New Internationalist

The long goodbye

June 2005

Reem Haddad on an oft-delayed departure.

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.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

This column was published in the June 2005 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Never miss another story! Get our FREE fortnightly eNews

Comments on The long goodbye

Leave your comment







 

  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

...And all is quiet.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Get our free fortnightly eNews

Multimedia

Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Recently in Writing home

All Writing home

Popular tags

All tags

This article was originally published in issue 379

New Internationalist Magazine issue 379
Issue 379

More articles from this issue

  • Introduction

    June 1, 2005

    Introducing nurse Nancy Wambui Itotia, her dilemma – and her country's. Vanessa Baird reports.

  • Hope FM

    June 1, 2005

    To Kenya with Nancy to see what she has left behind – and the effect that the money she sends home has on her family.

  • The Neocons

    June 1, 2005

    George W Bush goes for broke with his neocon appointees to the World Bank, the UN and UNICEF.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.

Subscribe