Pilgrimage Trips: The Dangerous Road to Faith
Three Lebanese women were killed and 14 others were injured when a road bomb exploded near their bus west of Baghdad, while on their way to visit holy sites in the Najaf and Karbala.
This comes a day after the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese pilgrims near Aleppo, Syria as they made their way back from Iran.
On Tuesday, several pilgrimage tours operators suspended their bus trips indefinitely, following the latest kidnapping in Aleppo.
People in Beirut’s conservative southern suburbs, where many of the would be pilgrims reside, are raising questions about tours insisting on going through Syria. Many have finally accepted that there are real security concerns in such an undertaking.
The person in charge of al-Kawthar Tours, Mohsen Hashem, says that “things were normal until the last incident.” Strangely enough, he is still “surprised” about what happened in Syria.
Tour operators such as Hashem “are convinced that the real danger is in Iraq and not in Syria.” But a worker in another agency says he feels there is “an indifference towards the instability in Syria.”
At the beginning of the Syrian events, tour operators felt safe enough to visit the Sayyida Zainab Shrine in Damascus. The city was under the control of the security forces.
The problem lies in other regions. Going to Iraq requires passing through the Aleppo governorate, although many have done so without being harassed.
Participating in the umrah (minor hajj to Mecca) means traveling through the Syrian governorate of Deraa bordering Jordan, on the way to Saudi Arabia.
Pilgrims to Iran’s holy sites also need to go through through Aleppo and Turkey, the only land route, according to Hashem. This is what the bus did two days ago.
The Aleppo Bus Saga
Hayat Awali was busy switching between phones, and turning from one TV camera to another on Wednesday shortly after arriving from Syria.
Awali is the partner of the kidnapped Abbas Shuaib in the Badr al-Kubra tour office they established eight years ago. She had gone on most religious visits they organized and knows the roads very well.
Awali repeats what one of the kidnappers told her: “The young men are a winning card in our hand. The Shia are valuable to the regime.”
This makes her certain they will not hurt them. She knew it from the first moment they were kidnapped. She did not know why she had felt like this but it made her behave daringly.
She listens to people around her talk about SMS messages they received saying the kidnapped are now in Turkey, predicting their imminent return. She shakes her head saying, “Do not believe anyone before you know the source of your information.”
She recounts the story of the last voyage from the time they left the Lebanese territories early Saturday morning on May 12. Everything had seemed normal so they stopped at the Nuqta mosque in Aleppo as they usually do. They prayed, rested, and resumed their journey peacefully.
The crossed Turkey and reached Iran on the third day. There, pilgrims from the Imam Sadr Tours, which left Lebanon a few hours ahead, asked if they had encountered anything on their way.
They had been held up by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the Aleppo highway. The soldiers entered the bus, greeted them, and wished them a safe journey. Some pilgrims from both tours decided to return by air after the Iranian airlines made them a special offer of US$100 on return tickets to Lebanon.
In the evening of May 20, the Badr al-Kubra tour headed back to Lebanon. It crossed Turkey and upon arriving at the Syrian borders in Aleppo, an officer told them, “A bus left before you arrived and is nowhere to be seen.”
They had second thoughts about continuing but by the end of the customs search, the same officer returned to tell them he “sent someone to scout the road and everything is safe.”
Less than ten minutes later, a black car with tinted windows began following the bus. “Moments later, we were caught off guard by armed men coming at us from the orchards of the village of Ghzar. They threatened us, so we stopped. Two young men entered the bus and took the driver first.”
But how did she know they were from the FSA? “They said so and wore shirts with the flag of the Syrian revolution on their shoulders,” she replies.
She remembers that Shuaib asked one of the kidnappers if they were being taken hostage. “No, we are here to protect you. The [UN] observers were here today and usually when they leave a certain area, the regime commences an attack,” was the reply.
They had doubt about the man’s explanation but had no alternative. They surrendered and were transferred to one of the orchards where the men and women were separated. The women were told to go to the nearest police station and report the incident.
Awali refused to “leave without the women from the first tour,” thinking that they will refuse, “but they agreed.”
She maintains that they were not treated badly, although the pilgrims from the first tour were mistreated. “I even saw on the desk some wallets and cellular phones stolen from the pilgrims,” she says. It seemed the kidnappers were in a hurry.
