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‘Murdered by the Syrians’

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‘Murdered by the Syrians’

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Two Syrian soldiers guard a group of prisoners in Beirut, October 1990 Getty

Lebanon, 17 October 1990

“We had to cut the ropes from their hands after the bodies were brought here,” the nurse said with a voice of suppressed rage. “Most of the soldiers were found by the Red Cross in the forest. There are 80 corpses here. This did not happen during the fighting.”

She led the way down the steps of Baabda General Hospital to a fetid, fly-infested basement and there, on the floor and stacked inside glass refrigerators, were dozens of young men, most shot in the face or chest, many dressed only in underpants.

Several of the bodies – some of them in a state of advanced decomposition because there has been no electricity to work the hospital’s freezer system – were still in the uniform of the Lebanese army. Most had wounds under their chins or on their faces. Blood had long congealed on the heads of the almost naked men.

“See what the Syrians did.” The nurse was screaming her words now. “They took some of these men from their homes. They had surrendered. They made them undress. Then they murdered them.” Among the dead, several had grossly deformed heads where bullets had hit their faces, possibly at very close range. I counted 32 bodies but others lay in an inner corridor.

Because wars create rumour as well as fact – and because this is Lebanon – the full story of how these men died may never be known. According to the Christian Maronite nurse, all the bodies had been found in the area of three villages that lay before the advance of the Syrian army into General Michel Aoun’s enclave last Saturday – Deir Wahash, Saaba and Kfarshima.

According to the hospital, the killings took place on Sunday morning. They insisted that the Syrians were to blame although pro-Syrian Christian militiamen were also present in the villages at the time. Nor will any attempt be made to conduct postmortem examinations. Some of the bodies may have had other wounds – perhaps caused by the original Syrian bombardment – although the nurse who tore the plastic wrapping from the cadavers pointed only to bullet wounds.

Certainly, enough proof is emerging in east Beirut that some sinister and terrible things may have happened over the weekend when the Syrians, supporting President Elias Hrawi’s government and army, ended General Aoun’s rule in east Beirut. I was touring the area of Baabda because I had already been told – in west Beirut – that Lebanese army survivors were recounting stories of a mass killing. According to this first report, 80 Lebanese Christian soldiers had been forced to undress after being captured by Syrians, and 30 had been machine-gunned to death when Lebanese troops loyal to President Hrawi’s government arrived and saved the lives of the remaining 50 men. This would perhaps account for the bodies clad only in pants in the Baabda mortuary. None of the corpses carried personal identification.

Christians in east Beirut also claim that civilians were murdered in the village of Deir Wahash – one man told me that a family of10 had been killed. The hospital nurse said that members of three families, including several children, had been shot dead in the local church. There was no way yesterday of discovering if this was true.

Christian fears are expressed with circumspection. “I don’t know why Aoun ran away,” the female owner of a half-gutted supermarket said. “But now my husband and I just want to leave our country, to get a visa to anywhere. Who will protect us?”

In theory, this will be the job of President Hrawi’s Lebanese army whose Syrian tanks, newly decorated with tiny Lebanese flags, stand guard at the east-west Beirut crossing point at Galerie Semaan. When I approached one crew, they admitted the vehicles belonged to the Syrian army.

Outside the Baabda mortuary yesterday, a young soldier sat with his head in his hands, weeping. He feared his soldier brother might be in the charnel-house below. “I hate you,” the nurse whispered to me as I left. “I hate you all – Americans, French, British … I hate you all.”

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