Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Monday, 12 November 2007

Beirut diary: Monday 12 November

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Beirut


Noha Chikhani is the mother of Charles, who died in the car bombing in Beirut in September. She serves us black coffee and hot, diluted blossom-flower ("white coffee") in translucent cups and saucers, symmetrically arranged on a tray.

Picture of Charles Chikhani
Charles Chikhani, 28, had returned to Lebanon to live

The family apartment has rough, peeling balustrades on the outside. Inside, it has the feel of a Parisian home, of simple, restrained elegance. The sounds of chaos from Beirut traffic percolate through the Arabesque shutters.

Mrs Chikhani had gone to make the coffee when she was unable to complete her sentence.

She'd been telling us about the moment she'd discovered, seven weeks ago, that her son, Charles, had been caught in the car bomb blast, which had killed the anti-Syrian MP Antoine Ghanem, and four others.

'Sleeping in his car'

Lebanese TV, as is its wont, was broadcasting the immediate, uncensored aftermath of the explosion. A neighbour had told Mrs Chikhani that she thought she'd seen Charles's business card being flashed on TV by a policeman.

Then, as his mother described it, the TV showed Charles himself, "sleeping in his car". Noha Chikhani, paused, put her hand to her mouth, apologised, and walked quickly into the kitchen.

Wreckage from the 19 September car bomb.

Charles was 28. He'd returned to Beirut 18 months previously, having spent two years in France, and six months in Montreal, studying finance.

He'd phoned his mother 15 minutes before he died, to say he was going off to look at a car he was thinking of buying.

The shrapnel which struck the back of his head came from a bomb aimed at Antoine Ghanem, a quiet and unremarkable MP from the coalition united by its opposition to Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

'No future'

Lebanon's MPs are supposed to elect, within the next two weeks, a new president. The anti-Syrians have a thin majority. With a series of assassinations, it is becoming wafer-thin.

The face of Charles's younger brother, Marc, is tight with anger. He's a biologist, and has spent the last five years in Montreal.

I see Lebanon on its knees... I'm revolted that we don't have a dream
Marc Chikhani

"I don't know who did this, and I don't want to know," he says. "I just want the violence to stop. We've had it for 50, 60, 70 years in this part of the world."

He's dismayed by the lack of interest he's seen from others when he's lived in North America, in the bloodshed in the Middle East. "We need foreign people to identify themselves with us. We are men. We are not animals."

Marc says he'll stay with his parents and his younger sister Lea until Christmas. But he doesn't know if he can ever come back to live in Lebanon.

"What I didn't want to see before I left," he says, "I'm obliged to see it now. I see Lebanon on its knees. I don't see a future for me or for other young people. I'm revolted that we don't have a dream. My brother was spreading his wings and learning to fly, and they cut his wings. Why?"


An anti-Syrian MP I visited believes he has the answer why. It's because, he told me, even if - unlikely though it is - Lebanon's fractious MPs agree on a candidate for president, that president could soon himself be assassinated. Fresh elections would have to be held.

Hotel Phoenicia, Beirut
Security forces watch over MPs holed up at a seafront hotel

And if the anti-Syrian MPs lose their majority - because they themselves are being killed - that just makes the likelihood of an anti-Syrian president diminish.

Those politicians who support Syria dismiss this theory. They say that the assassinations in fact hurt Syria, precisely because the finger is always pointed at Damascus.

Either way, this MP, along with 39 of his colleagues, has spent the last seven weeks, since the Ghanem killing, holed up in five-star luxury on the seafront. They're locked into the Hotel Phoenicia because of the threat to their lives.

I stayed in the country all through the wars with Israel. But this is different... I am terrified
Unidentified Lebanese MP

Over the last two years, there's been a series of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures.

It's worth underlining: these MPs are not from some small dissident group. They are the majority bloc. I'm not using the MP's name because of what he owned up to as we walked to the lifts, along the thick claret carpet.

"I am terrified," he told me. Not fear, but terror.

"I stayed in the country all through the wars with Israel. But this is different. This is assassination."

We walked on, down a glittering corridor, in Lebanese fashion: him squeezing and pummelling and embracing my arm, while recounting a lurid, scurrilous and impenetrable anecdote about a former Lebanese president visiting the former Syrian president.

We parted with him wishing for a return to what he described, with no sarcasm, as a normal life: only leaving his home when essential, and only in an armoured car.

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