I still feel that I can’t wake up. I keep thinking that he’s coming back and all will return to normal. But Rafic Hariri is dead. A bomb was detonated just as the ex-Prime Minister’s convoy passed through a ritzy seaside road at the edge of the wartorn central district that he had rebuilt and just a few kilometres from my home. I watched in distress as the dense black smoke filled the sky. Hariri dead? Powerful people like Hariri don’t get killed…
I rushed to the street. It was empty. The few remaining people stared at each other. For the next few days, people walked around in a daze. The shock was tremendous. Tears rolled down easily. Most of us wore black.
I felt I had lost my father. For in those 12 years in government, he had become our father. Sometimes cajoling, sometimes bullying, sometimes laughing. Many times we criticized him. But he led and we followed.
Born in a poor Sunni Muslim family, Hariri became a selfmade billionaire when he started his own construction company in Saudi Arabia. During the war, he loaned or footed the bill for thousands of Lebanese students who he sent abroad to continue their studies. His hope was that they would some day return as educated citizens and rebuild their country.
Throughout his life he had a vision: a peaceful and reconstructed Lebanon serving as the region’s financial hub. As Prime Minister of Lebanon, he pushed us all into seeing his vision. He built roads, schools and social institutions. He turned the wartorn downtown area into a luxurious reconstructed district. He spent much of his time attracting foreign investors to the area. Tourists began to arrive. In 2004 alone, 1.2 million tourists visited the country.
At the same time, he managed to accrue a huge deficit for the country. Although we complained, we knew that somehow he would find a solution. Hariri always had the answer. In many ways, Hariri became Lebanon. We jokingly called it ‘Hariri land’.
Over and over, he emphasized the need for Lebanon’s divided sects to unite. But 16 years of civil war had left many scars among Christian, Muslims and Druze. Bickering, although much subdued, continued.
But then something happened. The shock of his murder slowly turned into anger. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets accompanying his coffin. Muslims, Christians and Druze walked side by side to bury their leader. Hariri was buried in a plot in the midst of his beloved reconstructed downtown area. Carrying crosses or the Qur’an, a steady stream of Lebanese continue to flock to his grave. Some lay flowers and others light candles.
‘By killing Hariri, they killed all of us. All of Lebanon,’ wailed one woman.
‘Get up and lead us, Hariri. Get up,’ screamed another at the silent grave.
‘We will avenge you,’ said one young man. ‘We’ll find your killers and hunt them down.’
I stared at the grave site covered with flowers. A nearby mosque was under construction and all its boards were covered with messages to the deceased leader.
The future is uncertain. As one friend put it: ‘The world just crumbled around my feet. Everything has changed. Who is going to lead the country?’
In other countries, another leader takes over. But in Lebanon, there isn’t any other Hariri. Other leaders have yet to appear.
People are scared. Some are talking of emigrating.
The ex-premier’s death has unleashed fury against Syria, the perceived killer, although it has denied involvement. Hariri is believed to have taken a stand against Syria’s heavy involvement in Lebanese politics and this perhaps led to his death. Daily demonstrations and vigils are held. Schools and businesses remain mostly closed.
I often think back to the few times that I had interviewed him. We had a ritual. ‘Vote for me in the elections,’ he would say. ‘Save Beirut’s old traditional houses from demolition and I will,’ I would reply.
The last time I saw him, I was just a few weeks pregnant with my daughter. At the end of the interview, he leaned over and smiled. ‘You’re hiding something in there, aren’t you?’
I wish I had said thank you for noticing. I wish I had said thank you for raising Lebanon from the ashes, thank you for creating jobs for us and most of all thank you for believing in us.
I wish I had said ‘I believe in you too’.