HALBA, Lebanon: The morning of June 8, 5-year-old Mohammad al-Khawli picked up the LL1,500 his father had left on the table to get cigarettes for his mother and ice cream for himself. He never came home.
When his father went looking for him, he found his son’s body in a dumpster after having been raped, strangled and stabbed to death.
The murderer, a 16-year-old Lebanese with the initials N.A., was quickly apprehended by security forces after his own father turned him in. According to his family, N.A. was on drugs when he committed the crimes, but that has only added to the whirlwind of speculation over his motive.
A number of violent offenses for diverse reasons, including mounting resentment toward a community that now numbers well over 1 million, have recently been committed against Syrians in Lebanon. N.A. hasn’t spoken publicly but his family has been vocal in attributing his actions to the alleged drug abuse and a history of mental illness.
For a 5-year-old who left Homs, Syria, less than three years ago for Halba in north Lebanon, Khawli was well-adjusted. He was similar to any boy his age and liked computer games, cartoons, football and riding his bicycle. His father described him as stubborn but smart.
“I would want to watch Bab al-Hara [a Syrian soap opera] but I would let him watch Tom & Jerry,” said Khawli’s father, who asked his name be withheld because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Everything would have to be his way.”
Speaking softly and sighing often, he described his most cherished memories of his time with his son: “I used to take him on my motorcycle for rides to the beach, lake and amusement parks.”
It appears the victim and murderer also had a close relationship.
“Mohammad used to spend lots of time with him,” Khawli’s father said.
“[My son] loved him a lot,” N.A.’s mother agreed in a fatigued voice. “He used to always give [Khawli] free things from the store, like chips.”
Seated on a chair in her home, just a five-minute walk from where Khawli’s family lives, N.A.’s mother appeared desperate to tell her side of a brutal story that has left her deeply troubled over the last 10 days.
Born to a school principal and a housewife, N.A. is the sixth of seven children. His two oldest siblings work in Australia and he lives at home with two sisters, 21 and 18, and two brothers, 20 and 11. The 21-year-old girl is studying to work in a blood lab.
“We’re an educated family,” said the mother, who wears a brown hijab. “We live in an educated and religious house.”
N.A., it seems, was the family’s black sheep. An introvert, his sisters said that he was quiet and rarely spoke, and yet was also unable to keep a secret.
“He doesn’t have a lot of friends,” the 18-year-old sister said in between answering text messages.
He also has a history of mental health problems.
“He spent four years visiting doctors,” his mother said. She said two separate psychologists in Tripoli treated N.A. but that their diagnoses were contradictory: One said he was fine but the other suggested he be committed to Deir al-Salib, a psychiatric hospital.
On top of this, his mother believes he suffered as a result of taking drugs at a very young age. “He first took a pill when he was 10 years old.”
He later underwent treatment and quit drugs, but according to his family, he had recently relapsed. They said he was on drugs when he raped and killed Khawli.
After N.A. committed the crime, he apparently came straight home and told his mother what he had done. Speaking in Arabic, she explained her reaction: “I was, how do you say,” she paused before switching to English, “crazy.”
His 18-year-old sister said the family wasn’t sure whether or not to believe him at first. The father went to see if what his son said was true and upon finding the young boy’s body, he called the police and turned N.A. in. His family said he had not yet been tried and was scheduled to be transferred to Roumieh Prison this week.
For the family, the damage done by N.A.’s actions has just begun.
“I go to the supermarket and they say, ‘Your son is a criminal,’” his mother said, dabbing the tears from her eyes. “But my son is not a criminal, he is a victim.”