Desperation pervades protest camp for captured Lebanese soldiers

Published January 4th, 2015 - 08:16 GMT

Inside protest tents on one of Beirut’s festive streets, families of the 25 kidnapped Lebanese soldiers and policemen lie every night, wondering what disturbing and horrid revelations await them in the morning. Nonetheless, they stubbornly hold on to their cause, hoping that somehow, somewhere, the kidnapped will come back home unharmed.

Amid the bustle and clatter of the festive season, a simple stroll along the cobblestone streets of Beirut’s downtown is enough to make evident the presence of two extremely different worlds within a limited space.

Merry faces of all ages flock to tens of stores, cafes, and restaurants aligned along shopping alleys and arcades bedecked with oversized holiday decorations, while teenagers pose in front of the Christmas tree, arms around each others’ shoulders, smiling happily at the camera.

Just a few blocks away, a mere five-minute walk from the sights and sounds and smells of the holiday season, the families of 25 Lebanese soldiers held captive by militants in the barren lands of Qalamoun have been sleeping on the sidewalk for the past three months.

It has been a frustrating and painful four months for the families of the 25 soldiers and policemen who were kidnapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and al-Qaeda linked Syria branch al-Nusra Front, during a five-day battle with the Lebanese army in the northeastern border town of Arsal in August.

Below are the stories, shared with Al-Akhbar English, of two of the many women who welcomed the new year in the absence of a loved one.

Sabrine Ziad Omar, the wife of Ziad Omar, an Internal Security Forces member held by Nusra:

We met in 1998, he was my colleague and we fell madly in love. We had big plans and even bigger dreams, little did we know that we would get separated for 10 years. Right after graduation, he proposed but my parents didn't approve.

'”Look around, how many girls do you know are married to Shias? You need to respect your community,” my mother said time and again.

So, my family married me off to my cousin. “He is one of us, a Sunni,” she replied every time I asked her why she thought my cousin was a better match.

I thought about Ziad every single day for eight long years. I knew I was going to end my marriage sooner or later but I never expected what life had in store for me. I earned a master’s degree in law and became a practicing lawyer. I knew my husband was going to take away my daughter but I left anyway.

And then I met Ziad again. I was at a cousin’s wedding when he suddenly walked in. My heart skipped a beat. I still get butterflies in my stomach when I think about that moment. He saw me but acted as if he hadn’t.

“Show me Sabrine’s husband,” he told my cousin, who with great enthusiasm told him that I got divorced. Ziad walked up to me and said: “We are getting married.”

And we did.

After 10 years, Ziad proposed again and my parents rejected his proposal, again.
“It’s either us or him, make your choice,” my mother and sisters said. I, of course, chose Ziad and my family, except my brothers, haven’t talked to me since.

In 2009, on my birthday, we got married, exactly like we had planned a decade ago. After that day, Ziad became my whole life. My father, brother, friend and husband. If I lose him I will lose everything, even myself. What is a body without its soul?

I miss him every day and it feels like I haven’t seen him in a million years, but I know I’m going to see him soon. Fate brought us back together after 10 years and it will bring us back together again. My optimism is based on intuition, not evidence. Believe me, if my hope rested on the reality on the ground, I would have given up long ago.

Every morning, I tell Gretta and Grace, our almost two-year-old twin girls, that their father is coming back. I know they don’t believe me anymore, but one day, one morning I will tell them that their father is coming back and he will. I’m sure he won’t break my promise.

What happened in Arsal is very suspicious and questionable. Was it the officers' negligence? Was it a political decision? Was it a plan, a carefully woven plot? I don’t know, but it was not a mistake and definitely not an unexpected turn of events.

These men were sent to a battlefield unarmed. Whoever took this decision, indirectly pulled the trigger and put a bullet through their heads.

Ziad and his fellow servicemen resisted as much as they could, but the outcome of the fight was evident before it even started. They were low on ammunition and the militants outnumbered them. Everything happened so fast.

