Body torn, but a strong Lebanese voice

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Body torn, but a strong Lebanese voice

By Craig S. Smith The New York Times
SUNDAY, APRIL 16, 2006

VALENTON, France Moments after the blast that nearly took her life in Beirut in September, May Chidiac found herself on the back seat of her smoking, mangled car.


"At first, I didn’t know about my leg," she said, recounting how paramedics in an ambulance quickly arrived to pull her out. "I saw my hand cut, it was still hanging by a small piece of flesh, but I didn’t know that it was damaged a lot and was pointing to my hand hoping they could help me keep it."


They could not. Chidiac, an outspoken anti-Syrian Lebanese broadcast journalist, lost her left hand and right foot and suffered burns over much of her body. Syrian agents are assumed to have been behind the attack.


But in the months since she was maimed, Chidiac has made a remarkable recovery and is likely to emerge as an even more powerful voice than she was before against Syrian influence in her country.


Today, she navigates her electric wheelchair through the drab lobby of the hospital where she is staying like a queen aboard her barge. The high- necked ruffled collar and long lace cuffs of her white blouse contrast dramatically with the black, fox fur- trimmed cape covering her shoulders.


Pearl pendant earrings hang beneath the teased and molded mound of her blonde coiffure.


"I’ve been attacking the Syrian policy in Lebanon for a long time," she explained, discussing the attack with the good-natured detachment that might come from a woman whose costume jewelry had been stolen by petty thieves.


"I want my country to be free from all occupation and to recover its sovereignty for good and forever," she said.


The details of the attack were stitched together by police investigators: Her would-be assassins trailed her to a friend’s house, waiting for an opportunity to place a magnetized bomb on the underside of her Range Rover. They left it beneath the passenger side because it wouldn’t stick to the aluminum under the driver’s seat. They waited hours for her to return and detonated the bomb moments after she had climbed back into the car.


Chidiac was the third Lebanese journalist targeted in that way amid an anti-Syrian movement last year and the only one to survive. The others, Samir Kassir, a columnist for the newspaper An Nahar and Gebran Tueni, its publisher, were killed instantly.


But Chidiac’s bombing shocked Lebanon and the Arab world because such assassination attempts are generally reserved for men. "This is why I didn’t take measures to protect myself," Chidiac explained.


Chidiac is the eldest of three daughters born to a Lebanese businessman who died when she was 13. Her brother died of leukemia three years later. She never married and still lives with her mother, who stays now in a room beside her at the hospital here.


She was studying mathematics in college in Beirut when civil war broke out. She switched to journalism and became one of the country’s most visible Christian commentators.


"I lived through all the phases, all the chapters of this war that we had in Lebanon," she said in her hospital room not far from Paris.


She was already one of the most outspoken critics of Syrian policy in Lebanon before the popular uprising that led to Syria’s withdrawal of troops from the country last year. She became a prominent member of the so-called March 14 group of anti-Syrian activists and intellectuals that emerged from the demonstrations that swept the country on that day, a month after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination.


She knew she had plenty of enemies among the Syrian officials and the Lebanese front men who ran the country for decades.


A few months before the Syrian troops withdrew, "the top Syrian man in Lebanon told my boss, ‘Tell her I’m going to drink her blood,’" she said.


She declined to name the man. Lebanese security officials also sent her messages through friends telling her to stop speaking out. "I don’t know why I was never afraid," she said.


The day of the bombing, Chidiac’s guest on her talk show was another outspoken anti-Syrian journalist, Sarkis Naoum.


After the show, she drove to a friend’s house and left her car on the street and rode with her friend into the mountains to visit a monastery where Saint Charbel, a Maronite hermit, lived and died.


She bought bottles of holy water, votive candles and icons and had lunch in a nearby restaurant there before returning to her friend’s house where she got back into her car.


When the bomb went off, she was leaning between the front seats to put the bag containing the religious artifacts in the back of the car. The passenger seat shielded her face and right hand from the blast. Her left hand, gripping the steering wheel, and her right foot, pressing against the floor of the car, were blown away.


"St. Charbel was the one who saved me," she said calmly. "If I didn’t have the candles and things to be put on the back seat, I’d be dead."


Prince Walid bin Talal, a Saudi shareholder in the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation where Chidiac works, provided a private jet to fly her to France and is covering the cost of her care here.


In January, Chidiac announced her intention to run for a parliamentary seat left vacant by the death of the Maronite legislator Edmond Naim. "As they decided to attack me, I decided to make it the other way. In the future I’ll be a politician," she said.


In the end, she did not enter the election because of her rehabilitation and to avoid a divisive campaign within the Christian community at a critical time, but she said she might run in parliamentary elections in 2009. In the meantime, she plans to resume her television career in Lebanon as soon as she has mastered walking on a prosthetic leg and using a prosthetic hand.


She said it will take time to erase Syrian influence in the country.


"They still have their men in the country working for them, coordinating with them," she said. "This is why the situation is still dangerous in Lebanon."


She is concerned that Syria will evade sanctions for its presumed role in the recent assassinations in Lebanon and is worried that the United States and Europe will ease pressure on the country if it increases efforts to police its border with Iraq.


"We are afraid that if they give something for Iraq, they will be rewarded by receiving something in Lebanon," Chidiac said.


"Whenever there are international compromises with Syria, Lebanon pays."