Haifa, my first trip to Israel.
Despite the Israeli warnings and most Christian leaders’ reluctance, the Syrian military deployment was carried out amidst a wave of reprobation and grudges. Everybody remembered Sheikh Pierre Gemayel’s speech where he preferred dealing with a regular Syrian army than with the Palestinians armed groups.
I was catapulted into the war and the fighting because of the “Cause”. I was unwilling to lay down my arms but compelled to do so because our Chief Commander Sheikh Bashir Gemayel had been agreed to an “Accord” during an extraordinary meeting of the Lebanese Front in Sayedet El Bir Monastery. Our Chief Commander Gemayel was determined to play by the rules, secretly planning his attack to unleash his sword to smite the Syrians.
I later realized it was a costly blunder committed by our Christian leaders, despite their strong denial of the charges. Fortunately for us, Sheikh Bashir Gemayel had secured the approval of the Lebanese Front leaders to retain all the institutions founded by the Kataeb Party because of war conditions. However, our fever was brewing, and so was the storm.
Nobody really believed that the war had ended and peace fully restored despite the actions of our leaders. There was too much at stake. Instead of peace, a tense quell set in. The boys had nothing to do, remaining idle, letting time go by, roaming in the streets, playing cards or backgammon and exchanging views on the evolution of situation and on incidents occurring here and there between the boys and the Syrian troops. To break the monotony, we schemed about ways to trigger trouble and acts of rebellion, unwanted under on-going attempts to promote peace.
It was difficult to keep the hot-headed, unruly and tough boys, the Shabab, under control. At first we kept a low profile. As time went by, fury seized us whenever we had to run through a Syrian checkpoint and put up with Syrian soldiers’ affronts. We designed plans in our idleness. These plans had to be applied because we later learned that the Syrians were not our protectors as our leaders tried to convince us, but actual occupational forces. This realization resulted in real trouble!
As discord grew, grave problems between the Christian militia and the Syrians took a turn for the worse. Our military command, to avoid any armed confrontation with the Syrians, and with Israeli leader’s approval, we were sent to Southern Lebanon “to help clean the area from Palestinian terrorists”. Our “war” was still against the Palestinians.
Boutros Khawand was one of Bashir Gemayel and Sheikh Pierre Gemayel’s closest lieutenants. Khawand commanded the 200 trouble-shooters who were instructed to prepare to move out. On October 10, 1976, at the Arab Summit in Ryadh, promises were made to the Syrians and the Arabs by our leaders despite secret collaboration with Israel.
We were supposed to join another group commanded by Elie Hobeika, one of the “Begin”, whose assumed name then was “Edward”. Under prevailing conditions we had to move most cautiously and under the seal of silence. We were mustered in the Church at the sea front town of Bouar which is North of Beirut. We were then transported in dinghies in groups of 30 to an Israeli cargo ship anchored off the shore. Once aboard, we sailed to the Israeli port of Haifa.
In Haifa we were received by Tsahal officers who drove us to a military camp. For 15 days we received intensive military training. We were fully dressed in brand new uniforms and boots, armed, and equipped. We had no language problems because our instructors were all Yemeni, Tunesian, and even Lebanese from Wadi Abou Jmil, the Jewish neighborhood of the Capitol. This neighborhood had been occupied by the Shiat Moslem since 1976.
Once fit and ready, the Israeli command decided it was time for us to be entrusted with a mission in South Lebanon. The night before leaving, the Israeli troops threw a big party for us, and we were joined by the Lebanese Units already operating in the South.
It was a host of men, most of whom were undisciplined and impulsive, who had gathered there to celebrate both an Israeli feast Day as well as our graduation. The Israelis asked us to “queue up”. The others fell in line, but I could not leash my impulse, so I forced my way into the head of the line. Suddenly, somebody started yelling at me, “Stand in line like the rest of the boys.” I flung myself at him yelling back, “I go where I please and I do what I want, okay?”
