Nadine Elali

Fresh targeting of Syrians as hostages' fates remain unclear

Pilgrims’ relatives step up the pressure

migrant workers

Relatives of the Lebanese hostages in Azaz have taken escalating steps to pressure the Syrian kidnappers to set their relatives free. These steps began with efforts to disrupt Syrians working in Lebanon by closing down their shops over the weekend, and are expected to continue by targeting Turkish interests in Lebanon in the upcoming days. 


Ever since the kidnapping of a busload of Lebanese pilgrims in Syria in May of last year, Syrian workers in Lebanon have been subjected to continuous threats and intimidation in retribution for the pilgrims’ disappearance.


Over the weekend, relatives of the hostages in Azaz closed down shops belonging to Syrians in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Hassan, a Syrian living in Hay el-Sellom and who runs a retail shop there, tells NOW that the families closed down over 30 retail shops Friday, leaving messages on the store fronts with their signatures on it.


Some of the messages, he says, read “not until my father returns, or else go back to your own country” another said “it is forbidden for these shops to open until the return of pilgrims from the holy land,” and other shops featured huge scrawled “X” marks on it.


“We shut our shops all day Friday up until Sunday,” he said “and in support of their case we also held gathered and held banners Sunday afternoon saying that we, the Syrian people and the Lebanese are one, and that we also hope for the Lebanese pilgrims safe return.”


He stressed “it is neither our fault nor theirs; neither of us should be paying the price of what is happening inside Syria.”


Hassan also mentioned that as the Syrians responded to the families' warnings and requests there was no presence for any security forces at the scene to either protect them or to stop the families.


An ISF source who spoke to NOW on condition of anonymity said that the internal security forces have not been asked to treat these threats and intimidations because the issue is being treated “politically.” The source explained that Lebanon’s Interior Minister is following up on these cases with the delegated ministerial committee and that the security developments that have resulted have been achieved through political connections.  


Eleven Lebanese Shiites were kidnapped in the Azaz region of Aleppo, northern Syria, as they returned home from pilgrimage in Iran last year. Two have been released since; the fate of the remaining nine is yet unknown. A Syrian rebel leader, identified as Abu Ibrahim, who is allegedly the head of the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade, has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.


Last month, during the Arab League summit in Doha, President Michel Suleiman held talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani over the case of the pilgrims. He also met with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, on the sideline and urged Ankara to exert “every effort within its means” to secure their release.


Hajeh Hayat, the mother of one of the kidnapped pilgrims, tells NOW that the Lebanese authorities have been giving them empty promises and that they have not been able to proceed with the case.  


“We have no information about the development in the case,” he says “and it is only when we escalate that we feel we urge them to make a move.”


She also blamed Turkey for the abduction and said it has an important role to play in securing the release of the pilgrims. For that the relatives also plan to target Turkish interests so as to put pressure on Turkish authorities.


“We plan to target Turkish interests in the country,” she says. “We will hold a gathering in Martyrs Square soon because of its symbolic [value]…. This will be followed by more steps that would unfold in the next two days mainly involving boycotting Turkish products.”


As for the events in Hay el-Sellom she explains that the families are closing shops of Syrians because they are being provoked by their very presence among them.


“They are continuing on with their lives and it is provoking us that they continue to buy and sell their products unaffected,” she said, “But they are not our main problem. Once the pilgrims are released they can open their shops again. It is just a spontaneous reaction.”

Syrian migrant workers face uncertain - and sometimes grim - fates in Beirut. (AFP photo)

“‘It is neither our fault nor theirs; neither of us should be paying the price of what is happening inside Syria.’”