The assistant driver, a Syrian, drove the bus to the Aleppo security headquarters then to the Arz Lubnan (Lebanon Cedar) Hotel in Aleppo. They had planned to stay in Syria until their companions were released.
But “the crowd outside the hotel, now surrounded by Syrians” who wanted to protect them, convinced them to go back to Lebanon and wait there for their companions.
Blind Revenge: Syrians in Beirut Pay The Price
On the day news of Lebanese pilgrims being kidnapped reached Beirut, mobs of young men took to the streets in search of Syrians to exact revenge. The following is an account of one Syrian’s experience in Beirut’s Dahiyeh on that fateful day.
Around 9pm, someone sitting next to me said, “Call the newspaper where you work. They might be able to get us out of here.” I tried, but the mobile network was out.
We were a group of Syrian students, janitors, and workers. “If something bad happens to the Lebanese kidnapped in Aleppo, we will all be exterminated,” said a young man I met in this tiny space. I answered harshly, “But what did we do wrong? Are the 25 million Syrians kidnappers?”
The eldest person around began calming us down and suggested we think of a way out. But how? Everybody outside is looking for a Syrian to grab. It is as if we were Israeli soldiers and not a people with a shared history, fate, and suffering!
A young man sprang up and said, “The network is back.” Instinctively, everyone grabbed their phone and began dialing.
In a few minutes, my contacts with some Lebanese “intellectuals” in Dahiyeh were fruitful. Someone promised to rescue me from the “hot zone” as he described it.
We climbed into the car and went to the nearest area outside Dahiyeh. I took a final look at the walls of the house I live in and the neighborhood, vowing never to live in Dahiyeh again.
My friend asked about what happened. I told him but could not contain my heartache.
I had been in minivan #4, going home at around 6:30pm on Tuesday. I was glad the roads that were supposedly blocked in Tayouneh and other areas were finally open.
Joy turned into terror as we reached the Ikhlas-Mar Mikhael road. Dozens (maybe hundreds) of young men were blocking the main road with their bodies, their motorcycles, and burning tires.
Some had swords, some had knives, but most carried only resentment towards any Syrian passing through. The “angry” young men approached the car. “Are there any Syrians with you?” a man with a sword asked the driver.
We were three. They made us climb down and proceeded, creatively, to taunt and humiliate us. “Let me kill them,” one would say. “No. No. It’s not the fault of these lads,” another would reply, playing the merciful.
We found ourselves stuck between the two men on the side of the road along with many other Syrian young men who were “detained.” The angry young men were stopping anyone suspected of being “Syrian” and searching every car looking for people from my country.
We leaned against the wall waiting for one of several outcomes. Death was clearly one of them. The feeling became stronger when I saw how the young men behaved.
They shouted a barrage of insults and threats. “By God we will not let anyone go.” “Who here is from Aleppo?” “You want freedom?” “Who do you think you are to kidnap Lebanese?”
I did not tell them I was a journalist because I doubted they cared much for the media. I awaited the fate I will share with the other men lined up along the wall.
But our fear of death or “getting beaten” did not become a reality. Some rational members from the Amal movement saved us. They saved me, at least, because I do not know what happened to the other guys.
On the other hand, we were also saved by the statement of [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah. We heard that he spoke on behalf of the Speaker of Parliament [and head of Amal] Nabih Berri, calling for calm. We began seeing high ranking local officials from the movement attempting to get their young men away from the Syrians.
All this does not mean that “individual incidents” did not take place...Some young Lebanese exacted their revenge on Syrians in different ways. They shut down their shops. They kicked them out of work. They hounded them by knocking hysterically on their doors and spouting racist insults...
I walked a few steps, looking for the nearest building with a Syrian doorman. It was a few meters away. Going in, I saw the young men who would share my exhaustion and anxiety. We were furious.
Someone related the story about Lebanese refugees being sheltered in the towns and cities of Syria during the July 2006 war. Some began to cry, listening to the analogy between the Syrian treatment of Lebanese in Damascus and the current treatment of Syrians by some Lebanese.
Many suggestions were tabled (It was not exactly a table, but an upside down paint bucket which is used for washing clothes). “All Syrians in Lebanon should return to their country. Only then, the Lebanese will understand our value,” suggested one.
Some of those young men did in fact leave Lebanon, especially those with wives and children. Others quit their jobs, refusing to serve those who denigrate them for no legitimate reason.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.