A struggle for normalcy in Lebanon

Lebanese were once divided along religious lines. They are now split along political affiliations.

lebanon flag wave 88 (photo credit: )
lebanon flag wave 88
(photo credit: )
Within an hour after Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon last year, a group of determined pensioners bought a tent and erected it just to the left of Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut. The women say this is the only way they know to draw attention to their plight. Not far from the spot is another tent, much bigger and frequented by many more visitors, commemorating former prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose assassination last year led to the Syrian departure. Amni el-Hussari, 77, opens the flaps of the smaller, weather-beaten one that she looks after with almost religious fervor. Her arthritis is so bad that she cannot stand for longer than a few minutes, and her spine has collapsed so severely that she peers up at me from beneath a pronounced hunchback. Each morning a group of 10 women come to sit with her, their worn-out faces reflected in the faded pictures of young boys and girls propped up against the tent's outside walls. These are their sons, daughters, brothers and husbands, all of whom disappeared into Syria during its 29-year occupation of Lebanon. They've not been heard from since. Amni last saw her son, Ahmed, 20 years ago. She believes he's still alive and is convinced he's being held in a Syrian prison. "The Syrians would've beaten us up if we'd tried to put up this tent while they were still here," she tells me, her soft voice faltering in the harsh midday heat. She moves to lie down on one of the two mattresses. Nearby, a small table holds a kettle, several tea mugs and some chipped plates. An old television set murmurs the day's news almost nonstop from behind us. "The soldiers would've hit us with sticks and sprayed us with lots of water. It's easier to talk now. When there was the war with Israel in the summer, I ran to Syria. I sold everything I had and tried to find my son. I went to the authorities but no one would help me. They showed me someone who had the same name as him, but I said, no, this is not my son. A mother knows her son. Now I have nothing. I sleep in the tent because I have no more money." The women here estimate there are some 600 Lebanese being held in Syrian prisons. They're hoping they have a better chance now of finding out what's happened to them. But they're last on the list of Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs. FORMER INDUSTRY minister Pierre Gemayel, who was shot dead in a Beirut suburb last week, is the latest high-profiled anti-Syrian figure believed to have been assassinated on orders from Damascus. His funeral drew thousands from across the country, many of whom shouted anti-Syrian slogans as his body was laid to rest alongside his uncle, former president Bashir. Gemayel's father, Amin, who took up the presidency after his brother's murder, says the family has proof Syria killed Bashir; he also believes the regime was behind his son's murder. "We've had enough," Chadi Khoury, a 26-year-old accountant, tells me. I talk to him as he and his friends balance precariously from a lamp post they've climbed onto in front of St. George's church, behind what locals call the Hariri mosque. Gemayel's coffin, draped in the flag of his Christian Phalange Party, was brought here first before being buried in the family's mountain village of Bickfaya, northeast of the capital. Throughout the funeral protesters chanted "Down with Syria" and burned photographs of President Bashar Assad, whom they accuse of ordering the assassination. "Syria is killing our country's elite," Khoury reflects. "They're getting rid of all our young leaders and have to be stopped." The scene of Gemayel's murder, two cars crashed into each other, one with a window sprayed with bullets, remains untouched in the nearby Jdeideh neighborhood. A metal tent has been erected at the site and police have cordoned off the area. In front, a huge portrait of the slain minister is surrounded by dozens of burned-out candles, still visited by disbelieving mourners. The mood here is somber; people are scared, unsure of what the future holds. Earlier in the week a technical team from the UN commission investigating Hariri's assassination examined the scene. The UN has accepted a Lebanese government request to include Gemayel's murder in its investigation. The international experts say, for now, they're concentrating on the fingerprints that were lifted off Gemayel's car and are examining the film from several surveillance cameras that caught the assassins' vehicle. It's thought Israel might be asked to provide satellite images to aid the investigators. Gemayel's death added fuel to an already explosive political situation. Whereas Lebanese were once divided along religious lines, they're now split along political affiliations - between those who support Syria and those who don't. On Saturday, the cabinet approved the establishment of the UN tribunal to investigate Hariri's murder - the latest weapon in the battle between the two sides. The UN tribunal will sit outside Lebanon, possibly in Cyprus, and a majority of judges as well as the prosecutor will be from other nations. Its statutes will rely on a mixture of Lebanese and international law. It will try four Lebanese generals - top pro-Syrian security chiefs under President Emile Lahoud, including his Presidential Guard commander, who have been under arrest for 14 months, accused of involvement in Hariri's murder. This will be the first time