Myra Abdallah

The liberated south, 15 years later

Liberation Day banner, Ghazieh highway (NOW)
Liberation Day preparation, Kafarkela (NOW)
Liberation Day preparation, Kafarkela (NOW)

“It is the safest place in Lebanon,” said Abu Hassan, a coffee kiosk owner in Nabatiyeh who recently returned to Lebanon after many years in Africa. “Living in the south is a privilege. The resistance guarantees the safety and the security of these towns against all threats. As you can see, people are preparing for Monday’s celebration. For us, 25 May is the real independence day of Lebanon.”


25 May marks a glorious day for Lebanon. In 2000, the Israeli Army withdrew from southern Lebanon after almost two decades of occupation. Southern Lebanese resistance—Hezbollah guerillas in particular—had finally been able to push Israel out of Lebanon. The Guardian described this defeat as Israel’s “worst nightmare.”


Since 2000, two major events have affected southern Lebanon: the July 2006 War and the Syrian uprising. Residents of the south—who were promised a secure life after 2000—had to flee the region again in 2006, leaving their houses to the Israeli bombs. The majority of southern Lebanese NOW spoke to, however, said the 2006 War was less dangerous than the war in Syria.



A secured but cautious area affected by regional wars


“Almost 10 years after the [2006] last war between the Resistance and Israel, we finally feel safe, said Umm Muhammad, a mother of six in Kafrkila, who requested anonymity. “We are always cautious, we always fear new clashes, but at least we know that the security is guaranteed no matter what, especially after the Resistance defeated the Israeli forces twice; the first time in 2000 and the second in 2006. Today, we do not fear Israel. The real threat the region is facing is ISIS and takfiris, the worst enemy. It is true that Israel killed, imprisoned a lot of people and was unjust to us, but it never beheaded people brutally or committed mass murders like ISIS. Israel was a better enemy than the takfiris, and we know that only Hezbollah fighting in Syria can defeat this new, fatal enemy.”


Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian war and its huge losses there have obliged the party to recruit as many fighters as it can in support of the Syrian Army. A large number of fighters have been recruited from southern Lebanon, with ongoing recruitment campaigns that were expanded to the Bekaa when southern manpower no longer sufficed.


“The majority of young men were recruited to fight in Syria to the extent that we started feeling that the Syrian war is our war more than it is the Syrian people’s war,” said Tarek, a Christian resident of Deir Mimas. “Even the Christians were recruited. If you walk on the street, you barely see young men. Christians do not loudly admit being recruited by Hezbollah but, in fact, the need for money has pushed more than 20% of the young male generation of Christians—possibly more than that—and they are now in the ranks of the Resistance.”



Religious dictatorship


“I was almost 22 years old when then the Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon,” said Ahmad (pseudonym), a Shiite resident of Adaysse, who remembers his early 20s with nostalgia. “Don’t get me wrong, I hate Israel and I am very happy that we are now liberated. I only wish we had today the same freedom of behavior we had back then.” Ahmad was referring to the imposition of religious rules the majority of southern Shiite towns are under today. “For example, before 2000, even being a young Shiite man, I could openly drink alcohol. I even had long hair and an ear piercing. I used to live the way every 20-year-old boy discovering life deserves to live. Unfortunately, the situation now is different. Everything I used to do in my early 20s is considered haram now and is not allowed—especially for us, the Shiites who decide not to go by their strict religious rules.”


In 2011, many shops in southern Lebanon were bombed or forced to close. According to a 2011 NOW report, there was speculation the bombed establishments were targeted for selling alcohol in Shiite-majority towns. A string of liquor stores were forced to close in the face of a prohibition campaign across the region.


“We live in a Shiite town. Nobody drinks alcohol here because Islam prohibits it,” Um Mohammad told NOW. “Christians are allowed to drink alcohol in their own towns—it is their choice as long as the alcohol is invisible to us or to our children. We do not want our children to learn this bad habit forbidden by God. Almost all of our women are veiled, only because we want to please God as much as we can. How do you expect us to accept alcohol infecting our towns?”



Masters of indoctrination


“I joined Hezbollah three years ago but I couldn’t handle the lack of freedom. I quit a year ago and joined the Lebanese Army,” said 23-year-old Ali, an LAF officer from Marjayoun. “[Hezbollah] started controlling the way I dressed, the people I spoke to and whether I drink alcohol or not. They had a problem with me driving my brother’s BMW too fast. They didn’t want me to drive my Skywave bike. They had very strict rules on my choice of friends. They even tried to prohibit me from contacting my fiancée, who is Christian. I drink alcohol and I love my fiancée; therefore, the only solution for me was to quit. I joined the army for the stable income they provide. My salary now is almost the same as the salary Hezbollah paid me, with almost the same package of insurance, loan system and healthcare.”


