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Van Marsh: Marine's family roots run deep in Tripoli

By Alphonso Van Marsh

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news. After U.S. Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun disappeared in Iraq and turned up in Lebanon, CNN correspondent Alphonso Van Marsh traveled to the hometown of Hassoun's relatives in Tripoli to report the story.

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Wassef Ali Hassoun

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (CNN) -- The mystery surrounding U.S. Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, the 24-year-old American who resurfaced in Lebanon after disappearing in Iraq, brought me to Tripoli. Tripoli is Lebanon's second-largest city, some 60 miles north of Beirut, where the military translator grew up.

Despite the nondescript series of high-rise apartment buildings in the neighborhood, it was easy to find the Hassoun family's home. A pack of international and local journalists held vigil outside.

I soon learned that the Hassouns dominate the residential district, home to Wassef's nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, and a plethora of cousins. There are so many Hassouns in the neighborhood -- an estimated 60 percent of the population -- that the street in front of the main family apartment building, Shera Hassoun, carries the family name.

Wassef's younger brother Sami is the de facto family spokesman. A pleasant but quick-tempered man, Sami is not pleased with reporters inquiring about Wassef's alleged abduction from his post in Iraq, filing conflicting reports of Wassef's beheading, and speculating about how Wassef may have escaped his captors and made his way to Lebanon.

In my first conversation with Sami, he stopped mid-sentence to curse at an eavesdropping wire service reporter who apparently had been sleeping in a car in front of the Hassoun family home for at least three days.

Whatever the Hassouns in Tripoli know, they are keeping close to their chest. Wassef's family in the United States is running this show, Sami told me. He said he and other family members in Tripoli aren't talking without the permission of Wassef's American family, led by another brother in West Jordan, Utah.

The Hassoun family and U.S. Embassy officials here were at a loss for words when asked to react to conflicting local newspaper reports about when -- and how -- Wassef may have returned to his homeland. On one occasion, Hassoun family members ran out of their buildings, hopped into cars and drove off. Family-owned shops on the street level were quickly closed, windows shuttered. We found out that a nearby, rival family had reportedly provoked the Hassouns -- claiming Wassef was an American spy. The family feud evolved into a raging gunbattle and ended with two people dead. The Hassouns feared retaliation.

To understand the family, one must understand the neighborhood. This area of Tripoli is quite conservative: many of the women wear headscarves, there is an institute for Islamic education across the street from our reporting location and an Islamic radio station on the street corner. Islamic politicians are also popular. Whereas in other neighborhoods, car roundabouts might have fountains or flower gardens, those in this neighborhood showcase sculptures of Arabic script for Allah or miniature replicas of mosques.

The neighborhood is also quite friendly. An older woman in headscarf, or haji, kept sending us coffee, nuts and fruit from her second-floor balcony. Most residents are internationally minded; many have family members who emigrated to the United States or Australia, and return for summer visits.

The neighborhood buzz about Wassef appeared to be divided into more than two camps. Some wondered if he was disillusioned with his role in the U.S. Marine Corps and needed a way out. Others criticized him for being part of a U.S. military force perceived as occupying Iraq. More residents bought into local news reports speculating his kidnapping may have been a hoax. But most people here said Wassef is family and his actions must be defended. Regardless of the circumstances behind Wassef's ordeal, they were relieved to know he's safe and welcomed news he was briefly reunited with family members at the U.S. Embassy outside Beirut.

How the investigation into Wassef's disappearance -- and reappearance -- turns out may have serious consequences for native Arabic speakers working with U.S. forces. During my last stint in Iraq, I was taken aback by how dependent U.S. troops were on their translators during overnight raids into Iraqi homes. There must be total trust in the translator, as he or she is often the sole language link in very tense circumstances.

That's one reason it's important to pin down the details of Wassef Ali Hassoun's disappearance from a U.S. military base near Fallujah and all that happened between then and his re-emergence in Lebanon, some 500 miles away.

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