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Hannah McCarthy

Under the shadow of Hezbollah 'I'm not naïve, I know political assassins are rarely found'

The widow of a murdered Hezbollah critic tells journalist Hannah McCarthy of Lebanon’s culture of impunity.

A MUTUAL ACQUAINTANCE introduced Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim at a lecture in Beirut with the words: “You both should talk; you’re both interested in the same morbid topics.”

It was 2001 and Monika was working as a journalist and living between her native Germany and Cairo. She had come to Lebanon to research for her first film about the massacres at Sabra and Shatila committed by Israeli-backed Christian militias against Palestinian refugees 20 years earlier.

Lokman was a writer, translator, publisher and activist. The secular Lebanese intellectual had a keen interest in preserving his country’s complicated and frequently bloody history.

slim Lokman Slim in his office in Umam in south Beirut. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

After meeting in Beirut, Lokman and Monika produced the documentary “Massaker” about Sabra and Shatila together. It was the start of a romantic relationship and working partnership that would span 20 years, before being tragically cut short two years ago by Lokman’s murder at the age of 58.

“We were somehow complementary, and this was a beautiful thing,” Monika says in Lokman’s old office in Umam Documentation and Research, the cultural centre the two founded together in 2005 to preserve historical records of Lebanon and the civil war which lasted from 1975-1990.

behind Umam preserves historical records and conducts research on Lebanese history. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

The rooms are stacked to the ceilings with books and newspapers dating back decades. In various rooms, there are researchers enmeshed in work. One is working on the relationship between Palestinian and Muslim Shiite groups another researched the complicated history of Lebanon’s military court.

Umam (derived from the Arabic word for nations) is based in the family home of Lokman, a large Ottoman-era house surrounded by a rare garden in Dahiye, the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Lokman’s family have lived here for generations. They were prominent members of the Shiite community, and, for a time, Lokman’s father served as a member of the Lebanese parliament.

The immediate neighbourhood surrounding Umam was once mostly Christian but heavy fighting in South Lebanon during the civil war triggered a mass movement of Lebanese Shiites from the region. Many moved to the southern suburbs of Beirut for safety while Lebanese Christians moved further north.

Today, Dahiye is controlled by Hezbollah, an expansive and extremist Shiite organisation backed by Iran which holds seats in the Lebanese parliament, maintains a private militia believed to be better resourced than the Lebanese army and delivers social services in the communities it controls.

Hezbollah hasn’t just created “a parallel system,” in Lebanon says Monika, it’s been “infiltrating all state institutions.”

books Part of Umam’s collection of books. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

Despite the militant group’s hold on the surrounding neighbourhood, Lokman and his family refused to sell their home. Lokman believed that Umma could act as a counter to Hezbollah’s fanaticism.

The rise of Hezbollah

Hezbollah began as a Shiite militia in the 1980s during the Lebanon civil war. The group’s rise coincided with the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini seized control and declared Iran an Islamic republic.

With the backing of an emboldened Iran, Hezbollah outpaced the other sectarian militias that fought during the civil war. It grew into a regional force with a global network that has successfully harnessed the Lebanese Shiite diaspora, particularly in West Africa and South America.

The civil war ended in 1990 with the signing of the Taif Agreement, a vaguer and more cryptic Lebanese answer to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. As part of this peace deal, the various militias disbanded and gave up their arms and the Syrian army was supposed to withdraw from Lebanon.

Hezbollah, however, remained on the basis that South Lebanon was still occupied by Israeli forces.

In 2000, Israeli forces withdrew from South Lebanon behind the Blue Line which is overseen today by the UN force known as Unifil. “There was no reason officially to keep the weapons after that but, of course, Hezbollah kept them,” says Monica.

land The Blue Line in South Lebanon. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

Five years later the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, ending almost three decades of occupation. Martyrs’ Square in Downtown Beirut erupted with crowds, but Lokman remarked to a friend at the time “we’re still under occupation,” referring to Hezbollah and the Iranian influence that hung over Lebanon.

Lokman was a rare Shiite critic of Hezbollah. “He was a permanent commentator on TV,” says Monika. “He said on TV what he would say in a circle of friends.”

He blamed Hezbollah for the 2006 war which was triggered when the militant group launched strikes at Israeli settlements and killed several Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raise. The five-week war between Israeli forces and Hezbollah killed 1,200, mostly civilians, and displaced an estimated 1 million people.

Along with other parts of south Beirut, Lokman’s home was hit during the 2006 war and part of Umam’s archival collection was destroyed.

Hezbollah often presents itself as a militant liberation movement along the lines of the IRA or the Kurdish PKK. But when protests swept across Lebanon in October 2019, it immediately interjected itself on the side of the government which it has officially formed part of since 2005.

Martyrs’ Square in Downtown Beirut was a focal point of the mass protest and, along with several others, Lokman set up a tent at the square called “the Hub” for public discussions and debates.

