BEIRUT: Hasan Hammoud escaped the passionate embraces only to kneel to the floor and kiss his father’s feet.
“Father, father, father,” a young girl screamed, looking at the nine kidnapped pilgrims arriving from Turkey as they were quickly swept up on shoulders amid cheers and chants praising the Prophet Mohammad 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,” another relative shouted, 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, 11 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.
Jubilant crowds had taken to the streets of Beirut’s southern suburbs, where most of the pilgrims hail from, upon hearing the news of the imminent return of the nine men.
Throughout, fireworks were launched in celebration, many waved Hezbollah and Syria flags as well as posters of the party’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, at Beirut’s Airport and in the capital’s southern suburbs.
Posters of General Security’s Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who for months shuttled between capitals to follow up on the case, were also on display.
“It’s a strange feeling, man,” said Ali Hammoud, whose father was kidnapped. “After a long wait, torture, anger, they’ve arrived.”
Hammoud, who came from a southern town near Naqqoura and was accompanied by 20 of his relatives to the airport, said he doubted whether the Lebanese pilgrims would have been released if it had not been for the simultaneous release of the two kidnapped Turkish pilots.
The return of the hostages to Lebanon came at the same time as the release 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
The release of the Lebanese and Turks was part of a three-way swap deal that also involved the release of dozens of Syrian women detained by the regime of President Bashar Assad. However as The Daily Star went to press Sunday, the fate of the female prisoners remained unknown.
The two pilots arrived at the Beirut airport at 9 p.m. on board a Lebanese Army helicopter that took off from the Riyaq military air base in the Bekaa Valley, east Lebanon.
Agca and Akpinar were met upon arrival in Beirut by Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, representing President Michel Sleiman, before boarding a plane headed to Istanbul, where the pair were later greeted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Qatar’s mediation efforts appeared pivotal in the release of the hostages.
Qatar’s foreign minister Friday said his country’s efforts had led to the release of the Lebanese, in a development that came days after Sleiman urged Qatar’s emir to personally intervene in the matter.
According to a statement from Sleiman’s office Saturday, the Lebanese leader called Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani, thanking him for his efforts in securing the release of the Lebanese hostages.
Sleiman also received a phone call from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who congratulated the Lebanese leader on the safe return of the abductees. Palestine’s ambassador in Turkey played a key role in the negotiations, security sources said.
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.
As the pilgrims stepped off the plane and arrived at the gate, the cheers became deafening.
“It is indescribable,” Abbas Shoueib yelled 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 Hasan Nasrallah.”
Families expressed their thanks to officials who helped secure the pilgrims’ release, as well as to Hezbollah’s secretary-general, to Assad for reportedly working to secure the release of the hostages, and to Qatar, which brokered the talks. Some also expressed gratitude toward 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 husband to arrive. “But now we believe. Now the happiness has returned to our hearts.”