Photo of recent war destruction in Lebanon by Flickr user Masser.
Before war broke out in Syria, Lebanese Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir was a respected figure in his country. But as the civil war in Syria has crossed over to Lebanon, Assir’s sermons have turned political, often criticizing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Although these views have caused some Lebanese Sunnis to stop following Assir, they have also inspired many others to support Assir’s crusade against Hezbollah. On June 18, Assir’s men clashed with armed members of the Resistance Brigades, local affiliates of the Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah.
I decided to find Assir and ask him if he was planning on bringing war to Sidon, a small Lebanese city that hugs the Mediterranean.
After clashes earlier in the week, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) set up a checkpoint a bit down the hill from the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque where Assir preached. I walked up an incline to the mosque, where I met a tall, stern looking man in his 20s. He led me up a flight of stairs to an apartment, located in the same complex as the mosque. There, he introduced me to a middle-aged sheikh, with a gray beard wearing a long white thobe.
This was not the sheik I had come to see.
“I’m sorry but you won’t be able to see the sheikh today,” said the sheikh who wasn’t Assir. “The army arrested two of our men this morning, and it looks like things are going to get fiery.”
Accepting my misfortune, I left the mosque and decided on grabbing a bite from KFC. As I sat down to eat on the outside terrace at around 2 PM, I noticed a sheikh talking to an LAF soldier.
The talks seemed civil at first till two armed men in body armor arrived and began shouting and pointing their rifles in the air. What had been quiet negotiations evolved into a shoving match between these men and the soldiers—and then, of course, came the gunfire.
I cannot say who shot first. Reports later said two soldiers were killed; I saw a LAF soldier leap off an army jeep, as bullets barraged him and then watched the LAF take cover behind buildings as Assir’s men fired on from above—based off this knowledge and where the bullets hit the jeep, it seems Assir’s men were already in position when the shoving match began.
I rushed inside and took cover behind the counter as a stray bullet shattered KFC’s windows. Aside from the ten or so employees, there were a few young men in their late teens/early 20s, two mothers, and a few children. The oldest child was 11 years old.
With several KFC employees, I watched the battle unfold less than 50 meters in front of us. We saw windows shatter and balconies and cars catch on fire thanks to rocket propelled grenade fire; eventually, the smoke obstructed the view so badly, we could only see thick plumes of gray. The LAF quickly brought in Armored Personnel Carriers and reinforcements to support the initial 20 or so soldiers that had manned the checkpoint, and Assir called for Sunnis nationwide to rally to his side—going so far as asking Sunnis army members to defect. But the LAF was one of Lebanon’s few widely respected national institutions. The troops remained intact.
As the battle wore on, neither the LAF nor Assir’s men seemed to make progress. Assir’s mosque is located atop an incline on three directions; the fourth direction is heavily fortified with sandbags and faces residential buildings. The LAF’s soldiers couldn’t get into firing positions without risking exposure. From KFC we were unable to see Assir’s men, but we could see the LAF, and only one soldier made progress. The gray haired LAF soldier was positioned on a streets corner facing uphill, so he could fire before ducking back behind cover. After a few hours, Assir’s men targeted his position. After firing several rounds, the soldier turned around to return to cover, and two bullets shot straight through his back. His body lay motionless as his fellow soldiers carried him away.
Hours passed and day settled in to night with no sign of the battle abating. At around 9 PM, the army announced a ceasefire. The soldiers said we could leave now or stay in the KFC for the night. Mostafa Harb, a 19-year-old English literature major at the Lebanese University, offered to take me down to the Sea Road since it was on his way. From there I could catch a taxi back to Beirut.
Mostafa’s mom, Em Mohammad, stepped into the driver’s seat, Mostafa sat in the passenger seat, and Bassam, his 11-year-old brother, and I climbed into the back. Em Mohammad quickly reversed from her parking spot and drove down a road before an army soldier stopped us.
“The road is closed this way,” he said.
Em Mohammad spun around and headed downhill in the reverse direction. As she drove down the winding road, her nerves started to set in, and the car picked up speed. We flew past a group of armed men who yelled at the car, “Turn off your lights!” In full panic mode, she obliged and pressed the gas pedal hard. We flew down the dark street. Oblivious to the two cars blocking the road, she barreled into them.
The next few moments are still blurry. I only remember the car stopping and blood running down my face. Seeing the two cars ahead, a deep fear set in—I checked to see if anyone was badly hurt and then jumped out of the car.
“Get back in!” yelled Mostafa.
