'Terrorist' son leaves parents bewildered: Robert Fisk in Beirut tracks down the family of the alleged Brooklyn gunman

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The Independent Online
THE Baz family have become addicted to the newsreel video of their son's arrest, playing and rewinding the tape on their old television set. Rashid Baz is jostled through the New York snow by three policemen. Just before he is pushed into the rear seat of a police car, he raises his head and smiles slightly.

When she sees that smile on the screen, his mother Suheila puts her hand to her eyes. Two Jordanian men are frogmarched to another car, heads bowed. The tape flicks to a blue limousine from which Rashid Baz is alleged to have opened fire at a busload of Orthodox Jews on the Brooklyn Bridge. Then a badly wounded Jewish student is pushed on a mobile stretcher to the door of an ambulance. In Beirut the Baz family watch in silence, shaking their heads.

They know Rashid has been charged with the attempted murder of 15 Hasidic Jews as they drove across the bridge last Tuesday, firing at their bus with a hand-gun and wounding four of the students on board. One of them died on Saturday of his wounds, another is critically wounded.

The Baz family also know that their son is now being demonised by the American media. ABC Television reported that Mossad had been following him for two years. The New York Daily News claimed that he was part of an international drug ring linked to Hizbollah. At least one news agency referred to him as an 'fundamentalist terrorist' who was taking revenge for the dozens of Palestinians slaughtered by an Israeli settler in Hebron the previous week. All this before his trial.

'I am not the father of a terrorist,' Najib Baz insisted at the weekend. 'They say Rashid was an 'Islamic fundamentalist'. But this could not be true. We are a Druze family. He is Druze. He never went to a mosque in his life. He likes girls and cars and sports. I sent him to college in the States in 1984 so that the militias couldn't make him fight in the war in Lebanon. I sent him there to keep him out of trouble. He was due to receive an American passport in a couple of months - to become an American citizen - so how could he be accused of this?'

It is true Rashid is Druze, the secular offshoot of Islam which has neither mosques nor imams nor any fundamentalist faction.

Rashid's family are gathered in the Beirut house, trying to call relatives in the States to discover the truth about the 28-year-old man on the video. They had never heard of Mohamed Hilal and Bassam Reyati, the two Jordanians accused of helping Rashid to attack the bus. And they are nervous when they agree that Rashid's mother, sitting on the sofa in tears, is a Palestinian, aware that the mere word 'Palestinian' might be used to imply her son's guilt.

'When I married my husband, I became a Druze,' she says. 'That's how it is in this part of the world - the woman becomes like her husband. Rashid was brought up a Druze. And he is Lebanese. He felt like any Arab about the Middle East, but he was not interested in politics. He didn't even watch the news on television.'

According to Rashid's uncle Bashir, he lived for much of his 10 years in New York in the home of his maternal uncle, Jamal, a Palestinian rumoured in Beirut to have been an intelligence officer for the Palestine Liberation Organisation during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when Rashid was 16. Akram Shayeb, a former Druze militia officer, says that the boy later fought with the Progressive Socialist Party forces, but Najib Baz, denies this. 'The only guns Rashid touched were hunting rifles,' he says.

When Rashid arrived in the US in 1984, he was both homesick and lonely. He studied engineering at Rockwell College but would call his parents every two or three weeks, pleading to come home to Beirut. When his Uncle Bashir went to see him two years later, however, he had settled into Jamal's home and made American and Arab acquaintances. 'He said he had Jewish friends, too,' Najib Baz says. 'He said his barber was Jewish.'

But his family admit they know less than they might of these years. They say they cannot remember the name of the Puerto Rican wife whom Rashid briefly married and divorced - he called her Pat - and do not know much about the work with which he financed his college studies.

'I think he worked in Jamal's supermarket for a time,' his father says. 'He telephoned often from New York. He called just last month, saying it was very cold but that he was doing OK. I told him to take care.'

In 1991 and again in 1992 Rashid came on holiday to Lebanon. His family produce snapshots of a smiling young man, sitting with his sister at the Summerland Hotel swimming pool in Beirut and dining at the expensive Nasr clifftop restaurant. He looks carefree, happy, a typical Lebanese planning to return to his country - as his family say he was - to set up a supermarket.

'He would send us presents from the States,' his sister Suzanne says. 'Perfume, T-shirts with the names of baseball teams printed on them, shoes for my brother Rami.' Another sister says: 'Rashid liked being an American.'

But the videotape still haunts the family as they sit in a circle around the walls of the living room. Najib Baz seems to fear the worst. 'We do not know what happened,' he admits. 'We cannot understand this. We hope the government of the United States will be fair to him - and will send him back here to his family if they don't want to keep him.'

But questions remain. Despite his Druze upbringing, was Rashid affected by news of the Hebron massacre? And why did he smile as he was pushed into the police car? Was he trying to show his innocence - or pride in a terrible deed?

Peter Pringle, page 15

(Photograph omitted)