Ali says that Hezbollah strictly controls the lives of a lot of young men. He told NOW that Hezbollah organizes meetings for both men and women to teach them about party doctrine and religious rules. They encourage women to wear veils and encourage men to adhere to the party’s chain of command. He also said that a lot of pressure is put on parents to oblige their kids to attend these meetings.


“Every newborn in the south is a new Nabih Berri or Hassan Nasrallah,” Abu Hassan told NOW. “This is taught in our schools now. Many schools are teaching Resistance ideology these days, where they are imposing Sharia laws. For example, if you want to enter the Madares [schools] al-Mustapha or Madares al-Rahma, it’s not possible without wearing a veil, even though these are only schools and not mosques.”


The pictures of martyrs on the majority of streets in the south are remarkable. Part of celebrating Liberation Day is the remembrance of local martyrs who were killed not only during the wars with Israel, but also during the Syrian war. “Death has become a part of our daily life,” says Umm Muhammad. “We are so used to burying our kids that we’ve stopped feeling the pain of loss. All our children are potential martyrs. This is how our parents raised us. This is the value according to which we raise our children. This is what the Resistance taught us over the years. We are all born to die defending our land.”



Corruption and a weak local economy


“When the Israelis were here, we had more money than we do now,” said a 50-year-old resident of Burj al-Moulouk, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Our financial situation was better because a lot of our men used to work in restaurants and shops in Israel and used to have high salaries. Christians have a reputation of being the only people who worked in Israel, but this is not true. More than 80% of Shiite men in my town used to work there, too. After the liberation, some of them traveled and others were imprisoned for two or three years. We all benefited from the Israeli economy before 2000. Nowadays, the economic situation is really bad. The south is an economically dead area. We barely find jobs. Those who join Hezbollah are almost the only people who have a stable income. Adding to this, after the Syrian crisis, a lot of Syrian refugees came to the south and are now being hired more than Lebanese people because they accept lower salaries.”


Like the whole country, southern Lebanon has been greatly affected by the Syrian refugee crisis, though this is not the biggest concern the residents have. After 2006 War, Hassan Nasrallah promised indemnities for damaged houses and affected families in the south. Unfortunately, not all families were given aid following the war.


“Families who received remunerations are somehow related to Hezbollah or have strong connections with the party leaders,” said Umm Muhammad. “Our house was bombed. One of the walls was totally destroyed. Nobody from Hezbollah gave us any money, though we always supported the Resistance. But we do not have strong connections with its leaders. My husband has a grocery shop. During the 2006 War, Hezbollah people broke into it and took all the food there because they had no food left. We had no problem with them doing that because we were ready to help them in any possible way, but they never returned the favor. A couple of years ago, the government gave us a small amount. It was 250,000 LBP.”


“Christian families were the most neglected,” Tarek told NOW. “We never received any financial aid for reparations. We didn’t expect it anyway. Only people who are directly affiliated with Hezbollah are wealthy here. If Hezbollah is not paying its own people, it would definitely not pay us.”



Struggling youth


Manal, a 28-year-old woman from Nabatiyeh, has been engaged twice. Both her fiancés have been killed. “My first fiancé died in 2006. The second died almost a year-and-a-half ago. They were both fighters. I am not sure I will get engaged again. People think I am cursed now, but in fact the real curse is the continuous wars we have to live with.”


“Do you see all these pictures?” Ahmad asked while pointing at the pictures of martyrs. “These are my friends. They are either dead or waiting to die. In the south, we grew up with death and we got used to it. I only wish we could have a decent, normal life here. I’m 35 now. I have the right to go party, choose how to live and whether I want to drink alcohol or not. I have the right to have friends who think like me and share the same ambitions and dreams. I refuse to surrender to death and war and I want to be given the right to live. Is that too much to ask?”


“I don’t know what a peaceful and normal life is,” Manal said. “I am tired of waking up every morning to see the picture of a new martyr being hung on the street. A lot of my friends share the same opinion as me. We support the Resistance, but we also want to live.”


Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah

Liberation Day banner, Ghazieh highway (NOW)

We are so used to burying our kids that we’ve stopped feeling the pain of loss. All our children are potential martyrs. This is how our parents raised us. This is the value according to which we raise our children. This is what the Resistance taught us over the years. We are all born to die defending our land.”