HERMEL, Lebanon: Saturday was supposed to be a day of merriment for Ghadi Amhaz, who was celebrating her 18th birthday at her uncle Ahed’s house in the northeastern town of Hermel.
But the fun came to a sudden and tragic halt when a suicide bombing rocked the gas station facing the house, with Ghadi and around 13 teens and children, all party guests, narrowly escaping death.
“Come in and let me tell you how God saved us,” Ahed told visitors Sunday who came to see his home, heavily damaged after the explosion.
The two-story structure was littered with debris from shattered glass, broken doors and wrecked furniture. “It was mass destruction at the house. In addition to my furniture, windows and doors being ruined, I thought that the cement had collapsed,” Ahed told The Daily Star.
“Only five meters separated us from the rigged vehicle,” he said. “I was relieved that none of the kids were laying [dead or wounded] on the floor [after the explosion],” he said.
“We hid in a house in a nearby farm where my uncle works,” said 10-year-old Ali Zeaiter, one of the kids attending the birthday party. “We were afraid because it was a very strong explosion. We thought that a rocket had hit the gas station.”
Ali said he was not afraid of “Salafist heretics,” referring to the perpetrators of the attack.
The bomber, driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee, detonated his car near the Aytam gas station, killing three and wounding 23 others in the town where Hezbollah enjoys wide support. The attack was claimed by the Nusra Front in Lebanon, an offshoot of the radical Syrian rebel force. The group has stood behind previous attacks that have targeted Hermel and the Beirut southern suburbs, all in retaliation for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.
“Let them fight the resistance in Syria rather than kill children and women here ... true men fight men, rather than kill women and children,” Ahed said, calling on Lebanese authorities to protect Hermel.
“We hope that the state will provide some security in this area because it seems that Hermel has become like the Beirut southern suburbs, as far as the attackers are concerned,” he said.
Four bomb attacks, including suicide bombings, have rocked the Beirut southern suburbs, another stronghold of Hezbollah, in the past few months.
“Security personnel should erect checkpoints at the few entrances of Hermel in cooperation with locals,” Ahed said.
Hermel has also been hit numerous times by rockets fired by Syrian rebels. “This town has given many martyrs and helped to bring Israel to its heels. They want to punish it,” he added.
Ahed, a farmer and cattle dealer, said he would never consider leaving Hermel, in spite of the threat of more attacks. “We are used to sacrificing blood for the sake of the nation,” he said.
Four vehicles were completely destroyed and several others damaged at the blast site, which was strewn with rubble. Forensic experts were collecting evidence near the damaged petrol station. The crime scene was cordoned off by Army personnel who were deployed around the area along with many locals.
Visiting the site in show of solidarity was Baalbek- Hermel MP Ghazi Zeaiter, from Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc, along with Hezbollah MPs Nawar Saheli and Ali Moqdad, caretaker Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan and MP Emile Rahmeh, both from Hezbollah’s bloc.
Watching the visiting politicians go by, Mahdi Allaw said he was angry that they were doing so little to protect Hermel.
Allaw, whose 14-year-old cousin Ali was killed in the explosion, said that life was becoming hard in the town. “We should block roads and protest! What was the fault of all those people who died?” he asked.
His cousin was killed upon leaving his father’s shop to get a pack of cigarettes. “Let [the politicians] tell us if we are part of Lebanon or not,” Allaw said.
“Authorities should close all roads and search all passing cars, they should get equipment to detect explosives,” said Allaw, a taxi driver. “This rigged car did not fall from the sky, it passed through roads, there are only five entrances to Hermel,” he added.
“People are no longer able to leave their homes, the town is paralyzed. It is unacceptable that we live this way. If the state is unable to protect us, we will protect ourselves,” he said.
The streets of Hermel, usually bustling on weekends, were deserted and many residents were seen carrying pistols. Monday was declared a day of mourning in Hermel.
A Hezbollah fighter wearing a military outfit manned a checkpoint at the entrance of Hermel. Some residents said that the rigged car was able to enter Hermel because Hezbollah removed one of the town’s entrance checkpoints at 5 p.m. Saturday.
In the nearby Batoul Hospital, Hussein Mismar, wounded during the explosion, described the harrowing moments after the blast.
“The rigged car passed near my car and then I heard an explosion ... and threw me out of my car,” said Mismar, whose cheeks were swollen and two hands were bandaged. “I washed my face with water from a nearby tank and walked toward the hospital, and someone carried me inside.”
Nadia Qubayris, receiving treatment at the same hospital, was in worse condition.
Laying in a bed with her eyes bandaged, Nadia, around 40, could barely hear or recognize visitors and kept asking for water.
Qubayris was in the car with her son, who stopped at the station for gas, when the bomb went off.
“I will only say thank God,” said Zahraa, her sister, with tears flooding from her eyes.