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Solange Gemayel: the guardian of Bachir's legacy

Commemoration

The widow of murdered President-elect Bachir Gemayel shares memories from her life with a man who many regard as a hero with L'Orient-Le Jour.

Claude ASSAF | OLJ
17/09/2019
September 14, 1982, 4:10 pm: a bomb explodes on the roof of the building housing the Kataeb party in Achrafieh. Bachir Gemayel, founder of the Lebanese Forces, is killed along with 32 others. Twenty-two days earlier, Gemayel had been elected president of Lebanon.

On a national level, the attack swept away the hopes of many Lebanese who aspired to have a sovereign state. On a personal level, Gemayel’s assassination devasted many lives. He left behind two fatherless children (21-month-old Yumna and four-month-old Nadim) and a mourning widow, Solange.

L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) spoke with Solange Gemayel, a woman who, despite the misfortune she suffered, continues to maintain a true strength of character. The interview was a chance for her to recount her memories and feelings looking back at the fateful moment that shattered 12 years of happiness, topped by five years of marital bliss, and that cut short the path that Bachir, succeeding Elias Sarkis, had just started on as president. Thirty seven years later, in the 200-year-old family home in Bikfaya that the newly elected president left on the morning of Sept. 14, 1982, his pictures still show the image of a man with a sharp gaze and energetic style.

"The furniture remains as is. Nothing has changed,” Solange Gemayel says, sitting in the living room where cheers and blessings were accepted following the presidential election on Aug. 23, 1982.


"It's over "

Bachir inherited the home in Bikfaya from his mother, Genevieve, and it was restored and ready to welcome him in the summer of 1982. But he only moved in three weeks before his death. "That day, I awoke to the sounds of the church bells of the village, and I felt a tightness in my heart. I remembered that it was the celebration of the Cross,” Solange recalls. "At around 10 am, Bachir, who wanted to go to Beirut, asked me for his car keys. After looking for them for a long time, I discovered that Yumna had them hidden in her hand behind her back. Bashir took her in his arms, kissed her and tried to convince her to give him the keys. But nothing worked. Yumna kept on saying, ‘No’. He finally seized them. Yumna gave him a deep look as if she felt that he was going away."

Before leaving, Bachir asked his wife to meet him for lunch with his sister, Arze, as well as the other nuns from the Convent of the Cross. During the meal, he improvised a speech that he asked her to translate simultaneously to the apostolic nuncio sitting at his side. Then, around 3:30 pm, they headed to the Lebanese Hospital in Geitawi to visit Solange’s mother, who had just undergone a small procedure. At 4 pm, Bashir headed to the Kataeb headquarters in Ashrafieh to hold a final weekly meeting with his coworkers.

"I stayed at my mother’s bedside. At around 4:15 pm, I received a call from a close acquaintance who asked me where the explosion had occurred. I had not heard a thing, but I immediately knew that it was an attack on Bachir," she says with emotion. Every September 14, Solange adds, she feels "shaken" but has not “weakened” yet.

"I rushed to the Kataeb’s headquarters. Standing in front of the destroyed building, I stayed there amidst the rubble for over four hours. I was in shock, overwhelmed and silent among all the people who rushed to the site. Some of them thought that they saw Bashir getting out of the rubble. As time went by, I had the feeling that I was no longer going to see him alive,” she says. “So I went from one hospital to the next. At Hotel-Dieu de France, I was told that he was there, but I wasn’t given additional information. I did not need further information to understand. I went to the Kataeb Military Council’s office where all the relatives were waiting, including his father, Pierre, and his brother, Amine. Even though I had guessed the outcome, I still needed proof."

The proof came around 10:30 pm when a doctor, who was also a friend, handed Solange Bachir’s octagonal, white gold wedding ring. "I felt the world crumbling around me,” she recalls.

Only 32 at the time, she headed to the Bikfaya family home accompanied by her father-in-law. "So dear?” Bachir's mother asked. "It's over,” answered Solange.


The dream of a free and prosperous Lebanon

Bachir had gone to the same house on the evening of Aug. 23 to celebrate his victory with his parents. Before heading to Bikfaya, he had stopped at his home in Achrafieh to put on a suit. "Many friends were already there, and everyone was cheering, including Charles Malek (a prominent figure in political, diplomatic and intellectual circles). All of them had walked up eight floors––due to a power cut––in order to congratulate us. Malek told me then, ‘Lebanon is saved!’” Solange recalls.

The deafening sound of honking horns was coming from the outside. Bachir told his wife that they would not be living in the Baabda Palace, which, according to him, was only meant to accommodate the presidential offices. He wanted to maintain "a simple family life and remain attentive and in touch with people".

He displayed that simplicity a few hours after being elected, insisting on stopping the car he was driving himself to buy shawarma sandwiches from Halabi, a restaurant in Antelias.

Was the assassinated president afraid of the danger that awaited him? "Neither he nor I were really aware of that danger, despite the security recommendations we were given," his widow admits, adding: "When he ran for President he was not seeking privileges (such as car convoys and other honors), but rather a position through which he could work for what he believed in and achieve his dream of a free and prosperous country."


From left to right : Nadim Gemayel, Solange Gemayel, Youmna Gemayel Zaccar, holding her daughter Maya, and Roger Zaccar. Photo DR


Solange knew that one day he would succeed at becoming head of state. She had been at his side and part of his activism since the mid-1960s, when both were still students in high school. Solange had become an activist when she was 16 years old and even attended training camps where she learned to handle weapons. Her father, the surgeon Louis Tutunji, was a companion of Pierre Gemayel, one of the founding members of the Kataeb party. Solange decided to join the student division of the party and became friends with Bachir, who she had previously met because their parents were friends and her brother, Joseph, was his classmate at Notre-Dame de Jamhour. It was the beginning of a beautiful love story that was nurtured by shared ideals and the experience of working closely together.

But the romance was not always peaceful. Bachir, who had become a military leader and had many commitments, often missed appointments, and Solange was anxious when he was at the front. "My anxieties and all the waiting were compensated by his affection, his tenderness, his openness and his transparency," she says.


Irreducible

According to his widow, Bachir's commitment to his country increased after he was abducted by armed Palestinians from the Tel al-Zaatar camp in the region of Mkalles. "Liberated a few hours later thanks to political interventions, Bachir came to my home to calm me down. He was very peaceful, but his eyes betrayed sadness and suffering. This incident was a turning point for him: from that moment on, his hostility towards the armed Palestinians became irreducible, pushing him to aim for their removal from Lebanon," says Solange, who worked in the Kataeb’s communication department at the party’s headquarters, carrying out all the missions that Bachir entrusted her with.

While continuing to support him, after their marriage in March 1977, Solange decided to dedicate herself at becoming a mother and a housewife, especially because her husband's occupation prevented him from being present most of the time. Following his tragic death, it was this dedication that kept her going. She continued to oversee her children’s education with strength and dignity, instilling in them their father’s values. He had been there with her when Maya, their eldest daughter, was killed in February 1980, but he was no longer at her side.


Solange Gemayel. Photo DR


"Since the loss of Bachir, I have not seen any leader capable of filling his void; no one with enough strength and authority to uplift the country and relieve it from tail-ism, military control and corruption," Solange says regretfully. She is still hopefully, that "among the youth, who carry in them the patriotic feeling to which Bachir was attached, one day someone will emerge as a leader able to govern Lebanon by putting ahead the needs of its people and staying away from greedy interests."


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 14th of september)


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