I returned to the car. Em Mohammad tried to reverse but smashed into a wall instead. She pulled forward and went back into the two cars. She repeated this once more, and then I decided to exit the car for good.
From across the street, men motioned us over—Mostafa and his family decided to follow my lead. They left the car. We sprinted till we found a man in a balaclava—clearly one of Assir’s guys—sitting outside a house.
“Here, try to stop the bleeding with this,” he said to me, handing me a sweaty hat.
Afraid we might be hit, I hadn’t checked to see where the blood was coming from, and my fear didn’t subside upon seeing we were near Assir’s men—if the army had found me, they could have called an ambulance, but Assir’s men could do little. He told us to wait by bushes, while be brought around a car. While Em Mohammad prayed to calm her hysteria, I tweeted:
Still in Abra. Still fighting. Army said 1 hr truce. tried to leave but got into accident. deep cut beneath right eyebrow. Ok otherwise
— Justin Salhani (@JustinSalhani) June 23, 2013
As idiotic as this sounds, writing out the situation in a calm, journalistic manner forced me to keep my composure.
Shortly after, a car driven by one of Assir’s men arrived.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We don’t know!” replied Mostafa.
“If we don’t know then why are we getting in the car?”
“You have no other choice!”
I realized Mostafa had convinced himself that his survival was out of his hands. But I knew I had a choice—my mind raced, weighing whether it was better to jump in the car or stay in the open with the armed men. Ignorant about Sidon’s geography and lacking good cover, I decided to jump in the car.
As the car started, the passengers—including the driver—began to pray. Hearing the driver leave his fate to God made me feel clueless, so I prayed too. I’m not sure what I said or if I just jumbled out a bunch of syllables at an attempt at forming English words, but I know an argument in the front seat interrupted my quasiprayer.
“Where do you want to go?” the driver asked.
“We want to go down to the Sea Road,” replied Mostafa.
“That won’t be possible,” the driver replied. “I’ve got a rifle in the car. What if the army stops me at a checkpoint?”
“Then what are we supposed to do?” asked Mostafa, his voice increasing in anxiety.
The driver suggested we find a friend’s building. He drove a bit further before stopping. “This is far as I go,” he said. “May God be with you.”
We exited the vehicle and then started to walk. I envisioned the two bullets that had hit the soldier earlier that day and worried I’d meet the same fate. I demanded to know where we would find safety.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Up ahead,” said Mostafa.
“Where up ahead?”
Mostafa pointed somewhere in the distance. “That building, there.”
Trying my best to keep cool, I said, “Describe it.”
He described the building, and then I ran ahead. Before I reached the building, an armed LAF soldier stopped me—we had just ran through the area where the two sides had exchanged gunfire hours earlier. I told the startled soldier that I wanted to take cover in the building.“
“Go! Go!” he said.
I reached the building and tried to open the door, but it was locked. Around this time, Mostafa surveyed the buttons for a name he recognized. “Just press all the buttons!” I yelled.
I’m not sure if it was because he didn’t want to bother people or if he thought they wouldn’t open the door because they were afraid of armed men entering, but he hesitated. “PRESS ALL THE BUTTONS!” I screamed frantically.
He obeyed. Someone opened the door; we finally made it to safety. Inside, someone cleaned my wound, a deep cut just below my right eyebrow, as Em Mohammad cried hysterically, and Mostafa tried to make sure Bassam was okay.
We tried to rest, but every time anyone fell asleep, an explosion went off outside the building. The army was stationed out front, and Assir’s troops fired at least six rocket-propelled grenades at us, by my count.
The next morning, Em Mohammad, Mostafa, and Bassam made their way to a relative’s house, as I found my way into a Lebanese Red Cross ambulance.
Laying on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance, I felt the car turn sharp corners and looked at the LRC volunteer beside me, who was decked out in body armor and a helmet, with sweat pouring down his face. Only when I saw the hospital roof cover our heads from inside the ambulance did relief finally begin to set in.
Meanwhile, June 24th, the second day of battle, was more successful for the LAF. They changed tactics and fought their way into Assir’s mosque. Shortly afterwards, the Lebanese Army occupied the bullet riddled mosque, the clash ceased, the LAF took control over Assir’s mosque, shops opened, and civilians returned to the streets.
In the aftermath of the battle, the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star reported 17 soldiers and at least 25 of Assir’s gunmen had died. I didn’t land my interview. Instead, I witnessed Lebanon’s bloodiest battle in at least four years. And chances are, I will now never interview the sheikh of Bilal bin Rabah. Ahmad al-Assir was reported missing after the battle. He still remains at large.
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