I was held back by some of the boys who whispered to me, “Have you gone off your rockers? Do you not know who he is? He is the Lebanese military commander of the Southern sector coordinating with Israel. He is Edward, did you not hear about him?”
I had made myself unintentionally conspicuous to the man who was to become my chief. For 20 years, I would be his blind and most loyal shadow and watchdog. He was “H.K.”, Elie Hobeika, a military commander who I would follow without question.
The following day, we were detailed to South Lebanon. The boys of Section 104 of Furn El Shebbak were posted in TAYR HARFA . We had strict orders from the Israeli command not to go near the Moslem Shiat inhabitants and refrain from committing any executions whatsoever. Our objective was the hated Palestinian terrorists.
At first we played by the rules. After a short while, being idle most of the time and conditioned to look down upon the Shiat villagers whom we resented, we started to pick on them by shooting down their flocks of sheep and goats and stealing their hens and chickens at night. The inhabitants complained about our behavior and the Israelis concluded that we were never going to be disciplined soldiers. As a result, we were shipped back home. We had been away a few months.
We arrived in Beirut, high-minded and haughty. Our blood was up. We had earned a reputation and were known as the “Special Force”. We loved to show off. The tense situation in the Christian regions was aggravating. The Syrian troops sought to humiliate us and break us down openly to prove a point. While as high spirited as we were, we started ticking the Syrian troops on the sly, then defied them overtly at the checkpoints.
By the end of 1997, I was arrested at a Syrian checkpoint at Jisr Al Basha. This area had been a token of our past victory. I was carrying a weapon and as a result was taken to the headquarters in Horsh Tabet-Sin El Fil. There a Syrian officer, Ibrahim Howaiji and his soldiers set out to smite me. For three long days, I was beaten and tortured by the Syrians. Finally, my Commanding Chief Tony Mhanna of Section 104 rescued me and I returned to Furn El Shebbak.
From that moment on my hatred for the Syrians turned into a terrifying bloody-thirsty impulse. I was seized by an uncontrollable craving for vengeance which I could not uproot nor shelve. Unable to lay my eyes on them, to quench my thirst for vengeance, I decided to leave Lebanon for a while. A friend got me a contract with a Lebanese Christian who ran a huge lead work store in Saudi Arabia. That was my chance, I had to pick it before getting into big trouble.
Once away from home, the Cedars, the Cross and the Cause haunted me again. I worked all right, but very quickly. I could not help defending the Christian position and openly expressed my hatred for the Palestinians. No matter how strongly my boss warned me, I just could not keep my mouth shut. I knew I had nothing, yet everything to lose. My situation was getting terribly fragile and uneasy. Finally, after a big argument over the situation in Lebanon with a fellow worker who was a Palestinian, the Saudi police had to intervene. I was put on a plane back to Beirut. I had stayed in Saudi Arabia for four months and was just back where I had started.
While I was away, tension had been building between members of the Lebanese Front. President Soleiman Franjyeh was preparing to disassociate from the Christian Coalition. Conflicts were growing between him and Sheikh Pierre Gemayel and the Kataeb party. Franjyeh was looking for a reason to break away. Once again, another Christian leader, signaled the impending crucifixion of the Lebanese Christians in exchange for money and prestige. The elderly and supposedly wise man was not concerned about the consequences of his actions. He urged Kataeb party members to evacuate their stations and move their activities away from the North, specifically Zghorta-el Zawiya, the Franjiieh’s fief. He wanted this because the “Marada” of his son, Tony could then alone be in control of the region. This move would ensure that the fortunes acquired by through illegal taxes levied against the people and economic institutions would be in his control. Most of the money had been taken from the two cement and roofing businesses on the coast of Shekka and from taxes levied on the hydrocarbon transported from the Port of Tripoli.
By early Spring, the Kataeb Party was losing men every day killed by the Franjieh’s Marada. Local Kataeb party members were denied services in Zghorta bakeries, gasoline stations, and drugstores. Those who refused to respect Franjyeh supplied blacklist had their premises dynamited.
