Counting down my last days with President Bashir Gemayel
(See Translation in Arabic Section)
On Sunday, September 12, 1982, President Bashir Gemayel called me to ask if I had finished the speech that he commissioned me to prepare. We met at his house in Bikfaya at nine o’clock on Monday, the 13th (the eve of his martyrdom).
I arrived and found him sitting in the inner parlour with his wife, First Lady Solange (Sola), listening to classical music through a modern instrument given to him by a friend. Because he had not yet learnt to operate it, he would press its buttons to improve the sound. We stayed like this for a few minutes before his wife left us and Bashir brought out a pipe that he smoked exclusively in intimate sessions, which was rare. He does not smoke; if he rarely lights a cigarette, he leaves it lit and does not smoke it.
The elected President of the Republic sat on an old leather chair, and I sat across from him around a quenched fireplace. As soon as I started reading the speech, and finished the first paragraph of it (“I swear by the content of the oath, and here I am reciting its text. I performed its content throughout the eight years of resistance and I recited its text at the beginning of the six years of rule”) until he said to me: “Put it back.” I returned to it and at the end he concluded by saying: “Baeful, awful. You summed it all up.”
I set out to read, and he listened until I finished. He liked the speech and he commented on four main observations that we discussed, which are as follows:
1. Christians in Lebanon. We paused for a long time to find a formula that defines the Christian specifically in a homeland for all. And when I told him: “Today, you are the head of a homeland established by Christians, not the head of a Christian homeland,” he answered me immediately: “Right.” Indeed, on the next day, he gave this idea in his speech to a luncheon hosted by his sister, Sister Arza, in the monastery of the Cross on the Feast of the Cross.
2. Martyrs. It was necessary to resolve the position of the Lebanese who fell in the war as they belong to different forces. Bashir said: “As the President of the Republic, I can only be equal to everyone, even if there is a political or ideological difference between them. All of them fell for the sake of “some Lebanon”.
3. The peace treaty with Israel. A week before that session, I had met him to present my ideas and asked him if he wanted to distinguish anyone in the presidential speech. He replied: “Only two: my father, and President Sarkis.” When we came to our meeting on the issue of Israel, he answered me: “I prefer not to mention now the term ‘peace treaty’. Let us content ourselves with talking about the peace process.”
4. America. We agreed to choose the following position: Lebanon’s interest is to be a strategic ally of the free world because we are part of its democratic and liberal values.
After deliberating about an hour, we finished discussing the letter and I would make the necessary correction, to return to reading it in form one last time at 9pm on Tuesday, September 14. We exchanged various conversations.
He asked me if Thursday, September 16, was appropriate for him to visit Radio Free Lebanon as he bid farewell to most institutions of the Lebanese resistance. I replied: “With pleasure.” He told me that the next morning he would visit the home of the Ashrafieh Brigades to meet with the people. I asked him, “Are you still going to your previous meetings?” He answered me immediately: “The Ashrafieh meeting will remain.” He raised his fist to the level of his face and said in a firm voice in French: “Sajaan, the grassroots, “Ashrafieh”, the “olive grove”, and all the sites of steadfastness must not be forgotten. I must keep holding on to the land.”
As I did not want to discuss with him, because of his strong conviction, the necessity of communicating with the grassroots, I conveyed to him what was said about him among the people and their joy in him, especially in the western region of Beirut: Maya (his martyred daughter).
He replied, “Yes, three pictures of her appeared in some newspapers but they thought it was right.” He asked, “Has there been a picture of me jogging?” “Yes,” I replied, “in the Paris match. Another picture of you standing on Sola’s bed was posted in your first shot with five-month-old Nadim and with the caption, ‘Bashir Gemayel’s phenomenon’.”
He was silent for a moment, then said, smiling shyly, in French again: “I’m really visible after all I’ve done.” Then we moved on to other topics. Disgusted, he said, “Brother, the administrative group has destroyed me. What is this octopus? The administrative today is lacking all blood and vitality. It needs morale.”
About the formation of the government, he told me that his decision had not yet settled on all names. I mentioned to him some of the names that were being traded, and he replied: “They are not at all.” I told him: “Your summoning Suleiman Al-Ali to head the first government will leave you disturbed”? I wanted to complete so he raised his hand in the air: “Stop. It is enough; do not put the dagger in the wound. Without Suleiman Al-Ali, the quorum would not have been reached. If I had not promised him to the cabinet’s leadership, he would not have come to the election session with his parliamentary bloc.”
“So with him, I form a provisional cabinet, by which I will have fulfilled my promise, and the time is open for me to change the government. Six months during which I will pass the purifications, decrees, projects and agreements that must be passed, and then we will form a young government.”
“How much time do you think it will take you to conclude a treaty with Israel?” I asked. He replied: “From four months to five. They want it now but I’m not ready to accept that. It is also related to the developments that may occur in coming weeks, and to our democratic mechanisms. Peace is one thing, and submission to their conditions is another.”
Then he returned to the people: “I want you to stress more in your speech on the extent of what this good people have endured from us: everything we asked of him,” he answered. “Likewise, give the (Lebanese) resistance in its comprehensive national concept its right to speak.”