”The whole world just stopped, everything went silent and I felt like I was going to faint. It was the most terrifying moment of my life.”
It was a Saturday. He called me at noon and we texted back and forth until he stopped replying at about 4:30 pm. When I called him and he didn’t respond I started to get worried. Suddenly, he called me and with a trembling yet calm voice he said: “Sabrine, we are surrounded. I need you to turn on the TV and tell me what is happening outside.”

I ran to the living room, turned on the TV and started reading the breaking news out loud as fast as I could. “Ziad, get out of there I beg you,” I cried, but Ziad didn’t reply. I started screaming through the phone but in vain. I heard the sound of bullets over the phone and I just collapsed in front of my girls. The whole world just stopped, everything went silent and I felt like I was going to faint. It was the most terrifying moment of my life.

I called my brother and told him that Ziad had been killed. He told me to calm down, did some calls and minutes later called me again and told me that Ziad was alive and that he was at Sheikh Mostafa al-Hujeiri’s house.

An hour later, Ziad called and said: “Don’t worry, I will be back home at 7:40 pm as usual. Don’t let the girls sleep before I come back.”

That was four months ago.

Amena Zakaria, the mother of 23-year-old Lebanese soldier Hussein Ammar, held by ISIS:

I saw him for 10 minutes in November. I didn't recognize him at first. I didn't recognize my own son, can you imagine?

I thought Hussein would welcome me with a warm smile and a hug but he was dead cold. Even though his arms weren’t tied, he kept them inside his pockets.

He had a caveman beard, his body was stiff, skinnier than I expected, and it felt like he was unable to straighten up his arched back. He looked old, way beyond his years. He was garbed in the dusty green or maybe grey clothes he had on when he was kidnapped over four months ago. His clothes hung loosely on his ghastly figure.

He had no expression on his face at all, just a blank stare. I don't know what they made him go through but he was clearly in a state of shock, completely detached from real life. He muttered a couple of words and I just wept the whole time. He said that the militants were forcing them to dig caves. He was exhausted and ashamed.

ISIS and Nusra are not only holding 25 Lebanese soldiers and servicemen captive, they are holding Lebanon captive.

We feel abandoned in a city crowded with people. We feel betrayed, angry, helpless, hopeless, and disappointed.

[She lifts her head as though exerting great effort] Every night we rest on the illusion that a miracle will happen and that our sons will come back home [tomorrow].

From day one, the government has been injecting us with doses of false hope and unmet promises to keep us calm and ignorant. The blood of the martyrs and the lives of the hostages have become a site of potential political gain, attracting only those thirsty for power and authority.

With no solution in sight, days are dragging by slowly. Nothing has changed in the last four months except the number of soldiers alive. They say that for a country to live and rise blood must be shed. But at what cost?

Everytime I try to sleep, I’m haunted with images no mother can bear. Seeing my son on TV being stuffed alongside someone else’s son unceremoniously into the military jeep in Arsal, Ali Sayyed’s and Abbas Medlej’s decapitated bodies, Mohammed Hammieh and Ali Bazzal’s executions, their mothers’ reactions upon hearing the news … I’m living my worst nightmare.

Captivity is the most horrid, the most inhuman and barbaric thing that could have ever happened to our sons.

He is probably feeling cold right now, lonely, afraid, hungry, tired …

In his head, he has lived and died tens of times. Tens of possibilities must be running through his mind: “Am I next? Is my fellow soldier next? Will I be shot or beheaded?”

Even if he comes back, he will be a totally different person. I feel like I’m losing a piece of my son at the rise of every dawn. Certain wounds can never be healed. With every passing hour, something inside him dies and might never be regained. They’re killing all the good things in him and, yes, I want my son alive but I also want him well.

And it’s not only about my son, this whole situation will have long-lasting consequences on our society, especially on our youth, as it exposed the vulnerability of an institution meant to protect the vulnerable.

These men have been consigned to the margins of a society that they were once its core.

If the army and the government don’t contain this situation as soon as possible, any lingering idealization of the army will vanish. The only institution that has long been able to embrace all youth – within a society fragmented and prone to division – is at stake. The very concept of honorable military service is also at stake.

By Rana Harbi

© Al-Akhbar. All rights reserved

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