AIN IBL, Lebanon: Sitting in his humble home in the border village of Ain Ibl, George exclaims defiantly: “I am not a criminal.”
George, a former member of the disbanded South Lebanon Army (SLA), argues that he and many other Lebanese were forced to adapt to the status quo in south Lebanon after the “state abandoned its citizens.” For George, that meant joining the SLA, a militia that ran day-to-day affairs in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon. “We had to bear arms to defend ourselves against Palestinians first and then against Hezbollah,” he maintains.
The SLA developed a reputation for violence and operated the notorious Khiam prison (now a museum) where many detainees were tortured. In the months and years after Israel’s withdrawal on May 25, 2000, following 18 years of occupation, a total of 4,800 people who served in the SLA or its civil service were tried and convicted of crimes against the Lebanese state. Most were given light sentences.
George, an artillery officer with the SLA, served one year and a half in prison. He remains indignant at what he believes to have been the unfair singling out of one faction of Lebanese for actions in wartime. He feels discriminated against by his country, which continues to classify him as a collaborator with Israel. When he leaves his home, he carries an official copy of his judicial history. If stopped at a military checkpoint, it comes in handy.
“Without it, I would be detained for days until the army contacts its intelligence to make sure that I have served my sentence,” George, who is in his early 60s, explains bitterly.
According to Military Memo 303, the army is allowed at any time to question or investigate anybody previously convicted or even merely suspected of collaboration with Israel. The army also has the right to ban such people from leaving the country.
Some Christians voluntarily enlisted in the SLA (or its predecessor, the Free Lebanon Army), believing it to be a bulwark against Palestinian militias at first and Hezbollah at a later stage. While some Shiites joined the SLA for the same reason, others were forcibly conscripted so as to beef up SLA defenses in the occupied zone.
Hussein, a former security guard at an SLA base, says he was dragged from his hometown of Beit Yahoun, near Bint Jbeil, and pressed into the militia. Smoking a cigarette during a break from his job leveling earth, Hussein laments, “I wasted my life [in the SLA]; I did not finish school and here I am struggling to make a penny for my family.”
Hussein surrendered to Hezbollah when he saw them approaching his home in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal and the SLA’s collapse. “They interrogated me for a day then handed me over to the Defense Ministry,” he recalls. “I was sentenced to one year in Roumieh prison.”
Many Lebanese were outraged at the relatively light sentences meted out to SLA members, and few justify the decision to serve in the militia by those who had a choice in the matter.
“At the end of the day, they collaborated with Israel, an enemy,” says Tony. A resident of south Lebanon,Tony has little sympathy for fellow southerners who joined the SLA. “It is a crime,” he says, “and these are the consequences.”
When the SLA disintegrated, most of its Christian members and their families fled to Israel, while its Shiite members surrendered to Hezbollah, which turned them over to the state.
George, the 60-something former SLA artillery officer, and Elie, a former SLA mechanic who now runs a grocery store, initially fled to Israel. They returned in 2002. Both say they left due to a speech by Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in which he warned SLA militiamen to surrender or his party’s members would “slaughter them in their beds.”
“We fled because we feared for our lives and the lives of our families,” explains Elie.
In the end, no slaughter took place, but an estimated 6,000 SLA members and their families had fled to Israel. Many would return, others would leave for third countries, but approximately 2,500 remain in Israel. Today, 12 years later, many Lebanese children have come of age in Israel. They are unlikely to return to Lebanon.
“How can a young man who finished his studies at Haifa University work as an engineer in Lebanon?” asks Tony, the southerner. “Would the Lebanese government recognize his degree from an enemy state?”
In his speech on May 25 marking 12 years since the liberation of the south, Nasrallah addressed the question of the SLA, saying, “The resistance with all its branches and the residents of the south who suffered from your crimes, missiles and agents acted in the utmost humanitarian and ethical manner ... No one sought revenge, no homes were damaged, no one was forced to leave and no demographic changes occurred.”
As for those who fled to Israel, Nasrallah said that no one asked them to leave. He added: “Families of collaborators can come back, but the state and the judiciary will deal with the collaborators [upon their return].”
|“I can’t get those jobs [with the state], so here I am leveling land and transporting rocks to make a living.”
For those SLA members who were convicted of collaboration, their travails did not end with the conclusion of their jail sentence. Hussein, the former SLA security guard, tells a familiar story. Following his release from Roumieh Prison, he was drafted by the Lebanese army. Ironically, when he finished his military service, he was not allowed to rejoin the army as a full-time soldier.
“I was turned down because of a past I was forced to live,” Hussein argues. He decided he would seek other employment with the state.
Most former SLA members lack education, having spent years in a predominantly agricultural region in which job opportunities are scarce. Joining the public sector appears to offer a rare chance to lead a productive life in underdeveloped south Lebanon.
Hussein’s plan failed. It turned out that the Lebanese state considered former SLA members convicted of collaboration with Israel untrustworthy and feared they might revert to their old ways. As a result, the state placed their names on a blacklist.
“I can’t get those jobs [with the state], so here I am leveling land and transporting rocks to make a living,” says Hussein, now 33, as someone interrupts the conversation and tells him to get back to work.
Residents say even the sons and daughters of former SLA members are often turned away from public sector jobs, due to an apparently widespread belief on the part of the Lebanese in inherited guilt.
A general amnesty remains the only hope of many former SLA members both in Lebanon and Israel. But the issue is complicated. If the government were to grant an amnesty to Israeli collaborators, it might find itself under increased pressure to do the same for Islamist prisoners in Lebanese jails.
In 1991, Lebanon passed an amnesty law for crimes committed during the Civil War, including collaboration with Israel, but the time frame in question was 1975-1990, meaning that those who served in the SLA after 1990 were not eligible.
For the time being, former SLA members bemoan their fate. Some, such as Elie, attempt to rationalize their actions by denying that their choice of ally sprang from any particular affinity for Israel. “If it had been Syria or any other country on our border, we would have done the same,” he maintains.
Others, such as George, seethe at what they consider the double standard applied to Lebanese who aligned themselves with Israel as opposed to other countries. Of his political adversaries, he says: “One day, we will hold them accountable for collaborating with Syria and Iran.”
The names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.