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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker