BEIRUT: At the Naqoura Gate, straddling the volatile Lebanese-Israeli border, two grooms clutch red rose bouquets and wait eagerly for a real-life glimpse of their new brides.
The last time the two pairs met was 12 years ago as children, before the brides-to-be fled to Israel with their families in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
In spite of the absence, however, their reunion is filled with a strange familiarity as the fiancées cross the border, setting sights on their homeland for the first time in years.
“I have always wanted to return to Lebanon and I have dreamt of this day since I was a child,” said Eliana, 23, originally from Qlaya, who was repatriated earlier this week.
“I’m extremely happy to be back and to have a family waiting on the other side to take me in and look after me. It is more than I could have hoped for.”
Eliana remembers her fiancée, Saad, 29, from childhood, but accidentally found him online last year when the pair became Facebook friends and started talking more intimately.
It wasn’t long before the friendship grew into something serious and relatives began organizing the wedding, explained Eliana, who like her fellow bride and their fiancées did not want to give her last name.
While the Israeli border is seen as a source of division, strife and suffering, on rare occasions the flashpoint is turned into a place of hope, where long-lost relatives and friends are reunited.
Brought together by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which acts as an independent intermediary between the two warring states, a trickle of civilians are returning to Lebanon, with six live and six dead repatriations taking place in 2010.
“One of our main humanitarian objectives is to help people that have been separated,” said Jurg Montani, the head of ICRC’s Lebanon delegation. “These are very important moments, [which are] extremely tense for the families.”
While repatriations have been happening since the late 1970s, hopeful brides only started seeking permission to return a few months ago.
“I have been looking to get married and heard about my [fiancée] from my family,” said Beshara, 27, who will marry his 21-year-old bride later this month. “I don’t remember her very well from childhood but our parents have been friends for years.”
The pair also “started building up a love relationship” online before the bride approached the ICRC and started the repatriation process, which took only a few weeks.
“The Red Cross was extremely helpful. They did an amazing job of coordination and even transmitted letters and messages,” Beshara said. “Even if [they] say it’s their duty, both our families are very thankful for the good work that was done.”
But while a cause of celebration, the upcoming nuptials are also shrouded in woe. “The border separation is very touching because the parents are left behind crying, knowing that they are giving them back to their home country but at the same time knowing they cannot attend the wedding,” said Christine Rechdane, head of ICRC’s tracing project.
Contact between the two countries is prohibited by Lebanese law, although electronic communication, such as Skype and Facebook, and cheap flights to Turkey or Cyprus have made it easier to stay in touch or reconnect.
“Everybody is contacting everyone by Skype now,” said Rechdane, who has been involved in tracing for almost 30 years. “But the [latest repatriation] is the first time that I really heard that they are in contact electronically and knew each other [on] Facebook, so maybe we will have more and more [of this].”
According to ICRC, many other Lebanese civilians are also looking to come back, but are waiting to see what will happen to those already repatriated. All returnees face the prospect of detention upon re-entering, although most civilians are only routinely questioned and at most held overnight or for a few days.
Once they know “what sentence, how many days they will spend in interrogation, I am sure this will impact their decision,” said Rechdane, who insists that the ICRC’s long-term cooperation with both countries has made the repatriation process pretty painless.
Certainly, for Eliana the upheaval has been more than worth it. “Last week I was with my family and now I am with my fiancé and his family. They have taken me in and I feel so at home already. I am now simply counting the days until the wedding.”