03/08/2024, 11.53
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Beirut, crisis hits army: ex-servicemen take to the streets for pensions

by Fady Noun

Within the Lebanese army and among retired soldiers, anger and protest are mounting: the collapse of the economy has squandered the purchasing power of their salaries. Today they receive between 9 and 12 per cent of what they were entitled to before the 2019 crisis. The indifference of the political and ruling class, aid from foreign countries.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most accessible in the Bible. Surprisingly timely, it expresses practical wisdom. In particular, he says that some things are particularly "pleasing to God", such as "neighbors who get along", but that others sadden him.

Among the latter, the book of wisdom includes "the warrior who grows old in misery". After all, the profession of arms has always been different from all others: soldiers carry within them the memory of their homeland and the dangers it faced.

What was true in Bible times is even more true today. Retired Lebanese army personnel, the "old warriors", are taking to the streets to demand the adjustment of their service allowances.

In Riad el-Solh square they almost came to blows with the young recruits who were stationed in front of them. In this military force of over 70 thousand members, the pay of an ordinary soldier is negligible (220 dollars), due to the economic collapse of 2019, which caused the Lebanese currency to lose 95% of its value. Anger and indignation among retired soldiers exploded when they realized that the recent salary adjustments decided by the Mikati government made them equal to fifth category public employees.

The leader of the protest, retired general Georges Nader, seriously wounded in the 2007 battle between the army and the Islamic extremist group Fateh el-Islam in the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared, tells AsiaNews: "I served 35 years in the 'army. Before 2019, my salary was 4 thousand dollars; today it is 580 dollars, or 12% of what it once was. Without my plot of land in Akkar and without my two children, how do you think I could have lived?”.

The former officer continues his story: “Believe me, there are some of us who live in poverty, who don't even have enough money to offer you a cup of coffee if you go to visit them. And sure, there are some of us for whom we occasionally take up a collection to help them.

Does all this seem right to you?”. "On average, current salaries and allowances - explains the senior officer - are around 9% of what they were before 2019. We will fight to bring this percentage to 40%". The military hero also adds that he was summoned to court which, according to him, seemed like a real humiliation. He was accused of wearing military uniform and a T-shirt with the army motto during a demonstration."

To allow the troop to remain operational, since 2021 many countries have occasionally supported the army with donations of fuel, food baskets and even cash payments for the soldiers.

In June 2022, Qatar offered the Lebanese army million in aid, contributing to the payment of soldiers' salaries. A year later, in June 2023, at least 70 thousand soldiers benefited from a donation of 55.5 million dollars from the United States and the United Nations, at the rate of 100 dollars per month for a total period of six months.

Last March 1, the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), General Jospeh Aoun, participated in a meeting in support of the army in Italy, together with the leaders of the armies of Italy itself, France, Spain, Germany and Great Brittany.

General Aoun explained the current situation of the army and the challenges it faces in various aspects. There have been discussions on how to support and strengthen its capabilities but, in practice, no concrete decisions have been made so far.

Lack of political will

Brigadier General Chamel Roukoz, former head of the army commando corps, deplores this assistance from abroad. “These temporary subsidies are not a solution,” he explains. Forced to look elsewhere for additional income that would allow them to take care of their families, soldiers "lose morale and no longer give their best."

Many of them currently find work in small part-time jobs - including delivery boys, waiters in restaurants, parking attendants, mechanics - "to cope with the needs and unexpected events of daily life". In normal times, they would have the confidence of a lion, knowing that for every need they can count on their agent. Today, their mind – he states – is elsewhere”.

Some of these soldiers are losing hope and deserting, or are even thinking of leaving Lebanon forever. Others are forced into debt. “My compensation was 12 million pounds (about 120 dollars), when the bill for medicine was 15 million,” Antoun D., a married soldier in his fifties, told AsiaNews.

For the officer, who is also the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun and father of two children, Lebanon's riches are being plundered and only the lack of political will keepse the country in poverty. At a time when there is talk of increasing the number of army personnel to meet the demands of rigorous implementation of Resolution 1701, retired members of the armed forces suffer from the indifference of the political class towards their fate.

They have to take to the streets, but they do so reluctantly. More than a simple institution, the armed forces are for them the first school and the last bastion of national unity. And they are convinced that it is a shame that their last battle is fought over their salaries. Listening to them, we can better understand why the author of the sacred text says that God "gets sad" when he sees a warrior "in misery". It's like stepping on a flag. Because some causes are sacred.

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