Reportage

The Bombing of St Charles Station, Marseille

Carlos the Jackal and the 1984 bombings in Marseille..

PFLP leader, George Habash looking disdainfully at a photograph of Carlos

PFLP leader, George Habash looking disdainfully at a photograph of Carlos

When reading history there is a natural tendency to view it in a neutral, almost cold light. We take in facts and figures, dwell upon moments of interest and disregard the rest. A perfect example of this would be the life of the 1970s and ’80s ‘super terrorist’ Carlos the Jackal. A man whose life has been well documented in written and televised format, his exploits exaggerated to the point of undeserving legendary status.

His road map of countries sympathetic to his cause was extraordinary, the Cold War leaders of Eastern Europe together with anti-imperialist Arab leaders who kept him in comfort and security sent a clear message to the western world of their intentions and disregard for justice against the world’s most wanted man. For years the world’s press would speculate as to his whereabouts; was he in Syria or Iraq, Lebanon, Libya or Latin America? In reality, of course, Carlos (Ilich Ramirez Sanchez) would prove to be less of an asset and more of a political hindrance. Erich Honecker soon grew tired of providing East German hospitality once the spotlight on his regime came into focus following Carlos’ one man mission to free his girlfriend, Magdalena Klopp and his Soviet Union bosses made clear their own personal contempt for him.

What so often gets lost in the translation of documented history is the very real and often tragic stories of human suffering. Carlos was guilty of creating these stories, innocent lives lost, with their families forever damaged by one man’s ego trip under a Palestinian banner. In the end, few people who mattered bought into Carlos’ mantra, he was a playboy terrorist who wined and dined off the legend the media had bestowed upon him. Like many ‘rebel commanders’, Carlos would soon tire of leading from the front preferring to send others to carry out his dirty work under the Carlos banner and as 1983 drew to a close he did just that.

In an apparent statement against the position France took in the Middle East, Carlos devised bombs which his followers placed on trains and in train stations designed to make the maximum impact but typically for Carlos, he got it wrong. The idea to bomb these targets was intended to create the maximum publicity as well as casualties but Carlos and his cronies hadn’t taken into consideration that most people had already travelled earlier to be sure to make their New Year’s parties on time. This dramatically reduced the death toll and injury list and reaffirmed his incompetence to both the security forces and the terrorist groups he hid behind.

On New Year’s Eve in 1983 Carlos had a bomb placed in a first class carriage on the Marseille-Paris express train. The bomb tore through the train killing five people and injuring over a dozen more. Sixteen minutes later and 120 miles to the South another bomb exploded near the luggage office which killed two and injured another thirty four. Two suitcases loaded with explosives created by Carlos were left in luggage holds, their detonation still resonates in the families torn apart by the fantastical ideology of one man.

To call Carlos a freedom fighter would be to insult the dead and disabled who suffered at his hands. Che Guevara he was not. He was an opportunist with a taste for the good life. He liked the money, women, food and cigars that came with the legend. The Palestinians whom he purported to represent saw nothing more than a fat, sweating, balding, middle-aged fantasist and they were right. The problem is, of course that the reality offers little comfort to those who perished, and whilst there could have been more deaths and casualties one is more than enough and this post is dedicated to them.

Lest we forget.

The aftermath of the St Charles railway bombing in Marseille. New Year's Eve 1983.

The aftermath of the St Charles railway bombing in Marseille. New Year’s Eve 1983.

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