1975 the beginning of the war.
It was 1969 in Lebanon. I was 13 years old and all we could talk about was Lebanon’s politics and the building military action in our homeland. Lebanon was and continues to be rich in history, steeped in violence. It is a land filled with a people who believe in their convictions and the preservation of their lands. The Lebanese people are active members of their communities and participated in the shaping of our homelands. In 1969, the fever was rising at a rapid pitch as the world watched a nation in turmoil.
The Kataeb Party, then in control of the Christian Lebanese section of Lebanon, psychologically prepared the Lebanese people for had worsened military and political conditions. The opposing Party leaders continued to undermine the political authorities, the power of the President of Lebanon, the armed forces in Lebanon and the internal security forces.
The first sign of real trouble and escalating events came in 1973 when skirmishes broke out in the Capital of South Lebanon Saidon. Clashes between the Christian Lebanese army and the Fedayeen turned into bloody battles. The boys in the Lebanese Christian neighborhoods were holding regular meetings, reading and conditioning themselves for a state of war. It was in 1974 that the intensity of the situation in Lebanon became clear for me as well as all Christian people. The political situation was becoming unbearable and we were all jittery.
While the country was experiencing unrest during that year, I had a violent argument with my parents and left my home on Ghannoum Street in Ayn Remaneh to live with my grandparents who lived in Furn El Shebbak. My parents’ village is Ghabeh in Jbeil. Byblos is where my grandfather was the Mukhtar or Mayor. My parents grew up in Funr El Shebbak, Beirut. Like all the youth of that region, I was attached to my “quarter” and highly involved in my communities needs and problems, its joys and sorrows.
I was born in Tahwitet Furn el Shebbak in 1956. I could not be subdued, an insubordinate rebel, who spent his early childhood shifting from one private school “Freres of Furn el Shebbak” to the another. I spent time at the “Peres Antonins of Baabda” moving from my parents’ home to my grandparents’ home, in search of greater freedom of action and ways to unwind, in an all out hostile atmosphere of speculations and growing danger. I would not have known that a within a few short years, I would play an integral part of Lebanon’s history.
On February 27, 1975, a Moslem Sunni leader, Maarouf Saad was killed during a fishermen demonstration. This signaled the beginning of unrest in my country. The event incited the people The two sides of the war were shaping up. The Christian community members of Lebanon supported the State and legal forces. The Fedayeen and their Moslem supporters squared against us. The Lebanon army was neutralized prior to its disintegration and members banned from South Lebanon. The whole area went under Syro-Palestinian Syrian authority.
The Cause was born. The Christian neighborhoods were literally suffocating as they were shut in by major Palestinian camps swarming into the region with overly armed and overheated Fedayeen men. The inhabitants of Ayn Remaneh became the only outlet from which the Lebanese Christians could breathe. Their pride in this new position grew. Ayn Remaneh was the only direct passageway between the camps of Sabra and Jisr Al Bacha.
I was barely 19 years old when I found myself in the middle of massive turmoil and big military and political action. My story began on a sunny Sunday morning, April 13, 1975. The whole neighborhood of Ayn Remaneh / Furn el Shebbak was seething with excitement as the Kataeb “Phalangist” Party Chief Sheikh Pierre Gemayel was scheduled to inaugurate a new Church. To the Christian Lebanese people, Sheikh Pierre was the figurehead of the Christian Lebanese people, the man who opposed the Cairo Agreement with the Palestinians, and stood up against the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon.
That Sunday morning was foggy and hot. I, Robert Maroun Hatem, alias “Cobra”, a 19-year-old Lebanese youth, was cast into the political and military arena of my country.
The Eastern neighborhoods of Ayn Remaneh and Furn el Shebbak were seething with excitement over the “religious” event. The Western neighborhoods were overheated with anger as they were burying their “martyrs” in an unprecedented display of force.
At 11 a.m. that morning, as the ceremony had ended, a white Fiat sped up from the Moslem shiat side of the sector, opened machine gunfire on the crowd killing two men. One of the men was Joseph Abou Assi, Sheikh Pierre Gemayel’s personal guard. Abou Assi was a notable Kataeb party member, loved and respected. He was the Chief of Al Sakhra, “The Rock” group assigned to protect the inner circle which consisted of Sheikh Pierre Gemayel and the Central Head Office of the Party together with Pierre and Fuad and Hilmy El Shartouni. Following the shooting, the crowds fled from the area leaving the streets deserted. Only a heavy feeling of mourning and oppressive expectancy remained.
At 12.30 p.m., a bus filled with armed Palestinians defiantly went down the same street scoffing at our disarray and anger. Their actions showed sheer provocation. The silence was broken by another burst of machine gunfire. The bus was smashed and the passengers on board killed. This was my first encounter with blood, violence and vengeance. It also triggered WAR in Lebanon.
At 10:00 p.m., as the community watched the events of the day in their homes on television, exchanging views on the morning’s incident wondering whether or not there would be repercussions, mortar shells slammed Ayn Remaneh. Panic spread. Rumors were not unfounded. The Palestinians were indeed dead set on slaughtering all the Christians!