Following a two-day session in Zghorta, the Lebanese Front members came out empty handed, frustrated and dispirited. Tension continued to build between the Christians of the North and other regions until they reached the breaking point. That was when the Christian leaders resorted to assassination to settle their feuds. The Kataeb Party called for maximum restraint, but soon the restraint turned into bitter defeat. Pressures were exerted upon the leaders from the power base to stop the on-going internal bloodshed and avenge the innocent victims.
On June 8, 1978, a prominent Kataeb leader in Zghorta, Joud El Bayeh, was killed by six armed elements sent by Tony Franjieh. Sheikh Bashir decided to strike back to safeguard the credibility and unity of the Christian ranks.
On June 13, 1978, only six days later, a Kataeb commando led by Samir Geagea, a native of Bcharre, Zghorta’s rival in ancestral feuds, and backed up by Elie Hobeika, launched a commando attack killing Tony Franjyeh, his family and his guards. The militiamen who were on the front line confirmed that Elie Hobeika was responsible for firing the deadly shots. Samir Geagea was seriously wounded and lost consciousness before getting into the house. Reports confirmed that the raid was carried out by a commando force of 500 members. Elie Hobeika had, in full conscience, overlapped the orders!
Later Samir Geagea claimed that the raid had only been a punitive operation to kidnap 12 members of the Franjieh clan who had killed Al Bayeh, seize Ehden and hold it until the Franjieh's evacuated Chekka. Chekka was the site of the cement and roofing factories. The Chekka rackets represented a lucrative source of revenue for whichever side controlled it. Joseph Abou Khalil reported that the raid’s purpose was only to arrest Tony Franjyeh and bring him before the War Council where he would be detained until the Marada, Giants Brigade, stopped tracking the Kataeb Party members. Elie Hobeika actively perpetuated the mystery and his participation remained fuzzy.
The beginning of 1978 had been marked by a series of bloody incidents including the arrest of Sheikh Bashir Gemayel at a Syrian checkpoint in Ashrafieh. The Lebanese army clashed with the Syrian soldiers in Fayadiyeh. Syrian heavy artillery pounded the Christian sectors while the Lebanese Front and Forces supported the national army.
When I returned from Saudi Arabia, and joined my section 104 in Furn el Shebbak, I soon realized that the real action was at the War Council (Majliss Harbi) headed by Bashir Gemayel. On April 16, 1978, Gemayel, before the Ehden incident, sent an official message to the Lebanese government and the Syrian command, demanding the Cabinet clarify the prerogatives of the Syrians operating within the Arab deterrent Force. Bashir further stressed to the government that until his demand was met, the Unified Command of the Lebanese Forces would attend to the security of the citizens in the areas under its control.
I had to move fast to learn the details of the warlords, the center of decision-taking and war-making. It was Fuad Abou Nader and Poussy (Massoud) Ashkar, both comrades in arms, in south Lebanon who paved the way for me and introduced me to Elie Hobeika. Elie Hobeika was promoted chief of the Third Branch Division, in charge of special military operations. Elie Hobeika became nicknamed “H.K.” Poussy Ashkar was his assistant. My first assignment was to control the storehouses, and keep track of the Shabab who were sent on training sessions to Israel. My admiration and fondness for Elie Hobeika grew as I got to know him better backing him as we fought for the “Cause” together.
Barely a month after my new assignment, Elie Hobeika and G. Melco, a close assistant of Hobeika’s, were taking Elias Moussa to the post in Adonis, mid-way between Beirut and Junieh, for questioning. Elias Moussa was charged with having developed secret contacts with the Palestinians. While in route to Adonis, Hobeika was arrested at a Lebanese army checkpoint and flown by helicopter to an unknown destination. Hobeika’s boys flared into a towering rage and immediately took to the streets, arms in hand. Hobeika was my direct chief, and I was at a loss. I could not and would not take any prerogative without him. So I decided to go home and lock myself in and wait.