Supporters of Hezbollah would regularly appear at marches and carry out coordinated attacks on Lebanese people campaigning for change in their small crisis-ridden Middle Eastern country. The Hub was targeted and burned down by Hezbollah supporters on 11 December 2019.

The next day Lokman and Monika’s home in Dahiye was attacked. His walls were covered with pro-Hezbollah slogans and messages accusing him of being a traitor and frontman for the United States. Several initiatives run by Lokman’s NGO Hayya Bina had previously received US funding.

port The port in Beirut. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

In January 2021, in an interview on the Saudi al-Hadath TV channel, Lokman suggested that the ammonium nitrate that blew up in Beirut port in August 2020 could have been brought to Lebanon by the Syrian government, with the collaboration of Russia and Hezbollah. (There is no clear evidence that Hezbollah or another government played a direct role in bringing the chemicals to Beirut.)

Lokman’s final day

Lokman was invited to a mid-week lunch on 3 February 2021 by a friend who lived in Niha in South Lebanon. The southern village is located within the area patrolled by Unifil, not far from the barracks where French peacekeepers are stationed at Deir Kifa. Worried about Covid-19, Monika decided to stay in Beirut.

unifil A Unifil sign in South Lebanon. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

In surveillance footage obtained by Lebanese investigators, Lokman’s car appears to be followed by three and then five vehicles from Khaldeh, a coastal town outside of Beirut.

According to the report compiled by the official investigation, which was obtained by the Lebanese news outlet L’Orient-Le Jour, the suspicious cars were all fitted with false plates and were spotted on other surveillance cameras at different points along the highway between Sidon and Tyre.

One vehicle followed Lokman to his friend’s house in Niha, where he arrived at around 1.30 pm, seemingly unaware of the cars following him. At 6 pm he dozed off at his friend’s house before waking and enjoying a cup of tea. At 8 pm, Lokman decided it was time to return home to Beirut.

There was heavy rain outside so his friend said goodbye at the doorstep. No one saw Lokman being abducted a few minutes later in Niha.

According to information obtained by L’Orient-Le Jour, Slim began driving his Toyota at 8:30 p.m. and was immediately followed by two cars. They surrounded his vehicle 400 meters along the road, forcing him to stop.

Slim was reportedly kidnapped and placed in another car while another man took control of his Toyota. The three vehicles then headed towards the sea highway, where they were seen several times.

They drove for 36 kilometres before taking a side road leading to Addousieh, a village a short drive from Al-Aqbiya, where Irish peacekeepers were fatally attacked in December. Lokman is believed to have been murdered on this quiet road in Addousieh.

At 10.30 pm, two young people spotted Lokman’s Toyota parked on the road and saw a man lying face down in the front seats with one foot sticking out of the driver’s window. They assumed it was a drunken driver sleeping by the road and drove on.

Lokman was found the next morning by security forces. A coroner’s report said he had been shot six times, including three times in the head. “They wanted to destroy his mind,” says Monika.

In the aftermath of the attack, Ali al-Amine, a Shiite journalist and Hezbollah critic, told The New York Times that, given Lokman’s well-publicised views and the location where his body was found, it was likely that Hezbollah was responsible for the killing.
“Everyone knows that that area is completely controlled by Hezbollah,” he said.

wreath A memorial for Lokman Slim in the garden of his home in Dahiye in Beirut. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

An allusive justice

A criminal investigation commenced into the murder and the case is now with a judge in Beirut, but no one has ever been arrested.

“The crime scene wasn’t properly preserved,” says Monika. In television footage shot in the aftermath, people are seen walking around the car and touching it. Locals who initially spoke about seeing suspicious cars have gone quiet. “Nobody knows anything?” Monika questions. “It’s just unbelievable.”

When Monika was questioned after the murder the investigators focused on whether Lokman had a girlfriend and could have been killed for revenge or whether he was gay. “They asked me: did he commit suicide?” she says. “With six bullets?”

“There was not one political question of what had happened all over the years.”

smoking Monika now works in Lokman’s old office in Umam. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

Monika has asked Unifil for assistance with the investigation as Lokman was kidnapped within their area of operations in South Lebanon.

image10 A protest in Beirut seeking justice for the killing of Lokman Slim. Hannah McCarthy Hannah McCarthy

Under the mandate granted to it by the UN Security Council, Unifil cannot question or detain civilians or gather evidence outside of UN property without a request from the Lebanese authorities. No such request has been made, nor is it likely to be made.

“I hope the judge here in Lebanon will make an effort, but I’m not naïve,” she says. “I mean, most political assassinations are closed, and the perpetrators are never found; never brought to justice.”

“If we cannot have justice in Lebanon, we should find it somehow outside Lebanon.”

Hannah McCarthy is a journalist based in Beirut. 

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