Lebanese soldiers search civilians at a checkpoint in Tripoli. The city… (Hussein Malla, Associated…)
TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Late that evening, Abdel Hakim Ibrahim finally confirmed his father's worst fear: He had left for Syria.
"I've crossed the border: Please forgive me," he said in a text message as midnight approached. "God be with you."
That was the last his family heard from Ibrahim, 19, a student described as introverted and pious.
Ibrahim is among Lebanon's lost young men — 21 who reportedly disappeared into neighboring Syria one evening late last month and walked straight into a Syrian army ambush. He and the others are believed to have been killed, though there has been no official confirmation of their fate.
The incident has sparked a new spasm of sectarian bloodletting in this deeply divided northern Lebanese city, where the war in Syria has revived smoldering animosities. Some in the Sunni Muslim majority view the slayings as cold-blooded murder — many suspect the men were betrayed — and blame the city's Alawite minority, members of the same sect as Syrian President Bashar Assad.
All of the victims were Sunni. Alawite leaders have disavowed any responsibility.
On Dec. 2, Syrian state television aired video of blood-streaked bodies described as those of some of the 21 Lebanese "terrorists" who, the report said, had infiltrated Syria and been cut down. They intended to join the multitudes of foreign militants seeking to overthrow Assad, according to the official Syrian account.
But some families of the missing here insist that their sons were on a humanitarian mission, not a militant one. The men were unarmed when they were killed, say the distraught relatives. Some have recognized their sons in the official Syrian video and other images that have emerged of the dead.
"Abdel Hakim didn't know anything about fighting," Henad Hassan Ali, the mother of Ibrahim, said in an interview Friday at her home in Tripoli's hillside Mankoubin district, where five of the missing men resided. "He had no training. He didn't know about weapons. He hated even to get a bloody nose."
Tripoli, Lebanon's second city, has taken on the appearance of a war zone, a kind of mirror image of strife-torn Syria. Lebanese army tanks rumble down streets, and checkpoints block intersections. Sniper rounds and grenade explosions sound in the distance. A trip to Mankoubin involves multiple detours to avoid sniper fire.
At least 13 people have been reported killed and scores wounded this week in the latest outbreak of violence between rival neighborhoods in Tripoli that are on different sides of the Syrian conflict. Sunni gunmen have been exchanging fire with their counterparts in Jabal Mohsen, an Alawite bastion.
Lebanese and Syrian authorities are negotiating the return of the young men's bodies to Lebanon. The first remains may be repatriated Saturday, beginning what is likely to be a series of incendiary funerals.
"Tripoli is boiling," said one veteran of this city's seemingly endless sectarian conflicts.
It is no secret that Lebanese and other fighters have, for more than a year, been slipping into Syria from northern Lebanon, joining Sunni-dominated rebel units. Sympathy for the rebel cause is prevalent in Sunni communities here; the red, green, and black rebel tricolor is hoisted from homes and scrawled on walls. Weapons have headed north, and a steady flow of wounded and exhausted rebel fighters has come south for medical treatment and rest.
In April, one of Lebanon's most wanted men — Abdel Ghani Jawhar, a master bomb maker who headed the Al Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam group — was reported killed in Syria in clashes with Syrian troops.
The smuggling routes between the two nations are well-established and heavily used. How, then, did the young men wander into an ambush? Family members suspect that the whole operation was a setup, or that the men were betrayed.
"The Syrians should have surrounded them and arrested them, interrogated them," said Ibrahim's mother, who added that she still holds out faint hope her son may be alive. "There was no need to kill them."
Her son's image has not been seen among the photos of the dead.
Some families have called for revenge. Ibrahim's father said he had no doubt what he would do were his son's killers to be brought to him. "I would kill them," he said.
His wife disagreed. "Only God has the right to take a life," said the mother of 10, speaking as her other children watched and listened in the family's simple home, where there has been no running water or electricity for 10 days — part of a general pattern of government abandonment, according to residents. "God did not tell us to kill Christians or Alawites or Muslims."
Outside, a cold rain fell steadily, and a chilly wind swept up the mountains from the valley below. For heat, the family was burning charcoal indoors on a grill.