I have a thing about war crimes. Maybe it's because I've seen so many. Not just Sabra and Chatila, in Lebanon, where I had to climb over heaps of rotting corpses on my hands and knees while the murderers Israel's local Phalangist militia were finishing off the last of their victims.
Seven months before the massacre, with which the name Ariel Sharon will forever be linked, I got into a place called Hama, a dusty old Syrian city whose Sunni Muslim inhabitants had staged an insurrection against the regime of President Hafez Assad. Assad's brother Rifaat was in charge of this particular slaughter, his Defense Brigades hunting down the "terrorists" of the Muslim Brotherhood in the medieval tunnels deep beneath the city.
Perhaps 6,000 men and women and children were butchered there three times the death toll of Sabra and Chatila (1982 being a vintage year for mass murder) although other statistics about which I am doubtful put the fatalities as high as 20,000. The Syrians had warned journalists that they could not guarantee their safety if they tried to reach Hama, a warning one took very seriously, but I managed to travel to the far north of Syria, to the equally ancient city of Aleppo and then returned to Damascus down the international highway that passed through Hama.
A pall of dun-colored smoke hung over the city, and a policeman was about to direct my taxi on to a bypass road when two Syrian soldiers asked my driver to take them back to their unit inside Hama. I was only too pleased to give them a lift. And so through barricades and legions of tanks, past Rifaat's wounded soldiers I remember how they sat on the side of their vehicles, bandages round their bloodied heads, heads in their hands I ended up on the banks of the Orontes river, beside a T-72 tank that was firing straight into the roof of a burning mosque.
For perhaps a quarter of an hour I watched the tank firing over open sites, directly into the city with its thousands of terrified citizens cowering in cellars or lying in the rubble of their homes. In less than a week, Rifaat's men had reduced most of the ancient city to ashes. No quarter was given. A girl fighter had thrown herself into the arms of Rifaat's soldiers, blowing them all up with a hand grenade clutched to her breast. When Rifaat's boys broke into a house they shot every soul they found. A woman in black with a boy on her arm staggered through the door of my taxi. She had been looking for relatives amid the stacks of dead heaped in a local graveyard. When I offered her son a bar of chocolate, she seized it herself and swallowed it whole.
The stench was intolerable, a high reeking smell of shit and decomposition that lay through the streets of the city. Years later, I went back. Public gardens and a new hotel had been built on the killing fields, the bodies turned to dust under flowers and building sites. Just two ancient streets were left, along with the wooden waterwheels the nourias of Hama whining on their metal spindles, shrieking and crying as they carried their buckets of dark brown water to the sluices.
What happened in Hama was a war crime every bit as terrible as Sabra and Chatila. Only two years earlier, Rifaat's men had been let loose on the prison population of Palmyra, murdering 500 men in their cells. The Belgians may issue a writ for Sharon's arrest which is why the Prime Minister of Israel is keeping clear of Belgium. But Rifaat Assad, the disgraced brother of Hafez, lives in a massive villa in Spain, occasionally visiting Paris, protected by a squad of bodyguards. Yet oddly, we hear of no writs, no charges, no war-crime trials. Why not, I wonder?
Then I remember another fearful experience, traveling on a long, ghostly train from the battlefields of Ahwaz, up through the mountains towards Tehran, a train packed with Iranian war wounded, almost all of them gassed by Saddam Hussein's army. It is 1983, a year after Hama and Sabra and Chatila, the third year of the Iran-Iraq war, the Somme-like conflict that cost perhaps a million and a half lives.
As the train, pulled by a howling boy's-own-paper diesel, curled up into the desert plateau, the carriages began to stink of gas. The soldiers, hundreds of them, were sitting in their compartments, coughing blood and mucus into swabs and bandages. The gas was coming from their mouths, from what Wilfred Owen called the "froth-corrupted lungs". They were victims, all of them, of one of the greatest war crimes of the year, the wholesale gassing of thousands of young men, against every convention, against all rules of war. I went through the carriages, opening every window to rid this awful train of its stench.
But at the time, Saddam was "our" man. We rather enjoyed his grotesque invasion of revolutionary Iran. Not long after my first articles on Iraqi gas assaults were published, a Foreign Office man was lunching with one of my then editors. "Don't you think Bob's pushing it a bit?'' the FO man reportedly asked. "Saddam's a nasty bit of work but this kind of article isn't helpful.'' I always smile when I remember that. A few years later, after Saddam had invaded another neighbor that happened to be our friend, we were all being told that Saddam had used gas "even against his own people" the Kurds of Halabja. Robin Cook, our former foreign secretary, repeated the same mantra on dozens of occasions. And yes, Halabja was a war crime. But why not print the names of the Iraqi generals behind the mass gassing of all those thousands of Iranians? One of them, I'm told, was among the jolly generals who turned up to surrender to Norman Schwarzkopf in 1991. And Iraq's military men still visit the West from time to time.
It's not by chance that Algeria's minister of defense beat a hasty retreat from Paris a few weeks ago; he'd had been told there might be war crimes charges against him. And there are quite a few Middle Eastern gentlemen with blood on their hands who choose not to travel at all. It's a long time since Elie Hobeika the man who led the Phalange into Sabra and Chatila has stepped aboard a plane. Yet the Turkish generals who emptied the villages of Kurdistan, the Turkish cops who have tortured Kurds to death, still make tourist trips to Western Europe and even turn up at our police academies for the odd seminar.
Inevitably, the Middle East has more than its fair share of war criminals. But that's no reason to let them off the hook. I don't know what Sharon would say in the dock, or whether he'd be found guilty. I don't see why a man who was according to page 103 of the 1983 Kahan Commission inquiry judged "personally responsible" (and not just "indirectly responsible", as Israel's embassies would have us belief) for the massacre should not be brought to book. But why is Rifaat allowed to live on in Spanish splendor? Why are the Iraqi generals responsible for the gassings not on any indictment? Why don't we know the Turkish cops who've murdered Kurds? How long is Mr Hobeika going to sit out his life in the comfort of East Beirut? Why not, to use Churchill's phrase, collar the lot?
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd