Lebanese flags flutter during a rally at Martyrs’ Square to mark the first anniversary of the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri in Beirut on Tuesday. (AFP)
BEIRUT, 15 February 2006 — The Martyrs’ Square was packed with waves of fluttering red and white flags as more than one million people assembled in Beirut from all over Lebanon to commemorate the first year after the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri yesterday.
From the south to the north and from the border towns in the Bekaa to the Mediterranean shores, Muslims, Christians and Druze of all ages paid tribute to the late premier, who rebuilt the country after 15 years of fierce civil strife.
The participants represented the various parties of March 14 forces from the Lebanese Forces, the National Bloc, the Progressive Socialist Party, Hariri’s Future Movement, the Phalanges and others.
Acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat said an estimated crowd of more than one million people massed in the city center to remember an event that sent shockwaves through Lebanon and dramatically changed its political landscape.
“As Lebanese, rather than Christians and Muslims, let us cry ‘Lebanon First’,” said Hariri’s MP son Saad Hariri, calling for unity in a speech to the huge crowd from behind a bullet-proof glass shield.
Lebanon is still struggling to overcome deep divisions in the shadow of powerful former political master Syria, which has been implicated in Hariri’s killing by a UN probe but denies any involvement.
Saad and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt directed their fire at Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Lahoud is the “symbol of (Syrian) domination,” Saad said.
“They left us with the legacy of their domination at Baabda (the presidential palace) but we tell them to remove that legacy, remove the symbol of your oppression. The Lebanese people will not accept any bargaining.”
But highlighting the divisions that remain in Lebanon 15 years after the end of its civil war, the pro-Damascus Shiite movements Amal and Hezbollah which are members of the governing coalition, did not support yesterday’s rally. Key Christian leader Michel Aoun also stayed away although a sizeable contingent from the Christian district of Ashrafiyeh took part. Schools and businesses were closed around the capital.
The demonstrators in the square where Hariri is buried observed a minute’s silence at 12.55 p.m. to mark the exact time that a massive truck bomb killed Hariri and 20 other people on Valentine’s Day 2005.
The city center was closed off to traffic amid a massive security deployment.
Most of those attending yesterday’s commemoration held pamphlets calling for the pro-Syrian Lahoud to step down from office.
One pamphlet read: “Remove Lahoud, the last Syrian Trojan standing,” with a broom glued on top of it in clear reference of sweeping Lahoud out of office.
Another had Lahoud’s photo surrounded by the pictures of four pro-Syrian former top Lebanese security chiefs, and read: “4 down, one to go.”
This poster was later stomped and burned by the people who chanted national songs and shouted anti-Syrian slogans.
Also during the commemoration, people chanted slogans against Lahoud, the Syrian regime and Bashar.
Other posters read “They feared you (Hariri) so they killed you,” and “Lebanon lives because Hariri died for its sake.”
Manal Jabado, Jad Al-Ahmad and Rene Sfeir, all college students who came to Martyrs’ Square since early morning from Tripoli told Arab News that Feb. 14 would always stand as a turning point in the history of Lebanon.
“It is sad that it took us the life of a great man as Hariri to wake up from the nasty dream of Syrian occupation, corrupt politicians and to start taking our decisions without any Syrian interference,” Sfeir said.
“We will always come down to this square of freedom to commemorate our martyrs and show the world that their death was not in vain. It is about time to show that we are united as a nation, independent as a country and sovereign when it comes to decision-making,” Jabado said.
Majdoline Hatoum, Arab News
— With input from agencies