Friday, May 24, 2013

Young Hezbollah critic banished from village

[Originally posted at NOW]

Arson attack and death threats force south Lebanon girl into hiding.

Note posted on Marwa Olleik's Nabatieh home reads "Don't think of returning" (Sent to NOW by Olleik)

In the Ashrafieh apartment currently serving as her unofficial safe house, Marwa Olleik talks with a mix of pain and defiance as she recalls the series of events that forced her to flee her lifelong home on Wednesday. With her nose piercing, tattooed forearm, and unveiled hair, the 20 year-old journalism student doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the south Lebanese village girl. Yet it isn’t her looks, but her opinions – in particular, her support for the Syrian uprising and criticism of local hero Hezbollah’s interventions against it – that have brought the powerful wrath of her community upon her.

“From the very first day the Syrian revolution began, I was with it,” she tells NOW. “I’m with any people that choose to revolt to demand their freedom. I didn’t care about the politics, or the history, my thought was always: If the people want to change the regime, I’m with them. If tomorrow they want to revolt against the Free Syrian Army, I’ll be with them too. So for months I’ve been writing messages like these, supporting the revolution, on Facebook.”

At first, Olleik says nobody in Yahmur, her village situated about 10km south of Nabatieh, minded her online commentary. But as Hezbollah’s military assistance to the Assad regime grew more apparent, her criticism sharpened, and she began to receive intimidating messages from fake accounts.

“People would tell me I was shaming the honor of the village, and of the Shiites, and they would use terrible insults against me, calling me the whore of Sheikh [Adnan] al-Arour and Ahmad al-Assir, and much worse,” she says. But the turning point came last Sunday, when Hezbollah began its widely-publicized attack on the Syrian town of Qusayr.

“When Hezbollah went into Qusayr, I immediately started posting comments and photos, asking what they were going there for, especially since in Nabatieh every day I would see two or three bodies returning. People told me I was insulting Sayyida Zeinab [the granddaughter of the Prophet, highly revered in Shiite Islam]. So on Monday I wrote a post saying that insulting Sayyida Zeinab a thousand times is more merciful than killing one Syrian child.”

It seems to have been that comment in particular that brought the local community’s anger to a boiling point. As the online abuse poured in, her father – himself a more-or-less orthodox Hezbollah partisan – allegedly began to receive phone calls from local party affiliates, urging him to make his daughter publicly retract her comments. For the sake of her father’s safety and reputation, Olleik says she did post an apology. However, by then the point of no return had already been crossed.

En route to university in Beirut the following morning, Olleik received a phone call from her distressed mother, who had been staying at the family’s second house in Nabatieh. “She told me she found a sign stuck to the wall outside the house, saying ‘Don’t think of returning [to Yahmur].’” Ignoring the warning, her mother had driven to their Yahmur home to find that the contents of the front porch had been set ablaze overnight.

On Thursday morning, NOW paid a visit to Yahmur, a picturesque village in the fertile plains at the feet of the crusader-era Shqeef Castle, which also happens to be a mere 5km from the Israeli border. Like almost all villages in the south, the flags flying on its lampposts alternate between those of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. A large billboard bearing the faces of Iranian Grand Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei greets visitors at the Husseiniyah [Shiite worship place] in the village center. The few women walking around either donned the hijab or the more conservative chador.

The Olleik home – a traditional single-story villa of off-white stone with a spacious garden – was empty when NOW arrived, but the damage from Tuesday’s arson attack was plainly visible. A tablecloth and accompanying chairs on the patio were damaged and charred black from what had clearly been a small fire.

Local residents at the grocery store across the street had mixed views of the overall episode. “It’s nothing, it’s just a dispute between youths,” insisted one, who did not give his name. “The guys who started the fire are known troublemakers; they smoke arguileh and drink juice all day. In my personal opinion, Marwa should just come back.”

Another resident, who claimed to be a cousin of Olleik’s, butted in to interrupt. “No. She can’t. It’s forbidden. She insulted Sayyida Zeinab, there’s no way we can allow this.”

A third man appeared to agree. Asked how many people lived in Yahmur, he replied, “Five thousand. Actually, 4,999 now.” The others snickered.

“Everything is over in any case,” said the first man. “A Hezbollah man met with her parents and resolved the issue.” He did not elaborate.

Olleik, however, had already described this encounter to NOW. “The rabit [local Hezbollah official] came to our house and told my mother I can’t go back and I have to immediately publish an apology, although I already had done so. He said that this time they burnt the porch, but next time they’d burn the whole house.”

“And if one Hezbollah fighter is martyred from Yahmur, he said they’d kill me.” When asked for comment, Hezbollah press spokesman Ibrahim Mousawi told NOW he had not heard anything about the incident.

A nagging question for Olleik is why the reaction to her comments became suddenly so hostile this week, when for months she had railed against the party with no repercussions. She speculates it’s due to the widespread condemnation the party has faced since launching its Qusayr offensive.

“Hezbollah is losing support even from Shiites because of Syria, so they want to silence criticism. For example, the other day a woman came to my mother, crying and cursing the party because her son had just been sent to fight in Syria. At the recent funerals for fighters, too, many of the mothers have been angry for what Hezbollah has done.”

There also remains the question of what Olleik will now do. Her family, she says, has no intention of taking legal action against the assailants, believing it to be a lost cause. Her cousin Rami, who accompanied her during NOW’s interview (and who is himself an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, despite formerly being a party member – a transformation he details in his recent book, ‘The Bees Road') said, “The situation is still boiling for now, but she should go back - maybe even this weekend.”

Olleik, however, seems to have other ideas.

“There’s no going back to Nabatieh for me. My reputation is ruined, I would have no life. Maybe I’ll live here in Beirut by myself, or my parents will move here. I don’t know.”

“But returning to Nabatieh is not an option.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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