Anger in Akkar village after SLA fighter’s body repatriated

The body of Mounir al-Cheikh, a former fighter with the South Lebanon Army (SLA), was buried on May 30 in his native village in Akkar, sparking tension with several political parties.

Anger in Akkar village after SLA fighter’s body repatriated

Mayssa holds the only photo she still has of her father. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient-Le Jour)

Mayssa had to identify the remains of a man she no longer recognizes. In Naqoura, on Lebanon’s southern border, army intelligence searched the coffin. In a Red Cross ambulance, this 30-year-old burst into tears at the sight of her father, from whom she’s been separated for 23 years.

“He was always young in my mind,” she recounts in her living room in Zalka, just north of Beirut. There is a photo of him, smiling with a hookah in hand, hanging on the wall. It's the only one she owns.

Mayssa tries to hold back her tears. Her father, Mounir al-Cheikh, died on May 12. “On my birthday,” she says. She recovered the body a fortnight after his death.

Cheikh was a former fighter with the South Lebanon Army (SLA), an “Israeli agent” and “traitor to the nation,” as the inhabitants of his hometown, Hakour, in Akkar governorate, describe him.

He was one of the nearly 7,500 Lebanese exiled in Israel. They include those accused of collaboration with Israel for having fought within the ranks of the SLA and those who worked on the other side of the border. After more than 20 years in exile, his last wish was allegedly to be laid to rest in his native land.

Moussa Tohmeh, a member of the Baath Party’s central command, at his office in Akkar. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient-Le Jour)

The 81-year-old’s body was repatriated to Lebanon via the Naqoura crossing.

“After being informed of his death, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) notified the Lebanese General Security, who gave the green light for the body to be repatriated. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon [UNIFIL] then received the body, which was entrusted to General Security. The latter handed it over to the Lebanese Red Cross,” Red Cross chief Georges Kettaneh tells L'Orient-Le Jour.

This is not the first such repatriation, Kattaneh says. A source from General Security confirmed the matter.

But the road to his village was not without its pitfalls. After crossing 211 kilometers to transport the remains to Hakourlast week, the convoy was forced to turn back in Abdeh, located on the coast of Akkar in the far north of the country.

Several political parties in the region, including the Communist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the Baath Party, blocked the road in protest against his burial, “so that the soil of Akkar remains pure.”

Two extremes of the war

Cheikh’s story tells part of the larger tale of deep wounds wrought by the Civil War and Israeli occupation.

Here, two extreme poles clash. There is the SLA, which collaborated with Israel, on one side, and the “leftist” parties, which fought alongside the Palestinian forces, on the other.

Greek Orthodox priest Boulos Nasr. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient-Le Jour)

The first face-off last week took place on a road leading into Hakour. A crowd had gathered, and Mayssa did not understand what was going on. “The demonstrators told me they were celebrating Erdogan’s victory. But I could hear people talking about martyrs in the distance,” she says.

When she arrived in her village, she says she realized that the announcement of her father’s funeral had created a rift in the area. There was a TV journalist trying to ask her questions. In the meantime, her father’s remains were left in the morgue of a hospital in North Lebanon for an entire day.

“I heard they wanted to burn his body. What right do they have? What is this going to bring them? What do they really know about my father?” she says.

Not much. The first time these parties heard of Mounir al-Cheikh was in the media. But it doesn’t matter. They have projected everything onto him: the collaboration with Israel, the fighting in South Lebanon, the cases of torture that took place in Khiam prison.

“We blocked the roads to Abdeh and Minyeh because we have martyrs and missing people,” says Moussa Tohmeh, a member of the Baath Party’s central command. “What right does the state have to allow this? This man fought against Lebanon, he defended the Israelis.”

Yet, in 2011, Parliament passed a law, proposed by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and supported by the Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Kataeb, providing for a safe return for those who did not play an active role in the SLA, and a fair trial for those considered collaborators.

The implementation decrees for the law have yet to see the light of day due to opposition from Hezbollah.

Mounir al-Cheikh was buried last week in his home village of Hakour, Akkar governorate. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient-Le Jour)

Tohmeh mentioned the case of Yahya Skaf, a Lebanese from Minyeh who had allegedly been held in Israeli jails. He had joined the ranks of Fatah and taken part in an operation on the coastal road between Haifa and Tel Aviv in March 1978, which claimed the lives of 38 Israelis, including 13 children.

