FRONTLINE/WORLD . Lebanon - The Earthquake . The Story | PBS
Frontline World

Lebanon - The Earthquake, May 2005

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Earthquake"

Land and People, History and Government, Economy, Culture

Land and People, History and Government, Economy, Ancient Culture

General Background, Recent Events, International Reaction, Blogs


Our weekly reports from Lebanon and Syria

Streaming video

Do recent events in Lebanon reflect a move toward democracy in the Middle East? react


The Story
Reporter Kate Seelye in a market in Syria, A candel memorial for Hariri, People protesting

watch video >>
FRONTLINE/World correspondent Kate Seelye grew up in the Arab world, the daughter of an American diplomat. For the past five years, she has lived and worked in Beirut, a city reborn after a nightmarish civil war (1975-1990).

In February 2005, on Valentine's Day, Seelye recalls, she was writing in her office when she heard the blast of an explosion. From her balcony, she saw an enormous plume of black smoke, which she soon learned was from the massive explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's best-known politician.

Amid sirens and waving Lebanese flags, tens of thousands of people of all faiths gathered in Martyrs' Square to mourn Hariri, a billionaire businessman and a Sunni Muslim who had helped rebuild Beirut. His supporters immediately blamed the assassination on Lebanon's neighbor, Syria.

One mourning woman tells Seelye that Hariri's death brought about unprecedented unity among disparate groups. "I had never seen such a powerful expression of Lebanese solidarity," Seelye says.

Seelye visits Marwan Hamade, a member of parliament who was a close political ally of Hariri. Hamade shows a photograph of Hariri taken only an hour before he was killed. Just last fall, Hamade was the target of a car bomb that left him badly injured. "They killed somebody who was 10 centimeters away from me," he says. "The message was clear." By "they," Hamade means the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agencies that control power in Lebanon.

For decades, Seelye explains, Syria's ruling Assad family has dominated Lebanese politics. In the summer of 2004, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, demanded that Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, a Syria loyalist, remain in office beyond his term limit. At a meeting in Damascus, Assad ordered Prime Minister Hariri to make it happen.

Hamade recalls what Hariri had told him. According to Hariri, Assad had said, "I will break this country over your head if you oppose me." Hamade states that this was a direct threat to Hariri. Hariri did as he was told, but shortly thereafter resigned and began to rally opposition. Within a few months, Hariri was assassinated in the explosion that became known as "the earthquake" -- an event that would fundamentally change Lebanon.

The United Nations, Seelye tells us, investigated the assassination and arrived at two conclusions: that Syria had created the political climate for the killing and that Lebanese officials had tampered with evidence at the crime scene.

At a press conference with the Lebanese justice minister, Seelye asks about the United Nations' allegation of planting evidence. He replies that the allegation is a falsehood. But, says Seelye, it's too late: The Lebanese people are rising up to challenge the Syrian-backed government. Anti-Syrian graffiti appears in the streets of Beirut, and young Lebanese gather nightly in Martyrs' Square to remember Hariri and demand that Syria withdraw the 14,000 troops it has stationed in Lebanon. "Sooner or later, we're going to have our independence," one man tells Seelye.

Syrian troops first came to Lebanon as peacekeepers during the early days of the Muslim-Christian civil war 30 years ago, Seelye explains, but they overstayed their welcome and diverted billions of dollars from the Lebanese economy.

Businessman and analyst Joe Faddoul tells Seelye that importers paid customs duties to Syrian intelligence at the Port of Beirut and that Syria also ripped off Lebanon's phone company, gas business, even its casinos. Faddoul tells Seelye that Lebanon has been a "cash cow" for Syria's ruling class.

With the support of the United States and France, the U.N. Security Council passes Resolution 1559, demanding that Syria quit Lebanon. Protestors gather in Martyrs' Square to hear an announcement by Syria's president, who pledges that he will comply. Syrian troops will leave Lebanon, states Assad.

Syria's supporters in Lebanon, including half a million followers of the armed Islamist group Hezbollah, mostly Shiite Muslims, take to the streets to express their support for Damascus. The protest is peaceful, and Seelye notices that these days even Hezbollah flies the Lebanese flag.

The opposition responds with the largest demonstration Lebanon has ever seen: A million people -- fully a quarter of the country's population -- assemble in Martyrs' Square to demand that Syrian troops leave immediately.

