By Antoine Abou-Diwan
BEIRUT: Families of the nine Lebanese Army soldiers kidnapped by Daesh (ISIS) in 2014 accused the government Sunday of abandoning their men, following the announcement that the remains of eight servicemen had been discovered. “What victory is this?” a bystander who said he was a retired Army officer bellowed at General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim as he announced the retrieval of the soldiers’ remains.
“How do you call this a victory when the soldiers are dead? Why didn’t you have the battle two years ago? And now you are speaking about negotiations.”
The families of the missing soldiers gathered in Downtown Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square midday Sunday as news broke that the militants were disclosing information on potential grave sites on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
The mood was somber, with friends and relatives conversing quietly with the families of the missing soldiers. A priest briefly visited and spoke with the families, as onlookers exchanged rumors about the fate of the captives.
Speaking to the media, the families’ spokesman Hussein Youssef dismissed unconfirmed reports that the soldiers were dead, saying they remained hopeful that the men would return alive.
“We have been hearing rumors since Saturday, leaving us in a state of fear, anguish and shock,” Youssef told The Daily Star. He added that just before midnight Saturday, Ibrahim, tasked with overseeing the case of the missing soldiers, made contact with the families.
“I will believe that my son is a martyr when I bury him with my own hands,” Youssef said, adding that “we [families] will hopefully be able to deal with the shock, whether negative or positive.”
Any sense of hope turned to anger after Ibrahim addressed the crowd.
Ibrahim previously led negotiations with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – formerly known as the Nusra Front – that eventually saw 16 servicemen freed, following the Army’s liberation of Arsal, which was briefly overrun by extremists in 2014.
“Unfortunately, I had hoped that this case would have been resolved like the previous cases,” Ibrahim said as he announced that the bodies had been retrieved in Wadi al-Dibb on Lebanon’s northeastern border.
“The dignity of the homeland requires sacrifice,” he said, adding that he hoped the bodies would be identified using DNA testing soon.
Ibrahim said the government had received information in February 2015 indicating that the soldiers had been killed, but authorities had not been able to verify this and did not publicize the information.
The Army Sunday announced a cease-fire in its offensive against Daesh as part of a deal to uncover the fate of the nine missing soldiers. The deal only heightened tensions in the square, with one bystander shouting, “This government killed them.”
“If it wasn’t for us, [members of the government] wouldn’t be sitting in those chairs,” another bystander yelled. “They fight each other over seats in the Serail,” another said.
“We were hopeful that he was still alive,” the brother of slain serviceman Mustapha Ali Wehbe told The Daily Star. “Nobody knew [what had happened]. It has been 3 1/2 years, and the government laughed at us. They would tell us they’re alive, they would tell us they’re dead.”
This story first appeared in The Daily Star, August 28, 2017.