Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Breath of Relief as Syrians Depart

Anjar- The last convoy of the Syrian military and secret service cleared out around 8 PM on Tuesday evening explains one of the villagers in Anjar.

A blacksmith, Karim, who works in the town says there were maybe 15 or 20 vehicles, which left: “There are still some Syrian workers about, but the army and the mukhbarat are gone”, Karim continues with a smile.

Now the small Lebanese Armenian town, home to the Ummayyad Ruins, is overrun with Lebanese army, guarding entrances of former intelligence and army offices once under Syrian control. No one is allowed in to any of the sensitive sites. Still a very recent take over, some of the areas are sealed off by the army barbwire strewn across the streets, guarded by soldiers carrying machine guns. They smile, but are firm in keeping onlookers out.

Around mid-day on Wednesday, in this usually quiet town, the furtive villagers start for a first time in twenty seven years pulling out Lebanese flags, hanging them in the store fronts and off of the balconies: an unimaginable sight just the day before. Merces Narsasian, an old man walking with a cane, whose balcony is now decorated with three flags explains: “My grandson brought the flags over two days ago, and today we put them up, and the boys played football downstairs.”

In area once heavily guarded by the Syrians whose trucks and cars were parked outside the castle wall of the ruins, Narsasian’s neighbors congregate for a chat over a cup of coffee at the Kadi family’s home: “They were very nice the soldiers. They never made any problems for us.” But their tone begins to change when stories of imprisonment and torture are brought to their attention. “We never saw anything. We didn’t ask, we didn’t talk. But rumors and stories of what was happening surrounding the town ran like water.”

According to the Kadi family, there were no prisons in town, simply offices, and Syrian housing and villas for the officers. And Syrian’s apparently moved into what may have looked like empty houses. Narsasian explains that the house across the street was owned by a man who left for Beirut, and who discovered upon his return that his house was being used as an intelligence service office. He was not paid any rent.

Now the house is locked up, chairs knocked over, mattresses stripped as seen through the broken window on the ground floor. Taped to the front door, there is an A4 sheet of paper: notice from the Lebanese army forbidding the entrance to the premises.

“Of course we were scared, a forest without a fox is not a forest” explains the mechanic David Seferian. And as one of the members of the Kadi family describes: “It is hard to talk about their departure, it is still too new. Maybe in two or three months from now, people will talk out loud.”

But as Seferian says: “The families here did not make any problems with the Syrians, and no one disturbed us. But the stories were terrible”.

Seferian explains that right outside of town there was an onion factory owned by a Palestinian man. The place was converted by the mukhbarat to a prison and processing plant for information.

About a kilometer and a half out of town, near some fields is a disaffected onion factory, now empty. Seferian remembers going there, hired to fix some cars: “You could hear people yelling as if they were being beaten.”

Posted along the main gate is another of the Lebanese army notices taped to the front gate. Down the main dirt road leading to the center of the building, there are Lebanese soldiers walking about the premises. To the left of the gate are two adjacent buildings, one with a big metal door now warped and metal cables hanging. The other one-story building is missing windows, which look into to small square division resembling a long line of storage units covered by slanted roof.

“I know the onion factory” explains Nasser back in Beirut. “I was taken there in the 9th month of 1987 when I was sixteen. I remember two building to the left of the entrance, one with a metal door. I get really upset thinking about it”.

During the war, the Syrian forces arrested him in connection to his clandestine activities with the Fatah Movement. “I was placed in the boot of the car. There were mini vans and small cars, which contained about 20 men, all picked up for questioning. I arrived in the factory around 1630/1700, and I was cold. When I complained to the guard, he said don’t worry we will warm you up soon. And did I ever get warm.” Nasser laughs uncomfortably and then as if a shadow was cast over his face: “It was the beginning of a nightmare, I spent a week there before being shipped off to the prison of Mazeh in Syria where I spent 8 years. It took my family a year and half to figure out where I was”

“At first I stood in a room with twenty men, we were blind-folded, and our hands were tied behind our back, and then one by one we taken in for questioning.” During Nasser’s descriptions of endless beatings, and torture, he was being accused of murders, which he claims to not have been involved with. He explained that because he was so young, he played the role of a messenger between factions. “I had long hair then, and didn’t look suspicious. But they figured it out and went after me”.

Whether rightfully accused or not, the story of Nasser’s brutal treatment is one of many which kept the current of rumors running like water through Anjar and becoming rivers by the time they got to Beirut.

But as for today: “I am happy the Syrians have left, we are all happy they have left. It is like a new independence. My mother remembers the independence in 1943, this is our second independence in 2005” explains one of the Kadi family.