BEIRUT: Hassan Hammoud escaped the passionate embraces only to kneel to the floor and kiss his father's feet.
“Father, father, father,” screamed a young girl as she looked on to the nine kidnapped pilgrims arriving from Turkey, who were quickly swept up on shoulders amid cheers and chants praising the Prophet Mohammed and his family, as immense joy intermingled with spontaneous tears at the gravity of the moment.
Many had not heard from their kidnapped relatives in a year.
“God protect you father,” shouted another family member, fighting back tears.
An ordeal that lasted a year and five months came to an end Saturday night as hundreds of family members and sympathizers gathered at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport amid deafening ululations to welcome the pilgrims home.
In May 2012, eleven Shiite Lebanese were kidnapped near the Aleppo District of Azaz by a Syrian rebel group on their way from a pilgrimage in Iran. Two were released in the following months.
“It's a strange feeling, man,” said Ali Hammoud, whose father was kidnapped. “After a long wait, torture, anger, they've arrived.”
Hammoud, from a southern town near Naqqoura and was accompanied by 20 of his relatives, said he doubted whether the pilgrims would have been released if it were not for the two kidnapped Turkish pilots who were released at the same time.
The return of the hostages to Lebanon came simultaneously with the release and return of Turkish Airlines pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca who were kidnapped in August on Beirut’s airport road. Their kidnappers had linked the release of the Turks to that of the pilgrims
Many family members who endured a four hour wait at the airport were not able to speak to their loved ones for nearly a year. Most of them refused to believe that their release was imminent until they saw them in the flesh.
The plane carrying the pilgrims was delayed for four hours, apparently until the kidnapped Turkish pilots were safely on their plane back home.
But the families were unfazed and in a celebratory mood, with children carrying roses and flower bouquets and mothers and wives showering the politicians who were present with rice. Health minister Ali Hassan Khalil paced the packed VIP arrival hall on his phone, until he confirmed that the plane had taken off around 9 pm Beirut time.
As the pilgrims stepped off the plane and arrived at the gate, the cheers became deafening.
“It is indescribable,” yelled Abbas Shoueib as he stood before the TV cameras moments after arrival. “We thank God for the good and the bad.”
“Those who call themselves the Free Syrian Army, the oppressors, who wronged us and tortured us,” he added, before thanking Turkey for its efforts in freeing the pilgrims.
Another pilgrim cursed the captors and prayed for the destruction of the FSA as he was hoisted atop shoulders of celebrators. Another brandished a Hezbollah flag.
“I'm not Hezbollah,” he said. “[But] from today I am a soldier of [ Hezbollah leader Sayyed] Hassan Nasrallah.”
Some of those gathered carried Hezbollah and Syrian flags. Families expressed their thanks to officials who helped secure the pilgrims' release, as well as to Hezbollah's Secretary-General, to Syrian President Bashar Assad for reportedly working to secure the release of the hostages, and to Qatar, which brokered the talks. Some also expressed gratitude towards Turkey.
Ali Termos, one of the kidnapped men, was near the point of exhaustion as he spoke to the media. He said they had endured a 15 hour drive to Turkey and then another five hours aboard the plane that carried them home.
“How can you express anything?” said Fatma Arzouni, the wife of Abu Ali Arzouni, another pilgrim.
“After a year and a half of torture, we could not believe that they were coming back,” said Fatma Tahhan, another pilgrim's wife, tears welling up in her eyes as she waited for her kidnapped husband to arrive. “But now we believe. Now the happiness has returned to our hearts.”