While I was cooped up in utter dejection, eating my heart out, some of the boys reported to me that a Lebanese army helicopter carrying Saudi Ambassador Ail El Shaer and heading to West Beirut had flown over Junieh. The helicopter had been heavily shot and forced to land in a lettuce field right under “Le Christ Roi” area. Ambassador Ail El Shaer, safe but scared, was driven to Maroun Machaalani. Nazo and their boys believed the helicopter was transporting their Military Chief Elie Hobeika and ordered the attack to force a landing and liberate their Chief. When Machaalani discovered his mistake, he blew up the empty battered helicopter in despair. Mashaalani sustained severe burns as a result and spend time at the Hotel Dieu Hospital. Nazo suffered scared hands. He received medical treatment and was sent home to recovery.
Despite their attempts, Elie Hobeika, “H.K.”, was not released. Instead, H.K. and Butros Khawand, were charged with the assassination of a Lebanese army commando officer Kozhaya Chamoun. Chamoun was a rough and tough giant commanding the unit in charge of Fuad Butros, the foreign Minister’s residence in Ashrafieh. Chamoun’s corpse was found near the water reservoir in Karantina. The original order to kidnap Chamoun came from Bashir Gemayel and Poussy Ashkar. They were seized by a towering rage and resentment to avenge the cold-blooded murder of another army officer Captain Samir El Ashkar, shot down in his home town of Beit Shabab, and knocked off in the ambulance carrying him to hospital. I was told that the combatants had marched in force to Fuad Boutros’ residence and clashed with the Lebanese army commando Unit (Al Mukafaha) posted there. Still Elie Hobeika was not released.
Only mounting pressures on the Lebanese Army finally led to the unconditional liberation of Elie Hobeika. After his release, Hobeika invited the boys to celebrate in Broumana. We ate, drank and saw the video film of Israeli Antebe Raid programmed operations to liberate a high-jacked Israeli Al Aal plane. I remember we were so excited that we believed we were actually the Israeli commando force operating the raid. I felt so close to H.K then, that I pledged to give him my life.
Elie Hobeika was the hero and the bold and daring “knight” I had to follow and serve. He felt the need for my skills. From then on, I became his shadow and his “dog”. I slowly began to lose my identity; acting, reacting, and thinking one with him to stay alive. I was even known as “Cobra-H.K.”. I honestly and truly believed then that the future of Lebanon and its Christian People was in H.K.’s hands. He was the brain, I was the muscle. I had to protect and preserve him by carrying out his orders on public and private levels. His name, Elie Hobeika, was no longer uttered. He was H.K. A set of initials that terrified and struck awe into the people of the eastern regions.
H.K. was rising quickly in power. He was on the military and Intelligence level. Bashir was his supreme authority. H.K. controlled the ground. As chief of the Third Division, he organized it into three Rapid Intervention Commando Units of 50 highly trained units. One unit was under the command of Maroun Mashaalani which was in charge of special operations. Its symbol is the skull. The second unit was commanded by Joseph El Haji known as Abou Halka. The unit was comprised of boys from Zahleh. Their mission was to deal with the Bekaa area. The third unit was under the command of George Melco, composed mostly of the “shabab” from Hay el Syrian. This unit was the fiercest of all assigned to deal with Ashrafieh, Badaro and Ayn Remaneh.
I never showed any interest in whatever was brewing because psychologically I had conditioned myself to hear without listening and forget instantly whatever was not for me to deal with. I blindly followed H.K.’s orders.
As H.K.’s shadow, I knew H.K. was deeply annoyed that he had not yet been able to be promoted to Chief of Intelligence and Police (Jihaz El Amn) commonly known as the Second Bureau. H.K. intensely felt he rightly deserved the position. It was run by Gaby Toutounji, Bachir Gemayel’s brother-in-law. Gaby Toutonunji was busy dealing with a wave of boobie-trapped cars sent by the Palestinians to massacre the Christians in the eastern regions. Innocent victims were being killed and panic set in. Elie Hobeika took advance of this panic to gain power. He sought influence from the leaders.
