Carlos myth stalks the city of hired guns: In the ruins of Beirut, Robert Fisk discovers enigmatic traces of the clandestine days of the Jackal

WE WERE lunching beside the ruins of the old St Georges Hotel when a Lebanese friend, the wife of a Beirut merchant, approached us. 'So you've got Carlos,' she said. 'You' meant me, us, the West. But her small daughter was puzzled. 'Who's Carlos?' she asked. And quick as a flash, the woman, a Christian who could not be more Westernised, replied: 'He was a member of the resistance.'

And there it was, the same Beirut ambivalence we came across all over town in the hot and steamy 24 hours we had spent searching for the footprints of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez. Even after the portly, middle-aged murderer had been locked up in Paris, his myth was still alive in the city he knew so well in the early 80s, before the suicide bombers of Islam took over from the hired guns of Arab 'nationalism'.

Ask about Carlos in Beirut this week and you learn a lot about the Middle East. We had breakfasted with an Algerian friend, a doctor, safe in Lebanon from the inferno of her own country. 'You will not believe how popular Carlos was with us,' she remarked, almost casually. 'He was a personal friend of (President) Boumedienne. He came once to Algiers to have surgery and they put him in the Mustapha Hospital in the centre of the city for the operation. And hundreds - thousands - of Algerians came to the hospital calling his name, worshipping him. They had to bring in guards.'

Deep in the narrow alleyways of a Palestinian camp in west Beirut, a fighter of Carlos's generation had a question. 'Carlos - do you think he really exists? Don't you think he's just one of these media creatures you people invent - like Abu Nidal?' We chatted for a while, his rusting fan fighting a hopeless battle with the oven-like heat. And then there slipped out one of those little elliptical stories that we heard all over Beirut in the hours after Carlos' arrest.

'In 1982, Carlos arrived in Lebanon. We heard he had brought some ETA men for training. Then the Israelis invaded and he was trapped, right here in Beirut. You know, there were a lot of strange people here then - we used to have two IRA men proof-reading the English edition of Fatah magazine - and Carlos was stuck with the rest of them. But they got away on the boats.' The boats? The ships that carried Yasser Arafat and his PLO guerrillas into exile, that left Beirut protected by US warships? A thin smile was the only reply. It was like a bottle containing a message, retrieved from the sea only to fall from one's hands as one pulled at the cork.

What was the message? It could not be found on the Beirut police files. Their computer showed that no Ilich Ramirez Sanchez had ever been pulled in for 'international terrorism', murder or even just shooting the lights. In an east European embassy the same ignorance persisted. 'You know, some of us were here in Carlos' time and we've all been asking each other if we met him,' one grey-haired diplomat mused. 'And none of us did. When the Soviets had their diplomats kidnapped (in 1985), the KGB pulled all their contacts out of the files, everyone whom they might get in touch with. And Carlos was not among them.'

A Lebanese in an old clothing store in south Beirut says: 'It was in 1976, the beginning of the war and this man would come in, the same guy as in the early picture of Carlos - a bit chubby, he spoke Arabic like a foreigner, he worked for the PFLP - and he would order ten pairs of jeans at a time or ten T-shirts. Then one day they told me he had died. But I didn't believe it. You know why? Because the PFLP used to put up martyrs' posters saying 'these commandos died fighting Zionists in Palestine'. And then I saw a man in one of those posters, walking around alive and healthy. It was the PFLP's way of 'cleaning' their men, of moving them around.'

As usual this week, Lebanon's private television stations re-transmitted Western news-casts. In every Lebanese station - independently and without any censorship - the staff cut out precisely those sections of each report on Carlos which suggested that he had spent a decade of retirement in Damascus. This is what the Lebanese call 'auto-censure', a mystical, immemorial practice which protects viewers from gratuitously untrue remarks about friendly nations.

And then suddenly, on Wednesday night, in the muggy dusk, in a grimy street just off the southern suburbs, in a dusty, shuttered house, the bottle with the message was briefly, fearfully uncorked. Palestinian friends had given us the address. And there sat a nervous, frightened man with kind, slightly haunted eyes. Carlos, he admitted, had been a 'good friend'. And he had talked about Carlos, years ago. And then, shortly afterwards, someone had stepped up to him outside his shuttered house, and fired a bullet into his brain. 'I still have a hole here,' the man said, his finger tracing the delicate trajectory of that long-ago bullet as it passed behind his ear and smashed into his head. 'It was a very big hole - look, you can still see where the bullet went in. I was lucky. I survived. Who did it? That is a dangerous question.' And his eyes glittered in a friendly, frightened way as he stood up and walked out of his own front door, leaving us sitting in the house behind him.

News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Support Technician (2nd Line / Server Support) - Bedford

£24000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: 2nd line IT Support Techn...

Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...

Science Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Are you a qualified science t...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments