Creating people's geographies
Hala Jaber reflects on her experience of Lebanon during the civil war and her fears for the future of her compatriots
The Australian | November 27, 2006
AS 100,000 mourners packed Martyrs’ Square in the centre of Beirut last Thursday for the funeral of Pierre Gemayel, the murdered Christian industry minister, leading members of Hezbollah gathered in sparsely furnished offices in a dusty southern suburb and stared intently at their television screens.
They watched with studied indifference as the crowd chanted “Down with Syria”, burnt photographs of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, and accused him of ordering the assassination.
But when the white coffin was borne aloft and the camera zoomed in on the 34-year-old minister’s widow Patricia sobbing in the arms of her equally grief-stricken mother-in-law, Hussein Rahal, a senior Hezbollah official, was pricked by emotion.
“As a husband, I couldn’t help thinking this could be my wife,” he said. “As a father, my heart went out to the family whose loss of a son will be immeasurable.”
His comment revealed an unexpected personal affinity between sworn political enemies — the Christian elite on one side and leading Shia radicals on the other. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, whose eldest son died in a raid on an Israeli position in 1997, telephoned Gemayel’s father, Amin, a former president, at the weekend with his condolences and the two men talked about their lost boys. Yet there is little room for sentiment in Lebanese politics.
The funeral took place on the day Hezbollah had been due to call a million supporters on to the streets with the aim of toppling the Government in which Gemayel served. No sooner had he been laid to rest, the group’s leaders began calculating how soon they could reactivate their plan.
Officials refused to say what had been decided, but the indications were that once seven days of mourning have been observed, their supporters will prepare to march on the Lebanese parliament to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its allies — including the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, a Christian general — claim that with 57 of the 128 seats in parliament they are entitled to 44 of the posts in Government, but had to put up with 25 until their six cabinet ministers resigned earlier this month.
The ruling anti-Syrian majority says Hezbollah has another motive for destabilising the Government — that it is hell-bent on blocking the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute the suspected killers of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister blown up last year by a car bomb. Lebanese officials are convinced that Hezbollah’s paymasters in Damascus are guilty of that crime.
This weekend, it appeared that the shooting of Gemayel had brought no more than a brief respite from a potentially calamitous standoff.
The threat of mass demonstrations to bring down the Government has brought dread that violence could break out between factions who fought a ruinous civil war from 1975 to 1990. Fear is growing of a conflagration in which the old enmities would be triggered again, with Syria and Iran drawn in on Hezbollah’s side, while the West backed the Government.
Amid all this tension, what chance does peace stand in a country that is sick of war? Can Lebanon, which could have a pivotal influence on prospects for peace in the wider Middle East, hang on to its nascent democracy and relative prosperity, or have the events of last week set it on a path to renewed conflict and suffering?
It was with trepidation that I boarded my plane in London after hearing Gemayel had been assassinated while driving through a Christian area of Beirut, where he should have been safe.
As a Lebanese, I was well aware that a similar murder in February 1975, when a Sunni leader called Maarouf Saad was shot, had triggered a civil war. That conflict began two months after the killing, when gunmen opened fire on four Christians outside a church. In retaliation, Christian Falangists ambushed a bus full of Muslim passengers and massacred them.
I was 13 at the time, attending boarding school with my sister Rana in Beirut under the guardianship of our grandparents while our father worked abroad.
At first, we barely understood what was happening. The opening shots meant no more to me than a day off school. But when the shooting continued, my father ordered us to join him in Africa until things calmed down.
As the weeks turned into months, we heard about the mayhem engulfing Lebanon, worrying constantly about the relatives we had left behind, until finally I convinced my parents that we should return.
It was only a few days later that the fighting reached our neighbourhood. My sister and I dived under my parents’ bed as our apartment block shook from shells landing in the street. We soon learned which corridor was safest in our seventh-floor flat, when the staircase was a better option and how to get to the shelter fast. Huddling there with our neighbours became the nearest thing to a social event in my teenage years, when parties and nightclubs were a distant dream.
We became accustomed to the relentless routine of war. We distinguished between short- and long-range missiles and between incoming and outgoing mortars. We judged from hourly radio bulletins whether it was possible to drive down streets that had come under fire earlier in the day. We stocked up whenever we could on food and water — a habit I am unable to break to this day — and always kept to hand a small bag with our passports, cash and personal effects.
I even developed the ability to sleep through a bombardment, instinctively waking from time to time for just long enough to determine that danger was a safe distance away.
The disasters always seemed to befall someone else’s family, until one day the war came knocking on my door. Three months after she was married, my sister Rana was shot by a sniper as she drove home with her husband after drinking coffee with me.
The sniper was a Druze militiaman who, distraught at having lost two of his friends, had taken to a rooftop and started firing on approaching cars. Fortunately, his dumdum bullet exploded on impact with the windscreen of Rana’s car. Shrapnel splattered her face, neck and hands and although she bears the scars to this day, we are thankful that it missed her carotid artery by millimetres.
A passenger in the vehicle behind hers was not so lucky. He was killed instantly by a bullet through the heart.
By now I was working as a reporter for the Associated Press agency. But even though I had seen scores of bodies charred by car bombs or riddled with bullets during massacres in Palestinian refugee camps, nothing had prepared me for the wounding of my sister. The shock was compounded when she and her husband decided to leave the country for good.
My own brush with death came a few years later. Travelling from Muslim west Beirut to the Christian east to meet my fiance, I left my car near a checkpoint, asked one of the Syrian soldiers manning it for permission to cross and walked across an area of no man’s land that divided the two sectors. At roughly the half-way point, a group of Christian militiamen appeared from the overgrown garden of a deserted house and ordered me to kneel, facing a wall. They had seen me talking to the Syrian soldier and jumped to conclusions.
“You are a Syrian agent and a spy,” one of them shouted, pressing the barrel of his M16 assault rifle against my head.
For a moment, I was gripped by panic. I thought that if I died right there, my fiance and family might never know what had happened to me. Then I snapped out of it and turned on my assailant. I told him that as a journalist working for a foreign organisation, I had every right to be where I was. I demanded to see his superior. He relented and I was saved.
But the thought that my country might be thrown back into turmoil and the inhabitants of my city once again forced to face such peril has filled most of my fellow Lebanese and I with horror. One of the biggest questions facing Lebanon now is whether the collective yearning for calm will prove stronger than the desires of extremists on both sides of the political divide who seem eager to return to turbulence, bloodshed and terror.
The answer may depend in part on who killed Gemayel. He was shot in broad daylight after his car was rammed on his way to pay condolences to an old woman in his east Beirut constituency. The news was broken gently to each member of his family in turn by his father.
When that duty was done, the elder Gemayel’s first thought was to appeal for restraint. “We don’t want revenge,” the former president told an angry crowd gathering outside the hospital where his son’s body lay. “We want the Lebanese cause to win.”
Within minutes of the killing, senior anti-Syrian politicians were pointing the finger of suspicion at Damascus. Among them was Saad Hariri, the son of the former prime minister widely believed to have been blown up by Syrian agents last year.
UN investigators leading the Hariri murder inquiry — and said to have amassed evidence of a Syrian connection — have now been asked to help track down Gemayel’s killers.
But whether they will come to the same conclusion remains to be seen. Many in Lebanon question why it would have been in Assad’s interests to order such a brutal act when the diplomatic stock of his long-isolated regime is finally rising. Assad’s Foreign Minister reopened diplomatic relations with Iraq on the day of Gemayel’s death after a gap of nearly 30 years. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is trying to engage Syria in efforts to curb the insurgency in Iraq and there is growing talk in Washington that the participation of Damascus could be critical for a regional peace conference that may be convened in the coming months.
Numerous other theories abound, none supported by any evidence. Some claim Hezbollah was involved and plans to destroy the Government by killing two more cabinet ministers; others suspect Israel on the grounds that it benefits from blame being heaped on Syria; others still believe that a Christian leader ordered the assassination in a vicious, internal power struggle. US ambassador to the UN John Bolton was having none of it at the weekend. The murder could be the “first shot” in a coup against the Government, he warned, and recent inquiries into other political killings implicated Syria.
In Damascus itself, a variant of this theory was doing the rounds of political circles. Informed sources suggested that the order for Gemayel’s murder may have come from a group operating within the Syrian regime, but opposed to the President and anxious to undermine him.
The man with the most to gain from disrupting relations between Washington and Damascus, they said, was General Rostum Ghazali, the intelligence chief at the time of Hariri’s murder and a key suspect for UN investigators. Some Middle East analysts believe Ghazali could be handed over to the UN tribunal in return for private assurances that the investigation would go no higher. In return, Syria would help to bring the violence in Iraq under control.
While proof of Syrian involvement could sharply increase tensions in Lebanon, such reports remained in the realm of speculation this weekend.
The more pressing issue was a statement by Hezbollah’s Nasrallah, whose popularity has been buoyed by his defiance of Israeli military might during this year’s war. The statement said Nasrallah would use “all available democratic and legal means” to press his demand for a more representative government. If mass demonstrations follow, the next few weeks will be a time of fear for Lebanon.
Youssef Kanaan, 42, still vividly remembers the day in 1976 when about 330 Christians were massacred at Damour, 18km south of Beirut. Six members of his family were among the dead. The massacre was in retaliation for the murder of about 1000 Muslims by Christian Falangists in Karantina, Beirut, two days earlier. “We must never go back to that,” Kanaan said.
For now, I am putting my faith in the younger generation who seek change, freedom and democracy in Lebanon, and who want to see them achieved without blood-letting.
The shelter in my family’s apartment block has long been closed and I can only wish that it remain so.
The Sunday Times