I knew how much he bet on the people, and how affected he was by his sacrifices. Regarding the Lebanese army, he explained to me: “I do not want it to be Muslim or Christian but rather patriotic and I will be the commander-in-chief. I will create the National Guard to absorb the militias after they are rehabilitated.
“The command of the army will not remain as it is today; I will strengthen the chief of staff and create a strong army, resistant and capable of moving, interfering and defending Lebanon’s sovereignty. We have finished with the army of salons and televisions, and with the army that is afraid to interfere lest it be divided.”
Regarding the ambassadors, he explained to me: “President Sarkis promised four people from outside the angel. I will carry out his wishes for him but not in the embassies of major and important countries. Diplomacy will be a primary weapon in my era.”
It was past midnight: our meeting lasted three hours. The next day, Tuesday, I didn’t talk to him. I didn’t need that because we had a meeting in the evening at his house.
That Tuesday afternoon on the 14th, at about 4:15pm, they called me from my office at Radio Free Lebanon, which I founded and ran between 1978 and 1985, informing me of a huge explosion in Sassine Street, Achrafieh. I immediately said: “Bashir is gone.” My addressee replied: “What does Bashir have to do with this?” I told him he was there. Intuitively strange at that moment.
A few minutes later, the second call came back: Yes, the explosion occurred in Kataeb House, Ashrafieh. I ran like crazy to the radio. They told me that there were dead and wounded but Bashir came out unharmed. I calmed down a little, on a worried intuition.
The radio representative in Achrafieh, Charbel Zouein, called me also, and said with joy: “Bachir is alive; he came out and told us how young people were.” I went to the Military Council. It was with a wave of joy that news that Bachir was reported safe had been received. The testimonies were pouring out from the young men: two young men arrived and helped extricate him from the rubble, he came out with a slight scratch on his face. But where is Bashir? it was as Hallucinations collectives.
Possibilities followed: He was alive, the Israelis had arrived and transported him by military helicopter because a helicopter hovered over Ashrafieh. Alive and the Lebanese army took it as a military coup. Alive in a hospital. Amidst these astonishing speculations, the Chargé d’Affairs of the US Embassy in Beirut arrived at the Military Council, checking the latest information we have. On the phone, President Sarkis and other officials called me, and I was reassuring them.
About seven, his office phone rang. I answered. On the line was Sheikh Amin. He asked me for new details. I replied, “I am reassured in principle. All those we trust confirmed his safe passage.” He replied: “I went to all the hospitals and did not find him.” He added: “Now bring me to Karantina Bridge.”
And I met (Sheikh) Amin to the Karantina Bridge. I escorted him into his car, Solange alone, and Dib Anastase, the chief of police, in the back seat. (Sheikh) Amin was indignant as was Sola: Why did he hide the truth from them? We began to become suspicious of all people, even the companions. We ran all over the hospitals again and didn’t find him. Then we started getting lost in the car and then went back to the military council.
“At 9.30pm, while we were in the council, amid frightful astonishment, President Sheikh Pierre Gemayel arrived. Minutes later, Zahi Boustany, Bashir’s advisor, entered. Sola was sitting at Bashir’s office, and he came to her and kissed her, and gave her his locker. This was a sign enough to understand everything: Bashir had died.
“There were no tears, but great astonishment. Everyone held their breath and held back their tears, then Dr. Elie Karami, the deputy head of the party, Karim Pakradouni, arrived and confirmed the news. Bashir did not survive; they had found his body. Sheikh Pierre did not want to be believed. He asked with deep faith: “Are you sure? You saw him? What about those who said he came out alive?” Then, amid a stark silence, Sheikh Pierre put his shoulders on his knees and hid his head in his hands. Charles Malik came to him and knelt and bowed before him, so (Sheikh) Pierre raised him.
At that moment, tears fell, a silent purr, not a high-pitched rattle. The tears rebelled against the news. It was not flowing because the conviction of his death was not final. Sheikh Pierre remained for a few moments in his rapture, without a word. After about 10 minutes, everyone headed to Bikfaya, so we stayed with Fadi Frem, Fouad Abu Nader, Zahi Boustany, Karim Pakradouni, Joseph Abu Khalil, Tony Brady, Elie Hobeika and me. We met with Sheikh Amin in the meeting room and we decided to continue the journey.(Sheikh) Amin pledged to complete the march and embrace Bashir’s comrades ... and we separated until the next day. I went to Radio Free Lebanon in Adonis, where the staff was waiting for my return. I informed them of the tragedy and delayed the announcement of the news until midnight to allow the military forces to take measures on the ground.
Great was that day. The well-wishers, a few days ago, came to console themselves. Those who did not believe in his election themselves did not believe in his death, and those who did not participate in his election took part in his funeral. For those for whom the joy of his support was not given, the grief of his farewell was given to them. It remains that “Bashir is alive in us” was the slogan that I coined at the beginning of the first meeting in the Military Council after the martyrdom of Bashir, and it became the most frequent slogan.