an international court deals with a political crime that targeted a specific person. Lahoud and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri have refused to endorse it. They argue the resignations of six cabinet ministers earlier in the month make the government illegal. The resignations, they say, were because Prime Minister Fuad Saniora refuses to give them a third of the cabinet seats, a position that holds veto power. "The war with Israel was a success not only for Hizbullah, but for Lebanon," Lahoud recently said. "It will go down in history that a small country like Lebanon with its small resistance could stand in the face of Israel like it did during the liberation. What we need now is to have a national unity government. Lebanese are very smart when they are together. But if we remain like this, against each other, we will tear one another apart. We learned our lesson from a civil war, everybody lost. Everything will be done so that there will not be violent action, especially on the ground." It's a sentiment echoed by Rafik Hariri's son, Said, head of the Future Movement. He's rejected suggestions that a civil war might break out because of the current political tension. "The Israeli and Syrian regimes are the two parties that have interest in the occurrence of a civil war," he said. "Israel is trying to hoodwink Hizbullah and plunge Lebanon into chaos and instability, while the Syrian regime is doing its best to ignite a civil war." But not everyone in Lebanon is as confident that civil war is not in the cards. On the day of Gemayel's funeral, Hizbullah was due to call a million of its supporters into the streets. It delayed its plans and instead secretary-general Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, whose eldest son died in a raid on an Israeli position in 1997, telephoned Amin Gemayel to offer condolences. The two talked about their dead sons. BUT IN Lebanese politics there is little room for such sentiment, and no sooner had Gemayel been buried than Hizbullah leaders began calculating how soon they could reactivate their plans. Officials claim the mass demonstrations, which will include sit-ins, parliamentary resignations and strikes, will be "surprising and random." They refuse to give dates, but indications are that once seven days of mourning have been observed, protesters will march on parliament to demand Saniora's resignation. "We are living in misery," Saad Taha, a Hizbullah supporter who lives in Dahiya, tells me. "Look around you, how much longer can this go on?" We're driving through the streets of Dahiya, the Hizbullah stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Both to our right and left large mounds of rubble dominate the skyline. "Of course I'll go to the streets if our leaders tell us to; we both will," Taha nods in the direction of his heavily veiled wife sitting passively alongside him. She keeps wringing her fists, seemingly made nervous by the presence of a foreigner. "The government has done nothing for us. They steal all the money countries gave to help us recover after the war with Israel. Only Hizbullah looks after us. They defended us against the Israelis, and now they give us money to rebuild our homes." But Hizbullah does much more than give its supporters money. A recent report in Time magazine confirmed Israeli claims that Iran was smuggling weapons through Syria to rearm the terrorists. Israeli military officials charge Hizbullah has replenished nearly half its pre-war stockpiles of short-range missiles and small arms. According to some Israeli and Saudi intelligence sources, the weapons shipments never stopped during the 34-day war, despite constant Israeli bombardment of roads into Lebanon from Syria. That bombardment is still very evident throughout the country. Lebanese figures suggest more than 100 bridges, 60 highways and 15,000 buildings were destroyed. Russian and French military engineers who are here to assist with their repair are also helping to clear some half-a-million mines planted by Israel during this summer's war and repair electricity lines. OUTSIDE THE town of Zakhrani in the south, 300 Russian soldiers have built a base camp in an area belonging to the Lebanese army. The unit is not part of the UN peacekeeping mission and therefore not afforded international protection. Instead, a special mission from Chechnya guards the camp. Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov, who was recently in Israel, said, "The Lebanese people really, really deserve to live in peace and prosperity. Russia and Lebanon have had very tight relationships for centuries. Frankly speaking, we are very proud to participate in the international efforts to support Lebanon's people." But those efforts might need to include greater political, rather than structural assistance. "When Hariri was killed, a new chapter of political assassinations began," local analyst Hala Hobeika said. "His assassination changed Lebanon's political landscape and generated tensions that continue to mount." In recent weeks, a number of government ministers have received death threats. It's since been revealed several were made against Gemayel three weeks before he was killed. "We are struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy and stability. But the mood is volatile and Hizbullah's street protests could lead to sectarian clashes," Hobeika said. At least 35 officials and journalists have been killed in Lebanon since the early 1950s. Gemayel was the fifth member of his family to die violently and the sixth anti-Syrian figure to be killed in the last two years. Very few killers have been brought to justice.