BEIRUT: Cane in hand, Fatima al-Rashidi strode slowly to the line of graves, the melodic voice of a Quranic recital floating in the background.
She uttered the verses of Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of Muslim scripture. This time, there were more casualties to commemorate, for alongside the bodies of the men who stood guard around former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri were others who paid the ultimate price.
Now in front of the smiling portraits of men like Mazen al-Zahabi, Hariri’s paramedic, or the sunglass-clad Talal Nasser, his senior bodyguard, lay flower wreaths at the grave of Mohammad Shatah, the former finance minister killed in a car bomb in December, and Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, the intelligence chief assassinated in another car bomb in October 2012.
Today marks nine years to the day after a massive car bomb ripped through Hariri’s motorcade, shattered Downtown Beirut, plunged Lebanon into political turmoil and ended 30 years of Syrian tutelage.
This year, the anniversary is different. The trial of four suspects accused of complicity in the Hariri assassination has begun at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon near The Hague. Five members of Hezbollah have been indicted by the court.
“It is the day of justice,” said Nuhad Mashnouq, a Future Movement MP and close friend of Hariri. “This is the first anniversary where the tribunal’s work is underway.”
Mashnouq said the start of trial was emblematic of the principle of justice, rather than revenge, that Hariri adhered to. “I think the martyred prime minister feels greater comfort now in his grave,” he added.
“Despite all the bloodshed, the fear, the intimidation, and the attempts to kill the STL and the process of ending impunity, the trial started,” said Amal Mudallali, the former premier’s foreign policy adviser. “For the first time in 10 years justice seems possible for Rafik Hariri and all those who were killed with him or after him.”
“The killers know their time is up and very soon,” Mudallali added.
“They know the end of impunity is upon us.”
Mudallali said her former boss’ sacrifice made it possible for Lebanon to be free of Syria’s military grip, with massive street protests forcing the hand of President Bashar Assad shortly after the assassination to order a Syrian withdrawal.
Hariri would also have been “shocked” at Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, she said. But he would have also refused to let Lebanon to remain in a stalemate, and “would have done everything to keep the country moving forward.”
Mudallali said Hariri’s absence exacerbated the polarization in Lebanon, and has left a lingering sense of despair that has promoted the flight of young Lebanese from the country. “Now there is a collective sense of despair, a huge deficit of hope,” she said.
But Mashnouq said Hariri’s killing was a result of the already acute political polarization in Lebanon. Syria would have eventually withdrawn from Lebanon anyway, and Hariri’s presence would have vastly improved the politic climate in the aftermath of that Syrian departure.
“The situation would have been much better and the Syrians would have left,” he said. “His assassination sped up their departure, but they would have departed regardless.”
But others said Hariri’s killing was symbolic of a deeper conflict.
“Hariri was a project that is fundamentally different than politics in Lebanon today,” said Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at Lebanese American University and author of a book on Lebanese politics. “It was a project of stability, building, tourism, infrastructure, development and free economy.”
“Hariri represents a project, it’s not just a person,” he added.
Salamey said this project contradicted much of the confrontational approach that characterized Lebanese politics today, and his assassination paved the way for Lebanon to become an arena open to the interference of regional powers.
He said Hariri’s relationship with the resistance today would have likely been tense because his open, moderate approach contradicts the more “isolationist” and sectarian program on either side of the religious divide.
But despite Hariri’s absence, Salamey said the majority of the Lebanese back what he stood for.
“Hariri’s project continues and is still held onto by most Lebanese who want to build a state where everyone is equal under the law,” he said.
MP Bahia Hariri, Rafik’s sister, echoed the sentiment in an address delivered at a ceremony Thursday, by saying her brother’s enemies would not be able to destroy his legacy.
“They were able to assassinate the Rafik Hariri who was born on Dec. 1, but they cannot overcome the Rafik Hariri who was born on Feb. 14,” she said, referring to the dates of the former premier’s birthday and assassination.
But for Rashidi, the school manager who was visiting Hariri’s grave Thursday, his anniversary marks a different legacy.
The 74-year-old recently retired after a quarter century overseeing three schools built by a charitable foundation set up by the former premier. She was on a visit to the nearby Al-Amin Mosque and burial grounds with a number of students, but snuck a few moments to pay her respects to Hariri and his companions.
“These are new generations [emerging] every year,” she said. “We must work on their minds and souls to combat extremism.”
The 5,000 students in Hariri’s schools, and those he sponsored for studies abroad, are part of a crucial legacy, Rashidi added.
She said she visits his burial ground whenever she is in Beirut, and prays for him constantly.
“He is someone we will never see the likes of again,” she added.
The March 14 alliance will hold a memorial ceremony to mark Hariri’s assassination at the BIEL complex in Downtown Beirut Friday. Hariri’s son, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri will deliver a televised speech on the occasion.