As Syrian troops began to pull back toward the Bekaa Valley and the Syrian border, there is fear that more violence might erupt. Car bombs explode in Beirut in Christian neighborhoods over the next few weeks, prompting apprehension that Lebanon might descend again into sectarian violence.

Seelye heads to the Bekaa Valley to see for herself if Syrian troops are really leaving. She sees a steady stream of retreating trucks and soldiers, and local farmers tell her that they are "tasting freedom" for the first time in three decades.

Seelye then heads for Damascus, Syria's capital, where she lived as a teenager. Everywhere, she sees images of the Assad family, and she recalls that there is talk in Washington of a "regime change" for Syria.

"But as I walked through the old city and its ancient marketplace -- the souk -- I was surprised to find how calm it was," Seelye says. "You'd never know there was turmoil next door in Lebanon."

Syrian shopkeepers tell her that they love President Bashar al-Assad, but Seelye notes that Syria is a police state, and people are afraid to speak openly.

Seelye then meets with Butheina Shabaan, a Syrian government spokesperson who tells her that Syria, like the United Nations, wants to find out who assassinated Hariri. Shabaan also tells her that the Bush administration misunderstands President Assad and that comparisons between Assad and Saddam Hussein are ignorant. "The comparison shows absolute lack of knowledge and that's one of the big problems in the U.S. policy in the Middle East," Shabaan says.

But, Seelye notes, under Syrian martial law, there are many political prisoners, and the state-managed economy is stagnating.

Seelye visits one of Syria's most outspoken dissidents, Ammar Abdel Hamid, who tells her that he welcomes U.S. pressure on Syria to reform, but opposes U.S. military intervention because he doesn't want to see Syria completely destabilized, like Iraq.

The war in Iraq casts a shadow over Syria. At the tense Syria-Iraq border, Seelye sees Camp Gannon, a U.S. Marine base just inside Iraq. She says that the U.S. government has accused the Syrians of not preventing Arab fighters from crossing the border to join the Iraqi insurgency. Syrians say that Iraqi insurgents have been attacking the Americans almost nightly. A week after her visit, insurgents assault the U.S. base. In response to this and other attacks in the western Iraqi desert, Americans launch a major offensive, killing 100 insurgents.

In the border town of Al Hiri, Seelye finds Sheikh Rutha Baruth Dulaimi, a tribal leader rumored to have fought in Iraq. He won't tell her details about his time in Iraq, but he does say that he wishes he'd been in a bombing in Iraq so he could be a martyr. He says that President Assad has ordered him and others not to cross into Iraq. "Let the Iraqis fight themselves," says one of his sons.

Back in Damascus, Seelye visits an old family friend, Mohammed Aziz Shukri, a former government advisor, who tells her that reform is needed in Syria, but the country should not be on President Bush's list of enemies. Shukri confides to Seelye that he worries that the United States wants to bring down the Assad regime. Seelye wonders if reform is on the way or if confrontation with the United States is inevitable.

Seelye returns to Beirut, where posters of Hariri still decorate the streets and the United Nations is about to conduct a full investigation of his assassination. Elections are coming soon -- the first in decades to be free of Syrian domination.

Opposition newspaper editor Gebran Tueni tells Seelye that Lebanon could become a model democracy in the Arab world -- or, without international support, it could completely unravel.

Then Seelye visits opposition leader and member of parliament Walid Jumblatt at his family's castle, where he has been holed up since the Hariri assassination. Jumblatt is also the leader of an important ethnic minority group in Lebanon, the Druze, some of whom gather on weekends in his courtyard. During a question-and-answer session with his supporters, Jumblatt tells a man in the crowd that he wants to cooperate with Hezbollah. He tells Seelye that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization and that one solution to the problem of disarming Hezbollah is to integrate their militia into the Lebanese army. In his vision of a new Lebanon, Jumblatt supports modernizing the country by abandoning the traditional political system, which is based on religious affiliation.

Upon her return to Beirut, Seelye finds Lebanese celebrating their newfound national unity in Martyrs' Square with a concert by Lebanese diva Majida al-Rumi.

"With the Syrians out, it's truly starting to feel like a Beirut spring," Seelye says.

Produced by




Additional Camera


Archival Footage
AP/Worldwide Photos



Produced in association with

back to top