Fuad Abou Nader, Tony Kessrouani and Fadi Frem, all former members of the “Bejin”, the intellectuals, members of Bashir’s inner circle, pressed for H.K.’s appointment as he was a full time militiaman. They justified this appointment because H.K. was more experienced based on his Israeli military and intelligence training and because he was more gutsy, ruthless and shrewd. Hobeika for his part came to grips with Toutounji, both wasting precious time over internal conflicts. Bashir teamed up with his brother-in-law and H.K. was sent home. Bomb cars swarmed into the Christian sectors killing more people everyday. In the end, Bashir not only reinstated H.K. in his military position, but promoted him to Chief of Security and Intelligence (Jihaz Al Amn). H.K’s cruelty, sagacity and treachery had gained him momentum and his growing power was feared.
While the internal power games were being played, the War Council decided that it was necessary to contain inter-Christian flare-ups between the Kataeb Forces and the Noumour el Ahrar , Tiger Forces. The forces were accused of resorting to skullduggery, running illegal gambling dens, smuggling drugs, specially hash, out of the five ports they controlled, and firing on the Palestinians.
The year 1979 was marked by boobie trapped cars and new and deadly internal Christian conflicts. On the ground, clashes were erupting daily between the Kataeb and the Noumour el Ahrar , Tigers Forces, leaving many dead and wounded. The clashes swayed from Ayn Remaneh, Furn El Shebbak to Safra and Bouar in the Kessrouan. Bitter resentment swiftly seized the population. The big explosion was about to take place. The course had been set, the only question that remained was “when”?
On May 6, 1980, during an extraordinary meeting of the Commanding War Council officers, Sheikh Bashir Gemayel announced: “There is a crucial problem I want to discuss with you. A historical issue relative to our Cause. The problem between the Kataeb and the Ahrar. I am the only one who can deal with it. I’ll put forward a proposition and I want your opinion”.
While Sheikh Bashir Gemayel spoke those words, resentments continued to grow as the three Christian political currents were taking shape. The Kataeb were opening bridges with Syria, Chamoun aligned with the Franjieh, and the Lebanese Forces adamantly continued to express their anti-Syrian convictions. Inter-Christian dissension was now expressed in the open. The big explosion was inevitable. The leaders, the people had forgotten the unity, the Christian principles and values, the Cause. The war game had the upper hand. Treason was part of the game on every possible level and in every single phase of the war!
Late summer of 1979, as Kataeb Party leaders were ordered to hand over war prisoners detained in the Syrian jailhouse of Mazze since 1978, the Syrian artillery pounded the northern towns of Niha, Deyr Bella and Douma in collusion with the Franjiehs’ Marada. The minute the clashes allayed, violence deliberately exploded between the Kataeb and the Tigers in the Southern Matn area. The Tigers kidnapped 10 Kataebs in Houmal, who in turn attacked the Chamoun's Section in Kfarshima/Betshay and occupied it. To top it all, after one Kataeb was killed in Wadi Shahrour. The Lebanese army intervened in favor of the Tigers in Houmal. The outcome was heavy. Nine Kataeb were killed and the Section besieged!
There was only one alternative: Surgery. The Safra or “Red Light” operation had been set up by Elias El Zayek and Fuad Abou Nader and carried out on D-Day by Elie Hobeika.
On Monday July 7, 1980, the Lebanese Forces simultaneously attacked the Tigers’ barracks, National Liberal Party ports, offices and other strong points. About 1200 militiamen among the toughest were assembled in Jeita Grotto in the Kessrouan for the assault.
Bashir and Hobeika had originally planned the attack at first light. Mindful of the Ehden mess, they sacrificed the element of surprise and waited until 10:30 a.m. when Tiger militia commander Dany Chamoun had left his seaside home in Safra-Marine to go to work on a resort project in Fakra in the mountain. The fighting continued through the day and most of the night A number of innocent civilians were killed. We fired indiscriminately, according to instructions, specially at the seaside marina and hotel complexes where the Tigers had fallen back.