According to Israel, he was killed during the attack, and his body was never found. However, witnesses said they later saw him in Lebanon’s Khiam prison.

“The case of this traitor [Cheikh] is painful, especially when I think of my brother whom I haven’t seen for more than 40 years,” says Jamil Skaf, who during the Civil War was part of Fatah, and who presents himself today as a “pro-resistance.”

“How can we accept an agent resting here?” Skaf says.

In any case, Mounir al-Cheikh was quietly buried in the Hakour cemetery on Tuesday, May 30, in front of just a few members of his family.

“There was the army and the intelligence services. The latter carried the coffin because there weren’t enough people to do so,” according to Greek Orthodox priest Boulos Nasr, who officiated at the funeral.

A view of the village of Hakour in Akkar governorate. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient-Le Jour)

‘He has heaped contempt on us’

Hakour looks like any other village. There are houses whose construction has been halted for years. The shops are sparse, mostly dark and empty. This Greek-Orthodox village of 800 inhabitants, which has a leaning towards the SSNP, has been under the spotlight since last week with the Mounir al-Cheikh case.

“He heaped contempt on us. We had to answer questions because of this story,” says mayor Jaber Nasr. Like most residents, he is keen to stress that Cheikh is different from the rest of his “respectable” family members. “He even has a son who was in the [Lebanese] army... But, there’s a bad apple in every family,” he says.

Mounir al-Cheikh grew up in a poor family that worshipped Antoun Saade, founder of the SSNP. He is said to have had a soft spot for former president Camille Chamoun, founder of the National Liberal Party, idolizing him so much that he named his sons after him.

“He joined the army and was based in South Lebanon in 1974-1975, and when the SLA broke away from the Lebanese army, he stayed with Antoine Lahad [the SLA commander since 1984]. We had no news of him,” says Nasr.

According to Mayssa, her father served for 12 years in the army before moving to the SLA. During the first part of his army service, the family lived in Jezzine, then in Marjayoun. Cheikh reportedly left the SLA about 10 years before the liberation of the South in 2000, and fled to Israel out of fear of reprisals, says his daughter. She stayed living in Lebanon with her husband.

The Lebanese Army did not respond to a request for comment.

Cut off from family

“I know nothing about the SLA. I didn't even know what a ‘collaborator’ is,” she said. All she knows is that she lost her family “because of it.” Mayssa, born of a second marriage, has led the life of an “orphan.”

Married at the age of 14, she was the only one of her immediate siblings left in Lebanon. The few contacts she has with her family are through relatives living in Australia. “I was denied them; all I wanted was to hear their voices,” she says.

Mayssa refused all social media friend requests by her two brothers, as well as her father’s calls. “I didn’t answer, it’s against the law. I was afraid of being taken to court, of being arrested... I even changed my number.”

Her mother eventually died, as well as her brother, “her other half,” who died in a car accident. His remains were repatriated to Lebanon in 2006, without making any waves. “That's why I didn't expect this to happen to my father,” she says.

Faced with the “backlash,” Mayssa loses her words. “He’s still my father after all. I don't have to carry the weight of his actions... Besides, he’s dead. They didn't hurt him, they hurt us,” she said.

In a mini market in Hakour, four self-described pro-FPM army retirees sit around a table smoking hookah. The midday church bells have not yet rung.

According to the villagers, Mounir al-Cheikh found himself in the SLA due to a combination of circumstances. “All he cared about was drinking, eating and women,” Charbel*, one of the retired soldiers, says.

Another elderly man joins the conversation. “If his daughter [Mayssa] hadn’t written a death notice, no one would have known anything about it. What’s inconvenient is that it’s out in the open.”

This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

*Name has been changed at this person's request due to the sensitivity of the incident.

Mayssa had to identify the remains of a man she no longer recognizes. In Naqoura, on Lebanon’s southern border, army intelligence searched the coffin. In a Red Cross ambulance, this 30-year-old burst into tears at the sight of her father, from whom she’s been separated for 23 years.“He was always young in my mind,” she recounts in her living room in Zalka, just north of Beirut. There is a...