Monday, October 10, 2016

When we were free

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1989. Right after the “liberation war”. We were ALBA students in our early twenties. We organized one of the first marches towards the Baabda presidential palace in support of Lebanon’s freedom from Syrian military occupation. Little we knew that all this would end in tragedy and bloodshed a year or so later, on October 13.

When I look at this photo, I can’t but notice how innocent we looked. We were convinced that we would win, that Lebanon would regain its sovereignty and independence. A couple of weeks after this picture was taken, the Baabda presidential palace became the scene of the biggest popular sit-in in Lebanese history.

It started when the proxy government controlled by Syria threatened to invade the presidential palace, the last symbol of Lebanese sovereignty. We started calling each other, wondering what to do – not an easy thing back then; phones were barely working, if not at all. As general Aoun went on TV and asked people to join the army to fight off the Syrian invasion, some of us decided to take another path.

Personally, I was convinced we would lose militarily – the Syrian occupation troops were 35,000 strong and had tens of thousand of local militiamen at their service, while the Lebanese army was much smaller in numbers. I thought only a civilian uprising could stop the invasion. So we went to the presidential palace and acted as a human shield. There were only a handful of us.

That night was probably the longest night of my life. We were sitting on the cold pavement, waiting for the invasion to start. In the early hours of the morning, we were all looking towards the sky, expecting Syrian warplanes to appear. We were terrified but tried our best to hide it.

When the sun finally got up, there were no invading troops in sight. Instead dozens of people arrived in small groups and joined us. In the next few hours, more and more people showed up. Dozens became hundreds, hundreds became thousands. By the end of the day, the area around the presidential palace was full of civilians, men, women and children. Some of them planted a tent. And the sit-in began.

It lasted 90 days. During these 90 days, we dreamed of a better Lebanon, free of foreign troops, free of militias, free of corruption. A new Lebanon, independent, secular and truly democratic; from the people, for the people.

Then came the war between the Lebanese army and the Lebanese Forces christian militia. Many of us suddenly found themselves in “enemy territory”, controlled by militiamen, and had to escape to towns still under the Lebanese army’s control.

A few weeks after this new war started, we tried to revive the “Baadba spring” – as we used to call it – and succeeded. People living in the last free region of Lebanon poured once more to the deserted and partly destroyed presidential palace. Despite the recent setbacks, the dream was still very much alive.

That dream ended on October 13, 1990 when Syrian troops and their local proxies invaded Lebanon’s last free stronghold, with the blessing of the entire international community.

October 13 will remain one of the darkest episodes of the Lebanese war. All hope of a free and democratic Lebanon was crushed with unprecedented brutality and the country was given to Syria to do with it as it pleased.

It took fifteen more years before the Syrian occupation ended. During those years, the country was robbed blind by former warlords and corrupt politicians. This repressive and corrupt era turned a once bright people – perhaps one of the brightest in the world – into a mass of superficial, selfish and egotistical individuals.

In 2005, after Rafic Hariri's assassination, this mass of selfish individuals woke up and became a people again, but quickly fell back to sleep when the Syrians left and local politicians stole the uprising and used it to continue thieving. The country divided itself between two antagonist groups, March 8 and March 14, and the Lebanese followed either one, without questions, like zombies. Not understanding that this split was artificial, only made to divide, rule and rob.

26 years after October 13, it's about time we have a true awakening, and reclaim our Republic from those waging a silent, yet merciless war against Lebanon, by impoverishing us, by driving the economy to the ground, by polluting anything and everything, and taking away any hope of a better future.

If we don't, we should no longer call ourselves Lebanese.

Today, when I look at this old picture, I'd like to find the strength to tell the idealist kid I used to be that, despite how difficult, frustrating and sometimes disheartening it will be, I should not rest until every one of his dreams about Lebanon has become a reality.

© Claude El Khal, 2016

Photo: Claude Medawar Sfeir