the door and a hand appears, a small, dirt-encrusted hand. Then a tray and the smiling face, puffing and panting. He is only a child, ten at the most, but his features betray all the ravages of war. His eyes are bloodshot, his lips blistered with dehydration and his face pitted with small blemishes and scars. He is wearing shorts and sandals, despite the cold morning air and looks as if he is on his way to school.
“Salaam Alecum,” he says in a high- pitched voice. “How are you today?”
“Wah Alecum Salaam. Fine,” the man replies, ushering him in, and closing the door. He puts his finger to his mouth and motions for him to sit.
The boy sets the tray on the floor and squats down beside him. He smiles, picks up the small, metal teapot and pours the warm tea into the glass, stirring in the spoonfuls of sugar, watching them dissolve. He has never worked out how the boy keeps it warm on the long journey up to his sanctuary but can only assume that he runs most of the way. The boy picks up the bowl and hands the man the hot, steamy foul and the pitta bread.
“Choucran gezillah. Thankyou.” he says, dipping in the bread and gulping it down. The boy watches him as he devours the food like a man possessed. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t smile. This is his daily sustenance and everything else is secondary. The boy turns and gives a cursory look at the corpse on the other side of the room. He doesn’t flinch.
The man drinks the tea, savouring each drop, knowing it could be his last. He pulls out the packet of cigarettes and passes one to the boy, lighting it for him, covering the flame with his hand. The boy inhales deeply and stares at him.
“How are things out there?” says the man, “ Chatila?”
“Not good,” the boy answers, “The camps have no food nor water and the people are starving. They shell us every day. Those bastards. I hear the Syrians are on the border and will be here soon. Then we will show those Christian scum. It will be our city then and they can go back to the mountains where they came from.”
“And your family? How are they?”
“Fighting. All of them fighting.”
“And your brother, the smart one?”
“Doing what he does best. Wheeling and dealing. Never short of anything.”
“Is he in the camps?”
“No,” he answers, “He is one of those hotels by the seafront. Calls it his palace. Stacked high with loot. Has everything. Even a bed. Still does some shooting.”
“Where does he get it all from?” asks the man.
“Everywhere, you’d be surprised what people will give you for food these days. They can’t get out. They’re trapped. He has his contacts. Looters, smugglers.”
The boy picks up the tray and turns to leave. The man wants him to stay. He wants him to talk more. Just a few moments longer. But he knows that this will risk death and his lifeline to survival. He takes some dollars from his pocket, places them in the boy’s hands and kisses him on the cheeks, holding him tightly.
“Cigarettes, water, fruit, more pills. The strong ones. See what your brother can do. Oh and some more bullets.
“Inshallah, ” the boy replies, taking the money and pushing the man away.
The boy opens the door.
“Your friend,” he says, turning towards the body, “Need to move him, he stink.”
“Don’t worry. He will join all the others today. His place in heaven today. The seventy two virgins will be waiting for him. Poor man,” he laughs sarcastically.
The boy turns and leaves, checking the stairwell before scampering away into the darkness.
He is alone again. He walks across the room, prises the gun from the boy’s hand and wafts the flies away, slapping the back of his head. The stench is almost unbearable. He places his arms under his shoulders, drags him backwards out into the corridor and lays him next to the shaft. He closes the boy’s eyes, makes a silent prayer, and then jerks him over the parapet with his boots. The boy’s body disappears into the darkness, crashing to the bottom of the shaft with a resounding thud. He turns and returns to his position.
He focuses on the Christian enclave nearby, scouring the roads and buildings ahead of him. He can see the woman emerging from the shop. She hugs the old man and kisses his hand. He concentrates his aim and wonders whether he should take out both of them, there and then, but he waits. He knows that she has to move across the road and why not give her a little hint of freedom before finishing her off. He watches her hesitate, then dash across the road, her basket filled with fruit and vegetables. She is moving slowly, laden down with all her shopping and all he has to do is wait. She reaches the first doorway and then moves to the second. He focuses her in the scope and wonders where he will make the hit. Head to finish her off immediately. Legs to bring her down and hopefully get others out to help her; or stomach to just let her die slowly. She has almost reached the end of the building when he hears the noise, roaring towards him.
He turns and shifts his rifle to the left. He sees the truck coming along the highway from the port. Somebody foolishly trying get through. He steadies the rifle against the windowsill and focuses the sights. The truck gets closer and closer until he can make out the driver. He can see that it’s a tanker desperately trying to reach the Christian side with fuel. He can just make out the driver’s face now, terror turning it white. The truck is in range now and he can see the man’s face circled in the sights. He is middle-aged, unshaven and bald. Sweat is dripping off his forehead and he has a cigarette jammed between his teeth with the smoke rising up above his eyes. He keeps wiping his face with a piece of cloth, trying to stop the sweat from blurring his vision. He focuses, fixing the man’s head in his sights and squeezes gently. It’s surprising how easy it is. One squeeze. That’s all it needs. He watches as the man’s head explodes and the body slumps forward onto the steering wheel. The tanker continues up the road, and then veers to its left violently, hitting the main bridge support. The front caves in and its windows shatter on impact. It lies there like some wounded monster with its front wheels spinning and then suddenly explodes into flames with black smoke ballooning into the sky. There are no sirens. No calls for help. No emergency services. No one dares to move.
