SHOUEIFAT, Lebanon: A crowd gathered in the chill, peeking into the ambulance, mere feet away from the husk of twisted metal that used to be a van.
They peered in through the glass as paramedics placed the bruised head of the suicide bomber into a plastic bag. The hair on the front of his head still looked unruffled, his eyes closed, and face marked in black and red streaks.
His feet were also intact, black socks inside white sports shoes.
“He was groomed well, the son of a bitch,” one onlooker said as he peered through the glass.
Army and police officers cordoned off a swathe of land around the shattered remains of the van – a gray jumble of metal and wheels, with the lone spine of a single headrest jutting out in defiance.
But though few were wounded in the attack, which took place hours after students had left the nearby school, signs of its brutality were everywhere in the vicinity.
Chunks of metal were strewn around outside the cordoned off area, and tiny pieces of flesh stuck to nearby cars, a faint scent of blood in the air. Broken shards of glass partially smothered a copy of the Quran inside a car that stood mere feet from the explosion.
The window of a nearby Range Rover was also broken – one civil defense volunteer said the suicide bomber’s head flew through the air and smashed into the car window by the force of the explosion.
Tensions were high and nerves were frayed. Soldiers got into shouting matches with onlookers, the darkness adding to the sense of unease. Fighters from the Amal Movement, wielding rifles, blocked off the road leading to the crime scene.
But the area’s residents took on an air of defiance.
“I will keep my shop open,” declared Abbas Nasreddine, who runs a nearby mechanic’s store, and rushed to the scene to help rescue workers. “We are still here, we will not be driven out, and we will remain here.”
“We will remain steadfast,” he added. “Nothing will affect us.”
Nasreddine said he did not panic when he heard the blast, though his shop is just 20 meters from the scene.
“We are used to it now,” he said. “They bombed a van driver. There are no party headquarters, or military areas.”
Hasan Msheik also remained steadfast, a pained but determined look on his face, outside the emergency room of Kamal Jumblatt Hospital in this majority Druze neighborhood, surrounded by scores of friends and onlookers.
His brother Hussein was driving the van when the suicide bomber, riding inside, detonated his explosives. Hasan rushed to the scene and instantly recognized the van.
He said his brother, whose body was riddled with small bits of shrapnel, was conscious as he was wheeled into the operating room.
“He told me I’m fine, I’m fine, nothing’s wrong with me,” Hasan told The Daily Star as he awaited news of his brother. “Al hamdulillah,” he repeated.
“My message to the takfiris is this is not what Islam is like,” he said.
“They are making Islam look like terrorism,” he added.
Hasan pointed to his friends, both Sunnis and Shiites. “There is no difference between Sunni and Shiite,” he said. “My friend here is a Sunni and I’m a Shiite. Our difference is with terrorists and takfiris.”
Rescue workers from the Lebanese Red Cross had arrived on the scene three minutes after the explosion, wheeling Hussein off to the hospital.
An official on the scene said there was a limited civilian presence in the immediate area surrounding the bombing, which spared the lives of many innocents.
He confirmed that there were two wounded in the attack, including Msheik, who he said was in “critical” condition after suffering directly the brunt of the explosion and sustaining shrapnel wounds.
A woman who left the van moments before the blast had also sustained shrapnel wounds, he said.
But for this town’s mayor, the attack signaled a broader assault on the very fabric of Lebanese society.
“Coexistence is the target,” said Melhem Souqi. “Shoueifat is inclusive of all sects, religions and parties.”
“But the hands of the criminals are reaching out to every part of Lebanon,” he said, adding that it was only “divine intervention” that saved the area’s civilians.
Divine intervention was very much on the mind of Mohammad, not his real name, as he looked on at the mess of yellow tape and the broken peace of the neighborhood. One of his young relatives goes to the nearby school, a few meters from the site of the attack.
He thanked God that the bombing happened hours after school was out. Even a tiny piece of shrapnel could kill a child, he said.
“Let’s see where this all will take us,” he added, as he turned away and marched off into the distance.