BEIRUT: It was not unusual that Talal Nasser was with Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, his wife Ihsan explained. As the officer in charge of the former premier’s team of bodyguards, Nasser had spent the better part of his life shadowing Hariri. On the day of the fateful terrorist attack that would claim his life, Ihsan said, he was with Hariri because it was his job.
Talal and Ihsan were the sort of couple that habitually checked in with the other throughout the day. Ihsan had called her husband that very afternoon, told him she was at his parents’ house, that the kids were still in school and that she would head home soon. He told her they were leaving the Parliament building and that he would call back shortly.
Five minutes later she heard the deep rumble of the explosion ricochet across Beirut. She called Talal’s phone – no answer. When the news that Hariri’s convoy had been targeted reached her, Ihsan went to pick up the kids. In those moments of lucidity as she drove to the school, she wasn’t thinking of Talal or his whereabouts. She didn’t want to know.
It was when she came back to a house full of ominous expressions, those of the family and friends who had rushed to be by her side, that Ihsan knew something was wrong. “Why are they asking me about my husband?” she thought.
Her eldest child, Sarah, understood what had happened the moment she saw the image of a slain Hariri, lying on the road in Minet al-Hosn, glowing bright on the television screen. “I knew dad was with him, and that if something happened to Hariri, then something definitely happened to dad,” she would tell her mother years later.
At the time, Ihsan was in denial, and wanted to be alone. “No,” she told herself as the evidence mounted that her husband was dead, “Talal is going to call me back and tell me what happened.”
Nine years after Hariri’s assassination, as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon prepares to commence the trial in the case of Ayyash et al., the events of that day are still fresh for the families of the victims of the attack and those who were there to witness it. Ihsan, like many others, hopes that the trial will finally give them some answers and bring them justice.
“It’s a question they’ve asked for years: Why?” said Alain Grellet, head of the STL’s Victim’s Participation Unit. “‘Why was this violence directed at my father? At my son? At my uncle?’ These are the questions that the majority of victims ask. And with the trial they want some form of an answer.”
Talal’s sudden death was an abrupt change that Sarah Nasser, who had always been close to her father, took years to accept.
“Why did dad die and not you?” she asked her mother at one point. It would take years of therapy and depression paired with fits of anger to fully come to terms with the fact that, as her mother puts it, “Talal had to be there, it was his job.”
“First, you can’t get angry, you get sad. You remain that way for a while,” Ihsan explained. “But with time, along with the feelings of sadness, there is a need to know who was behind it.”
“It’s the ugliness of the killing that I can’t comprehend,” she added.
Ihsan said she never lost hope that the perpetrators would be held accountable: “We have been waiting for this trial for years. I never lost hope that one day we would know who committed the killings, no matter the outcome, I have hope.”
And although she knows no judge’s ruling will bring back her husband, she is reassured by the fact that “our men have not died in vain and have not been forgotten.”
Even the fact that the suspects will be tried in absentia isn’t discouraging, she said.
“Of course, we would prefer it if the perpetrators were present [at the trial], but I believe they will be pursued. ... What is most important is that the trials begin.”
Ihsan will be one among some 65 victims participating in the trial being held in The Hague. The STL is one of the few international tribunals that recognizes a role for victims in judicial proceedings.
“There were [victims] who didn’t want their names out. ... I don’t mind mine being out there, since everyone knows me anyway, and I am not afraid of anyone. I will go to The Hague by myself; my children will stay here,” she said.
With the trial one day away, Lama Ghalayini is also looking forward to some answers.
Rather than doing his job, her father, Abdul-Hamid, was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time – jogging on the corniche alongside the rigged vehicle that was awaiting Hariri’s motorcade.
“Now that Jan. 16 is getting closer, our hope of knowing what happened” is growing, Lama said. “How? When? Who? Why? All these questions might have answers soon, and the day will come when those rats, who are still running from justice, will pay for all the horrible and inhumane crimes they’ve done to us.”
She, too, hopes that the outcome of the trials will hold those responsible for the attack accountable.
“I wish that every criminal who helped in planning and executing the Feb. 14, 2005, attack ... be punished and executed,” she said. “I know the road to justice is a long one but at the end of it, the rats can’t keep hiding and carrying on with their normal lives.”
Lama was working in Dubai when news of the attack broke. She was speaking to someone in Beirut near Ain al-Mreisseh when she heard the sound of the blast over the phone – “as if destiny wanted me to hear it.”
Even after her cousins assured her that everyone was safe, she had a gnawing feeling that all was not well. Her father hadn’t picked up her calls, and soon the family began to fear the worst. “For two weeks we contacted and begged the authorities, in vain,” she said.
The family did everything they could to track down Abdul Hamid, from checking hospital records, imploring officials, and holding sit-ins. “We were confronted with negative answers all the time until March 2, 2005, ... we entered the site by force and found our father.”
Abdul Hamid was found buried under a pile of rubble, still clasping his mobile phone.
“That day was a turning point in my life,” Lama said. “It changed me a lot.”
For Haifa Abu Haidar, who works for the Administrative Development Ministry, the similarities between the assassination of Hariri and the recent attack targeting former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah are uncanny. She would know, she was there to witness both.
“Hariri’s was stronger,” Abu Haidar said, describing the blast. “Shatah’s was closer.”
Abu Haidar works in the Starco building, the site of the Dec. 27 attack against Shatah. The images of broken glass are the memories she recalls most vividly, she said.
Some speculate that, with the STL trial approaching, Shatah’s death was meant to be a message to the March 14 coalition. For Ihsan Nasser, the Dec. 27 attack was one of many “local complications” that no longer daunts her. She has other more pertinent questions that she is still trying to find answers to.