By Rania Abouzeid
Monday, October 30, 2006
Since losing an arm and a leg in a bomb blast meant to kill her, Lebanese journalist May Chidiac returned this summer to television and her trademark criticisms of Syrian involvement in her homeland. She has received two major press freedom awards.
BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)--In a career that has spanned two decades as one of Lebanon's foremost broadcast journalists, May Chidiac has received many honors.
But there is one mark of distinction that stands out from the rest. The 43-year-old is the only woman in modern Lebanon's often brutal history to be marked for death by political assassins.
After the attack that took her left leg and arm, Chidiac received the 2006 World Press Freedom Day Prize from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as well as the 2006 Courage in Journalism Award from the Washington-based International Women's Media Foundation.
Using a prosthetic to walk, she traveled in October to award ceremonies in New York and Los Angeles to accept the Courage Award, during the same month that saw the murder of 2002 recipient Anna Politskovskaya, a Russian journalist known for her investigations into the Chechen war.
But on the day that changed her life in September 2005, Chidiac hosted her regular morning political talk show on the privately owned Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, one of the country's most influential and respected news providers.
As she often did, she addressed Syria's possible involvement in the murder of Rafik Hariri, the anti-Syrian former prime minister who was killed in a massive explosion along with 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005.
A few hours after the show, 500 grams of explosives detonated under the driver's seat of her Range Rover. The explosion blew off her left leg below the knee and shredded her left arm, which was subsequently amputated. Her face was spared, largely because she had turned toward the back seat when the bomb went off.
"I knew I was disturbing them," she told Women's eNews recently, referring to Beirut's ruling pro-Syrian class and their mentors in Damascus. "But I never thought they would have been able to consider killing me," she said in an interview at her home in a leafy Christian suburb overlooking Beirut. Her attackers have not been found.
Syrian troops occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, after entering as a peacekeeping force. They soon became a party to the bloody civil conflict that raged from 1975 to 1990. But in a country where dissent against Syria often meant death or disappearance, Chidiac didn't shy away from asking difficult questions, even during the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
Hariri's 2004 killing sparked angry street rallies that toppled Beirut's Syrian-backed government and forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from its tiny neighbor.
The following months were tumultuous. A wave of bombs targeting anti-Syrian politicians, journalists in Christian neighborhoods that largely opposed Damascus kept an already jittery public nervous. Many in Beirut blamed the explosions on Syria.
Chidiac dismissed death threats relayed to her by concerned colleagues from the much-feared Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services. At one point, she says, a senior Syrian official in Lebanon told her superior at the Lebanon Broadcasting Corporation that he wanted to drink her blood.
"I thought it was just intimidation," she said, and felt safer because she was a woman. "They'd never attacked a woman before. Besides, I wasn't working in politics, I was a political journalist."
But her anti-Syrian sentiments were thinly cloaked. Rarely overtly combative, Chidiac would nonetheless deliver a pointed, piercing comment before softening it with a smile. It was an approach that endeared her to tens of thousands of viewers who tuned in to her morning political talk show and the evening news broadcasts she often anchored.
"The attack against May wasn't just an attack against a woman, and a journalist, but against the media as a whole," said Gina Ofeiche, a Beirut-based television journalist working for Saudi Arabia's Al-Ikhbariya station. "People reacted very strongly to that."
Thousands of messages of sympathy and support poured in from around the country and across the world. Candlelight vigils were held outside the Beirut hospital where Chidiac spent several weeks before continuing her recuperation in France. Her spirited recovery has been long, painful and very public.
"She has the sympathy of the Lebanese and their admiration for her courage and her professionalism," said Hanna Anbar, associate publisher of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper. She did not accept this attempted assassination as an "impediment to her career, an impediment that would have put many men out of business."
After months of grueling physical therapy and learning to use her prosthetic leg, she returned home on July 11. In true form, the immaculately coifed Chidiac insisted on walking--rather than using her wheelchair--the short distance from the tarmac to the VIP lounge, where cabinet ministers, political leaders and religious dignitaries waited to greet her.
"The May Chidiac the public knew had returned, but she wasn't weaker because of her injuries, she seemed stronger," said Ofeiche.
A day later, the Shiite group Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid that sparked a massive Israeli offensive. Almost 1,200 Lebanese and some 150 Israelis were killed in the 34-day conflict that ended in mid-August.
The still-recuperating Chidiac didn't sit on the sidelines of a war she opposed.
After 10 months and 26 operations, Chidiac went back on air to host a weekly evening political talk show "With Courage" that debuted during the conflict. Chidiac spoke out against Hezbollah's cross-border raid, which she deemed reckless, but also hosted members of the party on her show. It made for lively, often raucous debate at a time when even many Lebanese who were critical of Hezbollah prior to the war toned down their rhetoric to avoid the semblance of siding with Israel.
"Hezbollah was giving me a hard time at the beginning, either you are with them or against them," she said. "When you talk about what the country has lost for example, you are considered a traitor."
Chidiac is largely dependent on her wheelchair until she learns how to walk again on her prosthetic leg. Her two bodyguards double up as assistants. She can't get ready in time to host her morning show, which she's put on hold, but she is still teaching two broadcast news courses at a university and fronting her evening program.
"My body is different but my mind is still the same," she said, pointing to her bejeweled, French-manicured prosthetic arm. "I'm still as tough as before, maybe tougher."
Rania Abouzeid is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. She has covered Lebanon for the last seven years.
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