The long goodbye
EVEN now I feel strange writing it without reading, rereading and rechecking my words. For the first time, I will write it: the Syrians had to leave Lebanon.
A few months ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of saying it. The dreaded mukhabarat or ‘secret intelligence’ were everywhere, always listening. So we developed code words. We spoke of the ‘Swiss’. ‘Beware of that bread seller over there,’ my friend would nudge me. ‘He’s definitely Swiss.’ It wasn’t hard to notice them. The plain-clothed Syrian intelligence agents never really blended in to the trendy Lebanese scene.
The Syrian army entered Lebanon in 1976 to help quell the initial stages of the civil war which began a year earlier. But the war dragged on for another 14 years. In 1989, the Lebanese agreed to the Taif Accord, a compromise to end the fighting. Taif demanded a staged withdrawal of Syrian forces to be completed by 1992. But the Syrians never budged. Instead, they gradually tightened their grip on the country through a series of treaties and understandings as well as coercion and force.
To give credit where credit is due, they also helped keep the peace, even if it was on their terms. Those terms included bussing up to a million Syrian workers into a country of three million people. They accepted lower wages than Lebanese workers. Syrian goods began squeezing out local products.
But most of all, they influenced Lebanese politics and dictated the country’s every move. Pro-Syrian Lebanese presidents were ‘elected’ by the many pro-Syrian politicians placed in parliament. Opposition was slight during the 1990s, mainly university students who soon found themselves jailed. A popular television network was accused of being anti-Syrian and shut down. Although some spoke out, the majority of the Lebanese kept fearfully silent.
The media carefully self-censored their newspaper and television reports. Once a colleague mistakenly broadcast prohibited Syrian news. The call to the network came and she sat tearfully frozen.
‘What will they do?’ she whispered to me. I shook my head. I didn’t know. We never found out exactly what happened except that the network made an agreement whereby she would be fired but kept out of Syrian clutches. Other journalists were not so lucky.
Many of us off the political stage didn’t feel their presence in our daily routine.
As long as we didn’t criticize them or their leaders, we lived normally without giving them much thought. Instead, we were trying to build lives in postwar Lebanon under the leadership of billionaire-turned-politician Rafik Hariri, the prime minister.
But on 14 February, with Hariri’s assassination, everything changed. Everyone immediately suspected the Syrians, although there is no hard evidence. Hariri had begun to support the opposition movement to oust the Syrians from Lebanon. A UN report released in March revealed that Syrian President Bashar Assad had threatened Hariri. Anger exploded all over Lebanon. Those who were previously silent became vocal. Hundreds of thousands spilled into the streets. The anger was uncontrollable. For days, demonstrations continued. Lebanon has never seen anything like it. Walking among the crowd with my small daughter, I was amazed at the new-found audacity of the Lebanese. Men, women, the elderly and even children were chanting anti-Syria slogans – which only a few months ago risked landing them in jail. Lebanese anger, unfortunately, also turned against Syrian labourers. At least 30 were attacked and killed. Thousands fled in fear, though most returned a few weeks later.
Meanwhile, increasing international pressure forced Syria to begin withdrawing its troops and intelligence agents. My husband and I rushed to the mountains to see the abandoned villas occupied since 1976 by Syrian soldiers. Most of the houses were derelict, with nothing left inside, not even door frames.
After almost 30 years, the owners were returning to claim their old homes. ‘I never thought I would ever step into my home again,’ said an elderly man as he walked into a recently vacated house. The walls were black from the fires troops had burned to keep warm. ‘It’s a glorious day for us,’ shouted one woman.
The fight between pro-Syrian government officials and the opposition movement continues. The winner will shape our future.