A couple of weeks ago I suggested to use massive amounts of tear gas against the Fatah al Islam militants hold up in the Nahr al Bared camp in Northern Lebanon.
This because you can hide from shells and bullets, but you can’t from teargas. I code named my pledge: Crying is better than dying.
The problem though is that the Lebanese army is still not using teargas, but keeps on shooting and shelling. Obviously, without a lot of results.
Believe me, I lived for three and a half years in the besieged Bosnian capital Sarajevo (During the 1992-1995 war). Over a million grenades were fired at the city by Serb forces. But we could still run around town. Or hide in basements. Or find refuge behind walls, cars or trees. Or we would just stay at home, preferably in the bathroom. No, it did not have anything to do with stomach problems.
The bathroom, because it is the safest place in the house. Most artillery shells or mortars (which means they are fired from the the ground, not dropped from planes) actually do not do a lot of damage. For sure, if your house gets hit by a shell or a mortar, one or two rooms will be destroyed.
But artillery shells rarely penetrate more than one wall. This of course makes the bathroom an ideal location. The bathroom is commonly located in the middle of an apartment or house. And there are no windows so you wont get hurt by glass splinters.
An average house needs to be hit by around 150 shells to be fully destroyed. But stay in the bathroom, or even better, under the house in a tunnel, and you can basically survive everything up to shell nr. 120. This is exactly what Fatah al Islam’s fighters’ are doing.
In comparison – bombs dropped by airplanes are the real monsters. You need just one 500 kg bomb to level 15 houses. Hiding in the bathroom becomes rather futile. It only would result into an extra smelly death.
Let me be clear though. I don’t claim artillery shells are fun. Because they aren’t and they, for sure, kill. Around 12.000 Bosnians died during the siege of Sarajevo, 60.000 got wounded – mostly because of shells (and snipers by the way).
My god, those shells, those mortars are extremely scary. The nasty sound of an incoming mortar,the thunder-like explosion, the dust, the panic. It’s not a funny business.
I once stayed in a wooden bunker of the Bosnian army while our position got pounded by Serb artillery. Shells exploding at fifteen, maybe twenty meters. You lay on the ground, face down, hugging the dirt, trying to get into it, hoping you will reach Australia or any other place than this one. Every person defines fear differently. But to me, dear reader, this was fear redefined.
Back now to the situation in the North of Lebanon. Unfortunately, the Lebanese army –which lacks an air force - preferred shelling and shooting over teargas. Why be creative if you can do it the traditional way?
The result though is less convincing. After over 70 days (TEN weeks!) Fatah al Islam is still not defeated, the 2 km by 2 km camp still not liberated. That is pretty amazing, you might say. Well, wait till you hear the death toll on the Lebanese army side: Over 122 soldiers and officers killed. Truly stunning.
And the end of Nahr al Bared might be near, the fight is not over yet. By the way, most of the Lebanese media are reporting that Fatah al Islam fighters “now only control an area of 100 square meters” . Yep. That is about the size of my apartment. What they mean of course is an area of 100 by 100 meters; which equals 10.000 square meters. It seems that military- and journalistic amateurism go hand in hand.
Recently I visited Pakistan and witnessed another siege. In the capital Islamabad, pro-Taliban militants were surrounded in their Red Mosque-compound by the Pak Army. After a seven day siege the army attacked and flushed them out within 12 hours.
And guess what the Pakistani army used during their assault?
Of course, the Pak military used machine guns and RPG’s (bazooka’s) too. But tear gas and stun grenades were the favorite dish that day. From a distance, I could see white plumes of gas above the mosque.
Shortly after the storming of the Red Mosque came to an end, I visited the place. Except for guns and hand grenades, I noticed many gas masks. Apparently, the militants had expected tear gas, so they were prepared. But you can only prepare yourself up to a certain level.
Having a gas mask in these kind of circumstances is great (put it on in bed and it scares the hell out of your wife). But a gas mask is useless without an air filter in it. If you are being tear gassed, you have to replace the air filter every couple of hours with a new one. Without a doubt – the Fatah al Islam militants stored gas masks in Nahr al Bared before they started their insane operation of trying to create an Islamic State in Northern Lebanon. But did they have enough air filters?
Because if the Lebanese army would have started using tear gas from day one, I really doubt it the militants would be breathing normally on day seven. Let alone day 70.
Anyhow. It is all too late now. At least 122 army men are dead, many more wounded. For sure, Lebanon’s soldiers are mostly brave and good fighters. But the death toll could have been much lower, the defeat of Fatah al Islam in the camp much quicker.
Cynically, these days I notice more cars in Beirut and Tripoli with pictures of fallen soldiers on the back window than cars with Hassan Nasrallah bumper stickers. That is not a good sign.