In retaliation, a general mobilization was decreed by Sheikh Pierre Gemayel of the Kataeb Party and President Camille Chamoun of the Ahrar party. Other Christian groups soon followed making ready for war. Schools and Universities were closed. All the boys were pressed to join training camps run by the Kataeb in mountain areas. I dashed headlong into the fight, but the red tape slowed my induction down. In my haste to join, my application was delayed. I was ready to fight. I was boiling with anger and excitement. Unable to hold out and wait for official confirmation into the army, I joined the Maronite League’s Military faction later named “Tanzim”. All I had to do was to pay 30 lebanese pounds for the cartridges, fill out a form and join up with my designated training camp of Watal ÔJaouz. Our military instructors were Abou Roy and his brother Pompidou, their family name is Mahfouz. In the Tanzim, I was a tough reckless guy, smart, swift, and funny. I was instantly recruited to follow a higher training session with a group of daredevils later named the “Fakhreddine Battalion”. We were stationed at our Headquarters situated in Sami Al Solh Street. This site borders Badaro which was considered a vital thoroughfare between Ayn Remaneh and Ashrafieh and Lourdes. It was also considered one of the main outlets of Ayn Remaneh, and placed under the command of a military leader known as “Garrison”, a tough guy who is now believed to be a Green Beret in the United States of America.
From Sami Al Solh Street, we carried out commando raids beyond the newly established “Green Line” of Shiah. We terrorized the Palestinians and their allies; and, as such, safeguarded and boosted up the morale of the Christian inhabitants who had decided to stand their ground and remain home.
Sharp differences between the two leaders of the Tanzim, George Edwan and Abou Roy soon jammed our action. Disgusted with these internal conflicts between the two leader over personal interests and their political jealousies, I took off one evening and joined the Kataeb Section 104 of Furn El Shebbak led by Tony Mhanna alias “Abou Imad”. That is where I was nicknamed “Cobra” after the brand of my gun I used in combat, a white United States Cobra.
It was Section 104 which was later sent to the Commercial Center, the Al Asswak Front where the most notorious and bloody “Grand Hotels” round of battles took place. The objective of the battles, at that time, was to retrace the “Green Line” beyond the Central Bank of Lebanon of which we had to take possession.
In the Section 104, we learned to become regular army and to obey orders. “Execute the object” became our slogan. Our section was the spearhead of the Lebanese Resistance set up to survive and defend its sense of dignity and liberty.
While stationed at the Byblos hotel, some 20 meters from the Holiday Inn and the sector of the Port, the Palestinians and their Lebanese Moslem allies, known as the “Mourabitoons” attempted to cut us off from our supply line. Our faith kept us going in a fierce battle of high and low ebbs, a fight between David and Goliath. The battle was a the nightmare. Despite the fierce fighting, our section held out.
On December 6, 1997, we were under the command of Joseph Saadd, also known as Ammo Joseph. It was under his command that the Black Saturday massacre was carried out. The attack was to avenge the death of Joseph Saadd two sons and his Fourth Bureau Chief who had been in charge of the military equipment and logistics. I later learned that a man called Elie Hobeika had personally participated in the Black Saturday massacres.
It was during the “Battle of Beirut” and between missions that I was introduced to members of the Begin group or “Crack Unit”. This unit included Fuad Abou Nader, Amine Assouad, Sheikh Pierre Gemayel’s grandsons, Massoud Ashkar also known as “Poussy”, Elie Hobeika and Fadi Frame. All of these men were friends of Bachir Gemayel known as “El Bache”.
The end of January, 1976 was nearing. We had been fighting for 60 days, living in hell. It was during our retreat from the Phoenicia Hotel and the Holiday Inn, that I had my first fit of rebellion and so did the boys! Instead of carrying out their initial mission, the patrol leaders operated under cover of night to load trucks with their looted booty from the fighting, while the boys, under the patrol leaders’ command, secured the patrol leaders’ protection. The boys returned to their posts themselves empty handed and quizzical. Betrayal and looting was common place. During our final retreat to settle in Al Batone and Saradar Bank buildings, I finally decided to quit the “game” and go back to Furn El Shebbak. The leader I had followed, Guy Helou, a tough and honest guy, was killed in Bab Idriss. The boys and I suspected a hitch, an internal conflict over the loot, at the highest level. I could not trust we I was following. As I learned later, internal Mafia battles were raging during the fighting. The Port of Beirut’s 150 wharves had been looted and the “Begin”, including Elie Hobeika, were dispatched to halt the looting and close the main entrances of the port. Instead of stopping the looting, they got looted themselves and sacked the wharves of the goods.
Corruption spread in the ranks marking the first sign of betrayal of the Christian people and their cause. The war continued and so did the attempt to destroy the Lebanese Christians.
