AKKAR/IQLIM AL-KHAROUB, Lebanon: “It’s a joy we can’t express,” said Ahmad Ghieh’s father, one of five Lebanese men released over the weekend after spending weeks in captivity at the hands of a radical Syrian group, the Nusra Front.
“Today, I was born again. Ahmad was born again,” he added.
The Nusra Front handed over soldiers Ibrahim Shaaban, Ahmad Ghieh, Wael Darwish and Mohammad al-Qaderi along with ISF member Saleh al-Baradei Saturday evening to Sheikh Mustapha al-Hujeiri in Arsal.
The freed men were among 29 security personnel captured during five days of deadly clashes in the border town of Arsal between Nusra Front and ISIS and the Lebanese Army early last month.
In the Akkar district villages of Mashaha and Tikrit, where Shaaban and Ghieh hail from respectively, there was utter relief at the news. It wasn’t until the captured soldiers safely arrived home Sunday afternoon that the real celebrations began.
With tears of joy streaming down their faces, residents rushed to welcome the returning soldiers, whom they hoisted on their shoulders.
“I am overwhelmed and extremely happy. This is thanks to God and the prayers of our parents,” said Ghieh, whose mother fainted when she first saw him.
In both villages, thousands of gunshots echoed in the main squares and around the soldiers’ houses, while the mosque minarets blared out religious verses.
“I thank everyone, the elderly and the youngsters,” an emotional Ghieh said. “I thank all of those who welcomed and supported me.”
Not quite believing his son was home, Ghieh’s father would hug him tightly every now and then.
“Out of joy, there’s nothing to say,” Shaaban’s brother said with a huge smile on his face.
When asked whether he knew anything about the remaining captives, Ghieh dismissed it.
“I don’t know anything about my friends,” he answered.
Shaaban also refused to give any comment based on Army command instructions, and denied having said that Ali Sayyed – who is also among the captured personnel and was last week reported to have been beheaded by ISIS – was still alive.
He said that it was his father who told media outlets that news.
His father confirmed this, saying that he had made the comments after speaking to Hujeiri about the issue: “The sheikh [Hujeiri] told me that Nusra Front and ISIS hadn’t beheaded anyone and they didn’t have any intention to do so.”
He also said the town’s residents would continue to fight for the release of the remaining soldiers, whose fate continues to hang in the balance.
“We hope that this joy will be completed by the release of the remaining soldiers ... The mission has not ended even though our son has been released,” he said.
The return of the released soldiers was also an occasion for the towns’ residents to reunite around the Army.
Celebrations also filled the Iqlim al-Kharoub town of Chehim, hometown of soldier Darwish.
“I can’t believe it,” said Maha Najem al-Deen, Darwish’s mother. “I thank God for your safe return.”
She said she hoped the parents of other captured soldiers would get to experience the joy she was living.
As tears pricked her eyes, Deen welcomed her released son with a bouquet of flowers.
The rest of the village indulged in fireworks, dancing, gunfire and traditional dabke dancing.
Darwish, who struggled to walk properly as a result of a battle injury to one of his legs, looked overwhelmed by the welcome.
His only comment was one of concern for his comrades still in captivity: “There were hard days, and I hope my friends will be released.”
Just as in Akkar, Darwish’s relative could barely believe their soldier had returned.
“I can’t believe he is back,” said the crying Dawrish’s aunt.
“It’s true he is a soldier in the Lebanese Army and that he’s subjected to martyrdom and capture, but Nusra [Front] and ISIS are criminals,” she added. “I will continue praying for his colleagues.”