He sits down, props the rifle against the wall and lights another cigarette. He sucks in and smiles. First kill of the day. He picks up the chalk and makes a mark on the wall. He kisses the prayer beads and sits back and composes himself. There are forty chalk marks now. Not bad for one week’s shooting. Forty lives extinguished but what does he care? This is war and everyone is a target. Kill or be killed. That’s all that matters.
He raises himself up again and stares out at the skyline. The tanker is still burning and lights are coming on in the buildings around it. The city is starting to come to life. He focuses on the building again where he had seen the woman. A shadow moves across his sights. He adjusts his lens and then he sees the girl. She is standing on the balcony shouting to someone below. He can’t make out what she is saying but she is hysterical and keeps pointing at the pavement and screaming. He follows her finger down and there it is, the body stretched out with its arms in front of it. He can see that it is the woman he had seen earlier with her blue shawl draped over her head and her skirt pulled up above her knees. Blood is oozing from a large wound on her chest. It has formed into a small rivulet and is flowing into one of the drains by the roadside. In one of her hands is the basket and fruit, vegetables and plastic water bottles are scattered around her. She is trying to move. Her hands claw at the road, trying to propel her forward, trying to salvage the food scattered before her.
He tightens the lens and focuses on the girl again. She can’t be more than sixteen, and looks young and innocent. She is pulling her hair and screaming at the top of her voice. She disappears, then returns again, shouting and shouting. He looks at her. He knows that he can take her out there and then. All it needs is one shot and she will join her mother. All it needs is one squeeze. But he keeps staring at her, unable to move. What is it about her? Why can’t he shoot and put her out of her misery? Then he sees her. His sister. The same age, laughing and smiling at his younger brother’s birthday. She is beautiful. Dark haired, slim, deep ruddy complexion. He adored her. They were inseparable. She was everything to him. Then she was gone. Murdered in Tal Al-Zatar, as she surrendered to the Ketaieb. Raped and dumped by the roadside, riddled with bullets. Left like a rag doll.
He turns to the woman again. She is on her knees now and is crawling towards the fruit, her hands stretching out. She grasps one of the bottles, clutches it to her chest and turns, staring up to the balcony and the young girl shouting at her. She tries to shout, but her mouth his full of blood and she just gurgles. She raises her hand in front of her trying to tell to go back inside.
Then the shot rings out. Her head is jerked back as the bullet impacts and she falls, hitting the ground. Her arms and legs start to twitch and then she is still. A final shot resounds around the houses and one of the plastic bottles bursts, spilling its contents over the woman’s face. The girl holds her face and screams.
He stands up, searching for the shooter. He scans the horizon with his rifle and sees him in the hotel near the seafront. He is on one of the upper balconies, partially hidden behind some makeshift sandbags. He is laughing and pointing in the direction of the woman’s body and then the girl. He is in his early twenties, with crew cut hair and has a gold necklace. Another young man is beside him with his peaked cap turned back on his head. They seem to be arguing over who will make the last shot. Who will bring the girl down and send her toppling over the balcony. They jostle over the gun.
Then he sees the shadow behind them. A small hand appears holding a tray with glasses of tea on it. They stop arguing, take the glasses and swallow the contents. He focuses as the figure emerges and joins them behind the sandbags. It is the tea boy. His lifeline. His only contact with the world outside his sanctuary. He watches as the shooter passes the gun to the boy and encourages him to shoot. He points at the girl and urges him on. The boy looks frightened, hesitates then raises the gun to his shoulder, resting it on the railing. He fires off a single shot, then passes the gun back to the sniper and steps back. The sniper looks down the scope and sees that she is still there, still screaming and waving on the balcony. He turns, slaps the boy on the back of the head and pushes him to the back of the balcony. He raises the gun, focuses on the girl and smiles. He takes aim.
The man pulls the gun to his shoulder grips the barrel hard, trying to steady himself. But his hand is shaking, shaking for the first time in his life. He tries to concentrate. He doesn’t want to kill him. He just wants to distract him. To frighten him off. He just wants to give the girl a chance. To give her a moment to escape. He squeezes the trigger without thinking. The bullet ricochets off the concrete parapet scattering debris over the sniper’s head causing him to stumble as he shoots and misfires.
He watches the shooter turn and look towards his building, his gun scanning the windows. He locks on to him and they both stare down their scopes, their targets frozen in the sights. He sees the tea boy emerge and try to wrestle with him shaking his head. The shooter knocks him to one side and readjusts his aim. The man just stands there, his arms by his side like a sacrificial lamb. He can see the shooter focusing but does not move. He feels the thud as the bullet hits his chest jerking him backwards across the floor and then the sound of the gunshot echoing around the buildings. He lies there, staring up at the grey, concrete ceiling and smiles.
© Graham Walker 2012
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Fieldmedic.