TRIPOLI, Lebanon: On the evening of May 31, 1987, Rashid Karami went to visit the cemetery where his family members were buried. Cloaked in darkness, one can only imagine what the prime minister was thinking as he stared at the graves of his parents.
Days later, in a coffin covered in gardenias, he would join them.
The explosion on board the Lebanese Army helicopter taking him to Beirut took place at 9:05 a.m. the next day, no more than 10 minutes after it had left Tripoli’s International Fair. Accompanying Karami were a number of other dignitaries, including then-Interior Minister Abdallah Rassi.
Rassi, who was sitting opposite the premier, ended up sustaining moderate wounds, while the others escaped unscathed, allowing the crew to land safely. Karami was killed instantly.
Ironically, he had chosen to take a helicopter to Beirut’s government headquarters to avoid the deadly checkpoints erected by militias on the coastal road, something that became common during the Civil War.
When asked by a Tripoli official whether the helicopter was safe, Karami is reported to have answered indignantly: “This talk is shameful. I am the head of the Lebanese government, and my security is in the custody of the Lebanese Army. I will not succumb to the militias’ logic and self-security, no matter the challenges.”
Years later, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea would be sentenced to life in prison for his alleged involvement in the assassination, something he continues to deny, claiming that it was a lie fabricated by the Syrian regime – a dominant force in Lebanon at the time.
Now, 27 years later, Karami’s family has spoken exclusively to The Daily Star about the week leading up to the prime minister’s assassination and the signs that have led them to believe he knew what lay in store for him.
At his brother Maen’s home, which overlooks the Rashid Karami International Fair – named after him following his death, his personal belongings, notebooks and photographs with world leaders still take up a large part of the home. Here, his legacy is tangible. His relatives have become his bodyguards, carefully protecting his reputation, emphasizing that he represented Lebanese unity, and insisting that his blood did not go to waste.
Revered by many Lebanese for his moderation, Karami entered the political arena at an early age. He was largely following in the footsteps of his father, Abdel-Hamid Karami, a longtime political and religious leader who helped bring about Lebanon’s independence.
Tripoli residents remember Karami junior as having lived a frugal life. He was the leader who renounced violence and refused to form a militia, even going as far as to bar his supporters from acquiring arms for his cause.
To his family, Karami was the timid boy who would sit on the family mansion’s roof and crack open a book, seeking tranquility and quiet away from his father’s busy living room. This prompted Abdel-Hamid to ask relatives to help him overcome his son’s shyness, but Abdel-Hamid nonetheless never wanted his sons to get into politics – until he fell ill.
By his deathbed constantly until Abdel-Hamid died in 1950, Karami seemed destined to take over his father’s mantle.
His political career began in earnest when President Beshara Khoury appointed him to the Justice Ministry in 1951. In 1955, under President Camille Chamoun, he formed his first government. He was just 34, Lebanon’s youngest-ever prime minister.
He went on to be premier another seven times and even entered the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the post for the longest time in total, making him one of the most important political figures in modern Lebanese history.
The longest of these stints, from April 1984 to June 1987, was during one of the most difficult stages of the Civil War.
He bore the trials and tribulations of wartime politics stoically, but in the week before he was assassinated, Karami’s behavior grew peculiar, according to his family.
Their last iftar – fast-breaking – banquet together was held at the home of Abou an-Nour, the father in law of Maen and his other brother Omar. Karami brought his hunting rifle, an item he held dearly, to the dinner and presented it to his nephew Walid as a graduation present, saying: “I will not be using it after today.”
During Eid al-Fitr prayers at the mosque in Bekaa Safreen, the family’s summer home, Karami sat among worshippers and spent time talking with them outside. When Maen and Omar went to find Karami, they saw him in prayer and decided to wait for him in the garden and tell their kids stories of their own childhoods.
When Karami finally appeared, they stopped, but he said: “Please brother, continue, for I am enjoying this more than the children.”
They were due to return to Tripoli later that day, but Karami told his brothers he could not bear to turn away individuals who had gathered to congratulate him for Eid, and promised instead to head to the city the next day.
On May 31, after staying the night, Karami stopped in the Zghorta town of Maryata to check on a garden his family owned, and then visited his elderly nanny, Ammoun Srour, to make sure she had her medicine.
The rest of the day consisted of meeting with delegations and officials, and that evening his family said Karami’s weariness was visible. He was suffering from a cold and had not eaten all day, but he could not stop working.
He made three phone calls, the third of which was an unusually long call to his sister Najwa and her husband. His calls normally took only a few minutes, his relatives said, but this one lasted 20.
At dinner, a relative relayed a dream she had of Abdel-Hamid Karami hovering over his grave and opening his eyes. Tears sprung to Rashid’s eyes. He too had dreamt about his dead parents, he explained, in which his late mother, Yamen Alameddine, had kissed him.
When asked about the country’s current situation, the whole family were surprised by Karami’s answer: “The solution is now in my pocket,” he said, adding that he would go to Chamoun’s residence the next day to agree on national consensus.
At 11:30 p.m., Maen accompanied Karami to his car. Karami told his brother that he hoped God would always bless his home. They hugged, and Karami watched his brother drive out of sight.
It was to be their last goodbye.
That night, Karami toured Tripoli’s ancient souks, ending his midnight trip cloaked in darkness at the family cemetery, the last in a series of details that the family feels suggested Karami was somehow aware of his awful fate.
The following morning was a blur of confusion.
Maen’s wife, Wadad, received a phone call at 9:15 a.m. from Colonel Rashid Afiouni informing her that Karami’s helicopter had suffered a technical malfunction, but that it had been replaced and that the premier was on his way to Beirut.
Maen did not make much of the story at first. But after a while he grew worried and contacted the governor, the mufti, and eventually Robert Frangieh – son of late President Sleiman Frangieh – who already knew about the assassination but did not want to tell the family yet.
Suspicious, and with radio reports that Karami was injured echoing in their ears, Wadad and her son Talal made their way to Jbeil’s Lamartine Hospital.
They were met with somber faces and condolences from officials and ministers, including then-President Amine Gemayel.
For a long time, Wadad was told Karami was still in surgery. By 1 p.m., there was still no word. Finally, the truth came out: His body was in Halat, where the helicopter had made an emergency landing. He was dead.
His body was eventually transferred to Tripoli, the city so dear to Karami’s heart.
It rained hard that day.
“Whoever assassinated him will regret it later, and he will shed tears as much as this pouring rain,” Chamoun said at the time.
The following days were a flickering collection of scenes of sadness and misery. In the Tripoli town of Qalamoun, mourners stopped the funeral convoy and carried the wooden coffin on foot to the town of Bohsas, where it was met with more tears and wails. His casket was showered with gardenias, Karami’s favorite type of flower.
“They wrongly killed him because he wanted a government,” mourners chanted angrily.
When the coffin reached Maen’s house after its tour of Tripoli, mourners tried to open the casket to catch a last glimpse of their fallen leader, but relatives stopped them.
“Leave the martyr to rest in eternal paradise,” they said.
In a famous elegy to Karami, late Ghassan Tueni, editor-in-chief of An-Nahar daily wrote: “Martyrdom, the last prayer.”