Doubters and dreamers
I stood there at the airport waiting for him to arrive. I even carried his picture around my neck. I didn’t have a choice – it was a press card. After 11 years of imprisonment, the former Christian warlord, Samir Geagea, the head of the once-banned Lebanese Forces party, was about to be released and flown to France for medical check-ups.
His name alone rekindled black memories of the war, of shells and bombs. I shivered as I viewed the excited young faces around me. Their hakim or ‘doctor’, as he is called, was about to appear. None of them looked over the age of 20. They could barely remember the war; many of them had not even been born. As a haggard-looking Geagea appeared, the people in the crowds couldn’t help jumping up and down and hugging each other.
I remember staring coldly yet with interest when I met Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblat – also two former warlords whose very names used to make us tremble during the war. They, like Geagea, were ruthless and the militias they ran were responsible for thousands of deaths. Yet both Berri and Jumblat became prominent politicians after the war ended in 1990.
A twinge of sympathy – albeit a very small one – went to Geagea when he was jailed in 1994 on clearly trumped-up charges because of his opposition to Syrian rule in Lebanon. He was the only warlord who ended up in jail. He was given four life sentences for several murders, including the assassination of former premier Rashid Karami in 1987. He was placed in solitary confinement in an underground cell in the Lebanese ministry of defence.
Many Christians viewed Geagea as a hero who defended their community. ‘He did what he did for our good,’ said Elie, an engineer in his late forties. ‘I believed in him then and believe in him now.’
But other Lebanese saw him as an Israeli-backed militia leader with a lust for power and a readiness to kill anyone who stood in his way.
‘I was hoping he would rot in jail,’ said Ramzi, 40, a teacher at a Beirut school. ‘He put us Christians through hell. Those days still haunt me.’
It was strange to see the thousands of Lebanese Forces members on the streets, celebrating and brandishing the party’s flag in public after years of being banned and persecuted by the Syrian-backed authorities.
Geagea’s release came about after the Lebanese Parliament granted him amnesty in July. The Syrians left Lebanon in April after 29 years’ of military presence. Their departure has led to the re-emergence of many wartime faces.
These militia leaders are older – and, you have to hope, wiser. But it’s the younger generation I worry about.
Blaring music a few days ago made me rush to the balcony. Down on the street below, four teenagers were playing Lebanese Forces anthems, waving and draping themselves in party flags and chanting slogans.
One of the teenagers was a 17-year-old girl who lives across the street. I approached her.
‘The hakim is our dream,’ she said emphatically. ‘We believe in his convictions.’
‘And those convictions are?’ I asked.
The girl looked uncomfortable. ‘Since I was a baby, my parents have been telling me about him. I grew up on his stories,’ she replied. ‘He’s wonderful.’
‘And his convictions are?’ I asked again.
‘He has sacrificed so much. He is the higher example,’ she said.
‘What has he sacrificed? What is this example and what convictions?’ I asked patiently.
The girl looked at me blankly. ‘You don’t understand,’ she retorted and walked away.
She’s right. I don’t understand. Maybe it’s because I remember so well the shelling and the fear. Maybe it’s because I miss my friends who perished. Or maybe it’s because I yearn for the childhood that I spent hiding in shelters. To me Geagea is just like the others: a warlord who ruined many lives.
And so I stood at their airport with his picture on the press card around my neck. I suddenly gave a little laugh. My colleague gave me a quizzical look. I pointed to the press card and the VIP lounge full of MPs – some of them were Geagea’s enemies in the 1980s and would gladly have seen him dead. Now they were here to welcome him back to freedom.
‘Do you see the irony?’ I asked. She smiled sadly. She remembers too.