BEIRUT DIARY: A giant of the war falls before the wrath of God

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The Independent Online
FIRST, they ripped down the bombed-out American embassy. Then last year, the wreckage of the US Marine base - 241 US servicemen died in the 1983 suicide bombing - was bulldozed away. But on Monday God took a hand and tore down one of the Lebanese civil war's most enduring monuments: the great yellow, red and green ferris wheel that had turned merrily for the past 20 years. Bombs had exploded 20 yards away. Shells had crashed into the funfair behind. But it was a tempest of even more explosive proportions that brought the whole thing twisting and buckling to the ground this week.

I'd been on the big wheel myself with a score of Lebanese families. I'd even helped make a Channel 4 television series in which our cameraman, Steve Foster, filmed Beirut from one of the bucket chairs that now lies crumpled at the bottom of my street. But I wasn't surprised at its fate. Not in living memory had a typhoon of this proportion struck the city, a monstrous wind quite unlike the hamsin storm that normally dumps Egypt's grey sand over Lebanon at the start of spring. I flew back to Beirut on an Air France Airbus as the first tempest subsided, a great camel ride of a flight that landed in Beirut with a coating of yellow sand on the plane's wings.

For the sand falling across Beirut is from a sahra wind, from Libya, along with so much rain that our sunsets have come dark red through the cyclone. At my home on the Corniche, the deluge has been flying horizontally off the sea, smashing into my apartment block to be blasted upwards by the wind. I found our family cat Walter -named after the news editor of the International Herald Tribune - sitting in astonishment on the balcony as rain streamed from the ground towards the top of the house. Maybe this was what it felt like to go down on the Titanic (of which more later).

ON Tuesday, I drove down the rain-lashed coast to the south Lebanese town of Tibnin where the Irish battalion of the United Nations peace force was celebrating Saint Patrick's Day. Colonel Colm Doyle - Lord Carrington's ADC in Yugoslavia - inspected his men alongside the UN's new Fijian force commander, a massive figure - and a massive improvement on his Polish predecessor who filled almost every page of the UN's magazine, Politburo- style, with pictures of himself. The soldiers wore sprigs of shamrock, forced to receive their latest UN medals under a tent whose roof vibrated with the downpour. The UN's equally massive Turkish spokesman, Timur Goksel, had to shout to make himself heard, difficult since the confident, loquacious - and brilliant - Goksel speaks English so well but at such speed that he sometimes verges on the incomprehensible.

But what sounded over Tibnin on Tuesday were the claps of thunder that detonated down the airwaves to Ireland as RTE, the Irish state broadcasting service, interviewed its UN soldiers live down the line to Dublin. Presenters shouted through the storm as great blue and grey clouds trembling with lightning drifted down the wadis around Tibnin. And there at one point was Fisk, waffling on to Irish listeners about the inconsistencies of Lebanon's constitution - in Mayo, no doubt, they speak of little else - while being drowned out by God's anger overhead.

For a people inured to tragedy, you might wonder why the Lebanese have been turning out in legions to see Titanic. But they have, packing six cinemas (a Beirut record) at 55,000 spectators a week (another record). Does the liner's fate appeal to them as the elements close in on Beirut? Are they attracted by the name of the ship, which in Arabic means "Let's have sex"? Or could it be that we westerners simply do not know what the Beirutis know: that 123 Lebanese, praying vainly for God's mercy in steerage, went down with the Titanic, their names unrecorded because they boarded as wait-listed passengers at Cherbourg. For the most part, they were poor Christians from the Bekaa valley and - because their names went unlisted and, no doubt, because they were of "Middle East appearance" - no one in the great world cared about their fate except the families left behind in Lebanon.

It was the same case with the five Sidon fishermen who vanished into the storm on Monday. Their names were buried in the weather reports in the papers, consigned to the waves which crashed over the coast road and sprayed across the wreckage of the Beirut ferris wheel. But on Tuesday, their two little boats appeared at the entrance to Sidon port. They had lost sight of shore, roped themselves together in the typhoon and fought off the sea for 12 hours while praying - Titanic-style - for God's mercy. Astonished police and harbour workers watched the two battered hulks creep into calm waters. And so it was that Bassam Habli, Hassan Chaabane, Rifaat al-Aadil, Farj Halime and Khaled Awja came home.