I once received a message from Elie Hobeika, who was killed yesterday in a Beirut car bombing. Elie, I was told, was very unhappy with my book about the Lebanon war, Pity The Nation.
In it, I had described how he led the Phalangist murderers into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila in 1982 – under the eyes of the Israelis, who did nothing – and slaughtered up to 1,700 Palestinian refugees. Who did I think I was? Elie was very unhappy. Elie was the Al Pacino of Lebanon.
I sent back a message. Elie had problems, I said. The Israelis themselves had named him as the principal murderer and war criminal in the Kahan commission report – the same inquiry which said that Ariel Sharon, then Defence Minister and now Israeli Prime Minister, was "personally responsible'" for the slaughter. If Elie wanted to shut me up, I said, I would ask about Sabra and Chatila at every press conference he gave in Beirut. The next thing I received from Elie was a bottle of champagne.
During the Lebanese civil war, Elie had changed sides. After being trained in an Israeli camp – no American bombing for "terrorists" trained in Israel, of course – he led the pro-Israeli Christian Maronite Phalange into the Beirut camp for the massacre. But Sister Syria later smiled upon him. He led an attack against his former militia associates and, in post-war Beirut became minister for electricity in the pro-Syrian Lebanese government, a period marked by massive power cuts and little electricity.
So outraged was the Lebanese government at the corruption of his ministry that, so it was said, four Lebanese Army trucks were sent to his east Beirut home to retrieve carpets, furniture and personal effects worth up to £7.2m looted from public coffers. The Palestinians longed for his death. The Syrians withdrew their security cover, the Israelis remained indifferent – until he threatened to grass on Mr Sharon.
Despite his mistresses he was a lonely man. Morose, unable to travel for fear of arrest for war crimes and defiant in the face of continued accusations of massacre. His young fiancée had been raped and murdered by Palestinian gunmen in the town of Damour in 1975. He hated Palestinians – although he later employed a Palestinian from Haifa to run his public relations outfit.
As a government minister, he sought respectability. When the father of Mai Kahale, the Lebanese President's spokes-woman, died, he was there in an armchair, in the family home, grieving with the relatives. When the Pope went to Leban-on, Mr Hobeika was standing obsequiously in line to bow before the Holy Father. When Time magazine editors were due to be hosted by the Leban-ese Prime Minister, Mr Hobeika was invited to the state dinner – but seated on a table without journalists, a pariah minister. He was suave, intelligent, ruthless and, like many war criminals, a lady-killer. His former bodyguard, codenamed "Cobra", listed his mistresses in a book later banned in Lebanon, creating a scandale in Beirut even more animated than the condemnation of the camp massacres.
The 1,700 civilians were murdered by Hobeika Phalangist thugs under the eyes of the Israelis. The Israelis were later to recall his response to a Phalangist officer who asked what he should do with Palestinian civilian prisoners: "Don't ask me such a stupid question again," Mr Hobeika laughingly replied. Later, he claimed he was in Sweden at the time of the massacre.
Five years ago Elie thought he might have a chance of becoming President of Lebanon. I received a call from Elie's old friend, Rudy Baludi. How about dinner at the Vieux Quartierrestaurant in east Beirut?
In the seedy bar, Rudy explained Elie's problem. He might want to be President. He was, after all, a Maronite Christian – the main condition for the presidency – and had the people of Lebanon at heart.
What was my advice? How did he deal with those unfortunate stories about Sabra and Chatila? I said he should tell the truth. In fact, I suggested he told the whole story to The Independent – the killings, the rape, the slaughter. Once he'd got this of his chest, he could see how the world responded to a confessed war criminal. Murderers had become presidents before, I said. Killers had become leaders in Africa, China, the Soviet Union, the Arab Nations, Israel; why – dare I say it? – a Wehrmacht intelligence officer had become President of Austria.
Alas, Elie decided he had no chance of becoming President. The interview never took place although, a few weeks later, I received another message. Elie would like a signed copy of Pity The Nation. I sent it, even though it contained evidence of his complicity in the 1982 massacres.
Last July, he started to walk on thin ice. Anxious to reconstitute his identity – or fearful of being set up for war crimes' charges by Mr Sharon – Mr Hobeika called a press conference. "I am in possession of evidence of my innocence concerning Sabra and Chatila," he told us. "And I have evidence of what actually happened at Sabra and Chatila which will throw a completely new light on the Kahan commission report."
My last message from Elie was that bottle of champagne: a magnum of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Rosé 1988. I never drank it. I felt it was contaminated. It lay in my fridge here in Beirut last night. I know many in Lebanon would like to drink it in celebration. But I suspect that, if I uncorked it, blood would spurt out.
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