Lebanon mourns after capital’s deadliest attack in decades

The Lebanese capital experienced a year of relative peace until Thursday's evening's twin suicide bombings.

Residents inspect a burnt vehicle a day after two suicide bombers set off explosions in the southern suburbs of Beirut on November 12, 2015. Hasan Shaaban / Reuters
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BEIRUT // Lebanon’s schools and universities were closed on Friday as the country marked a day of mourning one day after bombs struck Beirut’s Shiite-majority southern suburbs in the deadliest such attack the capital has seen since the country’s civil war.

With at least 43 dead and more than 200 injured, Thursday evening’s ISIL-claimed twin suicide bombing in Burj Al Barajneh was the worst attack in Beirut since the country began feeling the backlash of Syria’s war several years ago.

ISIL quickly claimed the attack, which saw a suicide bomber on a motorcycle detonate on a crowded street before a second bomber struck crowds gathering to help victims several minutes later.

Lebanese authorities said the body of a third bomber, believed to have been killed by the second blast, was recovered at the site.

In a statement claiming responsibility, ISIL used derogatory language toward Shiites and underlined that the area was a stronghold of Hizbollah, the Lebanese paramilitary and political party that has been fighting in Syria on behalf of the Syrian government.

Witnesses said the death toll would have been higher if a young furniture maker from the neighbourhood had not tackled the second bomber as he struck. Residents say the second bomber was attempting to enter a husseiniya, a Shiite religious building used for ceremonies.

Maarouf Al Hussari, 21, was selling croissants from a cart in front of the bakery where he worked when the first bomber struck nearby. “I thought the oven blew up,” he said. “That has happened before.”

Seconds later the reality of what had happened set in.

“When I saw all the dead people and a man cut in half, I fainted and woke up here,” he said from a room at the Sahel General Hospital where he was recovering on Friday. He said his lungs were damaged from the pressure of the blast and from inhaling smoke.

Burj Al Barajneh, where the bombs struck, is an impoverished area of south Beirut near the city’s airport. It is comprises a crowded Palestinian refugee camp whose population has swelled in recent years with the arrival of Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Syria, and a Shiite-majority Lebanese residential and market area which was targeted by the blasts. The neighbourhood sits next to the district of Haret Hraik, where Hizbollah has its Beirut headquarters.

The blasts were the first attack on a major Lebanese city since suicide bombers struck an Alawite neighbourhood of the northern city of Tripoli in January, killing nine. It is the first attack to target Beirut’s southern suburbs since June of last year.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the once familiar scenes of carnage, anger and sorrow returned to this quarter of the city.

Streets were coated in shards of broken glass. Blood pooled into puddles and streaked four stories up the side of a building. Shops selling children’s clothes, hijabs, dresses and backpacks shattered, their display merchandise blown away. A laser display shining on the street to lure customers played its pattern on soldiers, gunmen and distraught relatives of victims as they rushed by.

Outside the nearby Rasul Al Azam Hospital – which has long been barricaded with blast walls to foil bombing attempts – throngs of grieving relatives awaited news of loved ones and Hizbollah fighters attempted to comfort crying women.

Hizbollah fighters deployed heavily across Beirut’s southern suburbs and blocked one of Beirut’s two airport roads with barricades after the bombing. At the entrance to Burj Al Barajneh groups of Hizbollah fighters could be seen dragging men they deemed suspects away in headlocks.

As workers cleared the broken glass, mangled cars and rubble from the blast sites on Friday afternoon, occasional bursts of automatic gunfire could be heard as families mourned their dead nearby.

“If they thought this message they sent last night would bring us to our knees, they sent the wrong message to the wrong people,” said Zouhair Jallouh, the mayor of Burj Al Barajneh, as he watched the clean-up crews working. “The only way we can survive is to stay on the resistance path and not change our compass,” he said, “resistance” being a common reference to Hizbollah by the group’s supporters.

While residents quickly pointed the finger at ISIL, they also showed suspicion and anger toward their Palestinian neighbours in the narrow alleys of the camp just a few minutes’ walk from the blast sites.

"We're 90 per cent sure it was because of the camp," one resident told The National on Thursday evening.

Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps are no-go zones for Lebanese security sources, leaving security in the hands of a multitude of often competing armed Palestinian factions.

Residents and sources with ties close to Hizbollah said that the camp and its entrances were now being monitored closely by Hizbollah.

The bombing is almost certainly a stab at reawakening Lebanon’s recently dormant sectarian strife.

In 2013 and 2014, Beirut’s southern suburbs were regularly targeted by bombs claimed by Sunni extremists in retaliation for Hizbollah’s entry into Syria’s civil war, where the organisation is fighting alongside the forces of president Bashar Al Assad.

The bombings transformed the southern suburbs as businesses erected sandbagged fronts and concrete blast walls. The Lebanese army established checkpoints at all entrances to the suburbs and Hizbollah men stepped up security inside the neighbourhoods, checking outsiders and patrolling with bomb-sniffing dogs.

The bombings during those years exacerbated long-standing sectarian tensions in Lebanon and coincided with street battles in parts of the country between supporters and detractors of the Syrian regime.

But attacks have dwindled after Lebanese security forces moved aggressively against Sunni militants following the brief takeover of the border town of Arsal by Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra, and ISIL in the summer of 2014.

Despite the relative stability this year, many in Beirut’s southern suburbs did not feel safe. They say bomb plots are regularly discovered by Hizbollah and know that so long as the war in Syria continues and Hizbollah’s men are active in it, they will remain targets. Here, violence and bloodshed is always expected.

“If there is no blood, there is no victory,” said one man at the blast site Thursday evening, referring to Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria.

jwood@thenational.ae