Tripoli Tends Its Wounds in Silence and Despair
By: Doha Shams
Published Saturday, August 24, 2013
As soon as you approach Centrale Street, where al-Salam Mosque is located, glass will crunch beneath your feet with almost every step. Within a 200-meter radius from the blast site, glass fragments cover the entire street.
Roads in Tripoli were deserted, save for gunmen on motorbikes roaming in formations of two. Some were armed with pistols, others with automatic assault rifles.
The militants stared at passers-by like us with suspicion, as though the street belonged to them, and we were only strangers in our city that had just been hit by two terrorist bombings. I quicken my pace and walk toward the site of the second blast.
Outside the emergency entrance at the Islamic Hospital, scores of locals stood with grim faces. Some emerged from the hospital with bandages, as others waited outside, drinking coffee without saying a word.
The same exact scene unfolded outside the nearby Monla Hospital, where dozens of locals had gathered. Everyone was visibly in shock. We expected to hear the victims or their relatives crying out, but a deafening silence reigned over the place.
The closer one got to the blast site, near the imaginary point that separates Tripoli and the township of al-Mina, the streets turned grimmer. There was a burning smell in the air, which grew stronger as we were about 500 meters from ground zero.
I stopped a young man who seemed to be coming from the direction of the mosque. I asked him whether the street was traversable, and he replied, “You’re from Beirut, right? Go, there is nothing madam.” He then turned to another man in the distance who was giving him inquisitive looks and said, “It’s nothing. The woman just wants to go home.”
All shops and cafés are closed, except the hookah place near the bomb site. Some people sporting bandages and residents of nearby buildings sat on chairs outside the smashed café, under the shattered windows of buildings nearby and the glass from broken hookahs.
Out on the street, the wreckage of cars mixed with dead palm trees uprooted by the force of the explosion. Burnt, unripe oranges littered the road. Those sitting outside the café stared with hostility at the passers-by, who did not experience what they had seen firsthand, and only came here to “watch.”
These curious people inspected the devastated mosque and the surrounding debris. Around us, the buildings looked like aluminum corpses, as though a hurricane had just passed, taking with it most of their windows, doors, and balcony railings.
On both sides of the road, there were charred car chassis, and we hoped there weren’t any dead bodies inside. In the middle of the road, we saw the engine of one of the two cars that exploded, or so we were told.
“Two [cars], not one, have exploded,” one person said. But right now, nobody’s testimonial could be taken seriously. Indeed, unsolicited rumors and analyses are all too common in such times.
A forensic investigator, donning a cowboy hat on his head, approached the scene and started filming the engine and wreckage with his video camera.
Then at long last, we reached the mosque, or let’s say, a few meters away from it. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) surrounded the site with armored vehicles and cordoned it off with yellow police tape. The crater left by the explosion was quite deep, and the adjacent pavement looked as though a volcano had erupted beneath.
Interestingly, there were no army soldiers at the site when we arrived, only ISF officers. Perhaps the army and the ISF agreed that the latter should take over until further notice. The security services allowed us to come closer when a colleague called me, as she prepared to film her report for television.
From where she was standing, that is, the opposite side of the street where the home of retired Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi is located, I peeked at the blast site: The façade of the mosque was all but destroyed. Charred remains littered the area outside, though it was unclear whether they were human or material debris.
Hundreds of shoes were still on the stairs of the bombed-out mosque. My colleague pointed to a car near the mosque and said, “There is a charred body inside that car.” She said it as though guiding me to something that may benefit my story. But I did not want to go look. After all, what good would that do me?
One eyewitness said he was afraid the explosion had killed more than just the worshippers in the mosque, meaning the patrons of the many nearby cafés. In recent years, these cafés mushroomed in number, offering an outlet for young men and women in a city that otherwise offers little by way of entertainment. The man then continued, as if talking to himself, “God willing, the [victims] are not many, because it was 1:30 pm on Friday. Not a lot of people would be at the cafés at that time.”
We also met a man who lives a few blocks away. After the explosion, he went down to the street like a madman, looking for his sister who usually takes this road back home from the gym. He said, “I tried to contact her, but as usual when an explosion occurs, the lines were jammed. But I managed to make sure she is fine, and I came here immediately to check the damage and see if I could help.”
The man then spoke emotionally about how nearly 2,000 people had gathered within five or 10 minutes at the site and said, “They were … just silent … not a word. But there were men crying and old women who live in the buildings nearby screaming and covered in blood … how terrible.”
He maintained that the Red Cross, Civil Defense, and fire department did not arrive until 45 minutes later. This was astonishing to him because the headquarters of the Red Cross is near. He said, bitterly, “Man … the whole country is rotten.”
The TV crews under Rifi’s apartment building transmitted their reports. “At least 35 dead so far,” one colleague said. But upon hearing this, one friend who was with us commented, “What are you talking about? 45 dead so far and 370 wounded. The number will rise much more. Thank God, people had not started leaving the mosque yet, because the casualties would have been much higher. Most of those who died or were injured were outside the mosque.”
He then said that someone told him about a woman who rushed after the first explosion at al-Taqwa Mosque to the area to get her son from al-Salam mosque. She was waiting for him outside when the car bomb exploded, killing her in her car.
Suddenly, an angry voice announced from the loudspeaker, “To the public, please leave the site quickly. Move along, we do not want anyone to remain here.” At this point, a policeman began pushing the crowds behind the yellow tape.
We moved away from the site, on foot, as there were no cars around. As we turned the corner in the direction of Azmi Street, we heard gunfire. It seems that the ISF had fired rounds in the air to convince those who stayed to leave.
The day was drawing to a close. On the walls around us, obituaries mixed with posters supporting al-Nusra Front and the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya in Cairo. As the sun was setting, the city was busy tending to its wounds, in silence and despair.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.