TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Wissam Hamzeh lay in his hospital bed looking dazed, his wife and sister hovering nearby. Despite the bandages covering Hamzeh’s right shoulder, the women appeared relieved, occasionally breaking into exhausted smiles.
Hamzeh, a father of two, narrowly escaped death when a car bomb exploded outside the Salam Mosque where he was attending Friday prayers. The explosion came just minutes after another blast hit the Taqwa Mosque, also in Tripoli, where as of Friday night, the twin bombings had claimed at least 45 lives, with many more in critical condition.
Hamzeh said the sheikh had just finished his sermon on a series of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria and asked the congregation to rise for a special closing prayer when the bomb went off.
“I put my hands on the ground to get up, and we heard something explode, and the air was filled with fire and dust.”
In the chaos that followed, Hamzeh, who was bleeding and deaf from the explosion, managed to make his way out the mosque’s back door.
“I was barely conscious from the sound and the shock,” he recalled. “I started walking with the crowd ... the blood ... the bodies on the ground ... the screaming ... it was a terrible scene.”
Hamzeh said a group of young men brought him to Al-Nini Hospital, where he was eventually joined by his family.
“The situation here is really frightening,” said his wife, Daad. “We are all nerves, all the time. We can’t even think of our future, all we can do is look to God to protect us.”
Nursing director Ghazwa Barakat was in a meeting with other hospital staff when they felt the building shake. Soon, the emergency room was flooded with victims. “Within five minutes there was blood everywhere,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve never smelled anything like it.”
Barakat said the hospital immediately switched into emergency mode, and even off-duty doctors and nurses came in to assist. “We were ready,” she added proudly.
She complained, however, that neither security personnel nor the Health Ministry had contacted the hospital officially, although she said she noticed some plain-clothes agents moving among the throngs of wounded and visitors. While the hospital has not run out of supplies or blood yet, she said, it would be unable to respond to another large attack unless it is restocked soon.
Just a few minutes away, explosives experts in white coveralls and medical masks were combing through the charred wreckage outside the Salam Mosque as a crowd looked on from behind the military barrier. Shattered glass had been swept into piles up and down the street.
A young man who declined to give his name said he was at the Taqwa Mosque when the first bomb went off. He said he was sure either Hezbollah or Alawites from Jabal Mohsen were behind the attacks, pointing out that both mosques were known for their Salafist leanings.
“This is a message to the people of Tripoli because of the Dahiyeh,” he said, referring to the car bomb that exploded last week in Ruwaiss, a southern suburb of Beirut. “This is their reaction, their revenge or something. This is how it’s going to be.”