Families of Lebanese hostages united in despair

BEIRUT, LEBANON, Mohamad Ali Harissi- Outside Lebanon's government headquarters, where relatives of soldiers and police captured by jihadists have held a weeks-long sit-in, a message on a photograph reads: "We are waiting for your return".
For the past three months, 27 families from across Lebanon have been brought together in anguish by threats by the Islamic extremists to execute a son or a husband.

The mother of an abducted soldier recently tried to set herself on fire in front of the prime minister's office but was stopped by other relatives.
"I feel so helpless," said another mother, Zeina al-Bazzal, whose son Ali has been repeatedly threatened with execution.
"If they asked me to cut myself in pieces to save my son, I would do it," she said, holding back the tears at the sit-in where relatives are demanding the government negotiate with the kidnappers.
Her son is one of 30 soldiers and policemen kidnapped on August 2 in the town of Arsal in eastern Lebanon during fighting between the army and jihadists from neighbouring Syria.
Three have been executed -- two by the Islamic State (IS) group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, and one by Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
The two Sunni extremist groups both espouse jihadist ideologies but are rivals in Syria's multi-sided civil war.
They have a common enemy in Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has fought them on the side of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
They also accuse the Lebanese army of being under the control of powerful Hezbollah, and of targeting Sunni Islamists in the country, which is deeply divided over the Syrian conflict.
- 'Devastated' -
So far, all negotiations -- involving Qatar -- have failed, and the nightmare seems never-ending for relatives who for the past three months have held protests and blocked roads to draw attention to their plight.
As clashes raged in northern Lebanon between the army and fighters linked to jihadists, Nusra recently threatened three times to execute Ali al-Bazzal before backtracking.
"When I heard they had decided to kill Ali, I wanted to die," his mother said. "I was devastated. I still am."
Her husband, interviewed by local media, wept before collapsing in front of the cameras.
"It seemed like an eternity... I cried and implored God to protect Ali," added Zeina.
"I pray that they spare him, because he's the father of a three-year-old girl who asks about him every day," she said.
Each new rumour reported by the media about their fate, or new photos of their sons or husbands, provokes mass hysteria among the relatives.
The jihadists recently released a video showing the now-bearded hostages squatting and sobbing, insulting the army and Hezbollah and begging their parents to put pressure on the government.
"When the video was aired, everyone collapsed," said Nawfal Msheik, the brother of a policeman who was among those captured.
In front of the sit-in tents, surrounded by barbed wire to prevent the relatives approaching the prime minister's office or parliament, another message reads: "We miss you".
- 'Same family' -
The jihadists' demands include the release of Islamists from Lebanese prisons, but Beirut has repeatedly refused to negotiate.
At the same time the government appears unable to calm relatives who accuse it of "procrastination".
"The issue is complex and negotiations are difficult," Prime Minister Tammam Salam said Thursday as he met the families.
Close bonds have been formed among the families -- Christians, Druze, Sunni or Shiite Muslims -- who reflect a multi-faith Lebanon undermined by political and religious divisions.
The country's population of around four million belongs to 18 different religious communities, mainly Christian and Muslim.
"After what we went through together, we have become one and the same family," said Sabrine, the wife of Sergeant Ziad Omar.
"Today I fear for each of these young people like for my husband," the 35-year-old added.
"Regardless of our religious differences, this disaster has united us."

Sunday, November 2nd 2014
Mohamad Ali Harissi

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