It was at Rabieh Marine that our hatred for those who stood in our way, betrayed us, and killed our friends, spurt out. We were zombies, unaware that the people we were slaughtering were Christians! Media accounts reported that the soldiers were drugged to justify why such an event would have been carried out. We were simply brain-washed and manipulated. Elie Hobeika’s voice dictated strict orders throughout the assault. I was hypnotized. I was doing what I was told, throwing people out of upper-story windows. Shooting others in the swimming pool. It was kill or die, and we had no time for reflection or moods.
Elie Hobeika personally steered the operation. Maroun Mashaalani headed the convoy to Tabarja and Safra, in a civilian car, came under heavy machine gun fire from the Kataeb guys who mistook them for Tiger infiltrators. The operation ended in a pool of blood. Tracy Dany Chamoun fled the North to seek protection from the Syrian ally, Soleiman Franjieh. He vowed vengeance and traveled abroad. H.K would do the same six years later. Tracy Dany Chamoun was safely conducted to Soleiman Franjieh by Pierre Rizk, a prominent member of Hobeika’s clan. Contrary to what was claimed later, she was treated with respect and consideration.
After the Safra assault, Bashir became King of the Christian sectors and Hobeika sky rocketed to the highest military position. H.K. positioned and asserted himself and inspired and manipulated his power which he cleverly cultivated. His lieutenants in “Jihaz Al Amn”, the most important section of the War Council, were Michel Zouein in charge of Operations, Emile Eid in charge of Investigations, Tony Aramane in charge of the Borders and Crossways, Elias Chartouni in charge of Drugs and Crimes, and Gaby Boustany in charge of inquiries and investigations.
Assaad Shaftary whose office was in Ashrafieh/Sioufi was First Lieutenant and took orders directly from H.K. Second in command were the Security officers: Maroun Mashaalani, George Melco and Joseph Hajj (Abou Halka). For my part, I was his bodyguard, his “homme de confiance” and “homme de main”, his henchman and I felt like a King. I had the world at my feet, and the future in my arms! What more could I want?
At that time, I did not give a damn about politics and what went on in meetings. If I ever heard something I made it a point to wipe it out because, I could not take the risk of my tongue slipping and jeopardizing my Chief’s action and the Christian Cause. Whatever was discussed was too big for me to comprehend or discuss. However, try as I might every single moment, event or discussion had been carefully stored in my mind.
Today I remember the first time President Camille Chamoun came to attend the Lebanese Forces War Council meeting about two months after the Safra Operation. I heard them say that Bashir Gemayel paid as much as One million United States dollars to President Chamoun and allowed him to take his old cut of the profits from the main port of Dbayeh,. That was how he won him over.
Nevertheless, the high-handed power struggle between Chamoun and the Tiger militia continued to upset the Christian community. Things settled down for a while and the Christians accepted to be represented by a single man, Bashir and a single Organization, the Lebanese Forces.
The events of July 7, 1980, and the Israeli Operation, less than two years later were all part of a screenplay spelled liberation and triumph and which reestablished the Maronite ascendancy.
On August 3, 1980, President Camille Chamoun asked the Lebanese army to protect the Sections of the NLP in the Southern suburbs of Hadath and Ayn Remaneh, while reaffirming that he was President of an exclusive political party.
On October 31, 1980, Bashir decided to brush aside the Units of the army. Violent fighting broke out. An accord was reached and the army would be deployed along the demarcation lines. Internal security in “Liberated Lebanon” was to be maintained by the Lebanese Forces alone. Two months later the Zahleh battle broke out.
Meanwhile, Bashir, his cause and his lieutenants, was being strengthened by the Israelis. I remember dinners were devoted to thanking his lieutenants for their good work and keeping their spirits up. They had everything of which they could dreamed.