Consumed by the war and fighting, I and the boys of Section 104; however, had no time to analyze the situation. Ceaseless fighting on the traditional Fronts kept us busy and our minds off of our feelings of building unrest. Then in June, 1976, we received orders from Sheikh Amine Gemayel, master of the Matn, to join the “Noumour”, the Tigers, of Lebanon’s President Camille Chamoun. The Noumour was commanded by President Chamoun’s son, Dany Chamoun. The section was ordered to the Fronts of the Tell Al Zaatar camp. Following the downfall of the Quarantine and the Abattoir sector, our leaders were determined to drive the Palestinians out of their fortress and “clean up” the Christian sector of Beirut.
Former President Amine Gemayel, alias Anid, commanded the sector of the Matn. This region included Furn El Shebbak Ayn Remaneh who instructed the boys of Section 104 of Furn Al Shebbak to move down to the new triangular front of Tell Zaatar-Jisr Al Basha- Nabaa. There were already 30,000 Christian martyrs who had died, the fighting long and bitter, but fighting action revived our enthusiasm for the cause. We flung ourselves into the new challenge, forgetful of defeat and deceit that had only occurred a short time earlier.
Our renewed enthusiasm told us it was time to shake off the blockade, the embargo and the boycott and avenge our dead. Earlier in 1974, so many innocent Christian civilians, who had dared cross the sector on their way to Broumana, were kidnapped and executed! Besides, Tall el Zaatar, overhung the Christian sectors of Dekwaneh and Sin El Fil, and cut off East Beirut from its Northern suburbs. Therefore, we estimated that the battle we were called upon to carry out was the battle of liberation!
The military operations were conducted from a Monastery in Mar Moussa. The General Staff’s plan was to move in from three axis and apply a pincer movement. With . 23 boys of Section 104, we pounded our way to William Hawi’s glass factory in Jisr Al Basha. Hawi, who was Chief of Staff of the Kataeb forces, ordered the United States to stop the shelling in order to save his business.
For 60 days, July and August, 1996, we shuttled between our posts on the fronts of Ayn Remaneh / Furn el Shebbak and Jisr Al Basha. Then, at the Limelight Bakery, at the round about of Mkalles, a mortar shell slammed our vehicle. Our Unit Chief Carlos Estephan was badly wounded and died on the way to the Sacred Heart in Hazmiyeh, the nearest hospital.
On the nights of August 11 and 12, 1976, the Palestinians surrendered. Tell Al Zaatar fell. Section 104 carried on with the fighting fulfilling our orders despite the heavy human loss in the ranks. The looting began under the vigilant supervision of our commanders.
William Hawi was killed. Rumors and stories circulated about Hawi’s death. As a result, Bachir took over as Commander in Chief of the forces. Bachir ordered us to not to spare human life or property, move into the camp and clean it out from top to bottom.
During our last mission, I and two of my companions were seriously wounded. My companions, Yussef Abou Abdu, received injury to his stomach when mortar shell shrapnel torn into it. Tony Karam’s legs were blown off and shrapnel lodged in his stomach.
I spent two months in hospital in critical condition. The party paid me 3000 Lebanese pounds, then worth about thousand United States dollars. Due to the seriousness of my injuries, my parents decided that I had better continue my medical treatment in the United States. I was sent to my uncle’s home in Miami, Florida. It was the Fall of 1976.
While in Miami, I learned that the Syrian troops were deployed into the Christian Regions. Our victory in Tell Al Zaatar had been turned into a shameful defeat amidst a wave of popular anger, distress and distrust. I kept foaming and wondering why the hell all these sacrifices? Could this be the end? I had seen so many horrors, battled on so many fronts, witnessed so many irregularities, been through hell with the Shabab, the boys, and back again. Could it be that the Christians were misled, betrayed and used as pawns in a deadly military chess game?
We were all anti-Syrian at heart. We all knew instinctually that the Syrian command since Independence, whatever its political color, had never recognized Lebanon as an independent state.
While I was in the United States, I read in the newspapers that the Israeli leaders ordered a Kataeb envoy, dispatched there to inform them of the evolution of the situation, that they had no real objection to a Syrian deployment but should they set foot they would never ever quit fighting!
My parents and my friends called me in Miami, Florida from Beirut and cried in frustration. My family blamed the Syrians as well as the Christian leaders for the Syrian deployment. The Christian leaders had conditioned the people for an uprising and planted the seeds of hatred in their hearts and minds. They were now asking them to change their convictions by warmly welcoming the dreaded enemy into our homes. The dreaded enemy that would hang us by our thumbs and not yield the ground they stood upon. The walls of East Beirut spun around me with their tags “Know your enemy, the Syrian is your enemy”, and the thundering Radio Voice of Lebanon editorialists resounded in my ears as they blamed all our miseries on the Syrians.
Deep inside, I knew trouble was brewing, that something was to be done and I had to be part of it. The struggle was not over. I prepared to go home. The Cedar, the Cross and the Cause haunted me. Nothing and no one could keep me away from my sacred duty.