Nature boy in
By Sara Leibovich Dar, Haaretz,
August 24, 2003
The employee of the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv was sure it was someone's poor idea of a joke. Grant Livingstone, a Canadian pastor aged 81, arrived at the embassy last week bearing a check for $1,000. "I have been indicted in Beirut in absentia for spying for Israel and collaborating with the enemy," he told her. "My friend, Bruce Balfour, was indicted on similar charges and is now in prison in Lebanon. At this very moment, he is in a Beirut court." Livingstone asked the surprised embassy employee to send the money to Beirut to pay for Balfour's attorney.
Bruce Balfour was arrested in Lebanon on July 10. Last week, he was brought before a court in Beirut for the first hearing of his trial. According to the indictment prepared in April, Balfour visited the Jezzine region accompanied by an employee of the Lebanese Agriculture Ministry to look into the possibility of planting cedars in the area. He was unable to advance his goal, says the indictment, because the local residents cast doubt on his true intentions, suspecting that Balfour was really there to spy for Israel. If convicted, he may be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Balfour's family in British Columbia say they feel helpless in the face of these groundless charges. Members of Cedars of Lebanon in Canada and Israel have already mobilized to help him. No one can understand how the nature-loving traveler, once a tour guide in Alaska and a hunter in northern Canada - who looks like "a friendly bear," as one of his friends describes him - could be accused of spying for Israel. "There is absolutely no chance, not even the slightest, that he is a spy," says Barbara Livingstone, Grant's wife. "Bruce is a man of nature; he loves hunting, fishing and swimming, but not spying."
"My brother takes no interest in such things," says Ken Balfour by telephone from his home in Smithers, British Columbia. "He doesn't care about conflicts and wars, only helping people." A friend from Calgary, where Bruce lives, says, "He is foolish, pretentious and irresponsible, but he is not a spy."
Balfour is a victim of the political situation in the Middle East, says Elias Bejjani of the Canadian Lebanese Human Rights Federation (CLHRF) in Toronto. Hezbollah is taking revenge on Canada for banning the organization, says Canadian Member of Parliament Stockwell Day, from the opposition Canadian Alliance party, who is fighting for Balfour's release.
Cedars of Lebanon, whose goal is the reforestation of Lebanon, consists of a few Evangelical Christians from Calgary and California. It was established over 20 years ago, but lost its momentum after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. About 18 months ago, in early 2002, Balfour visited Lebanon with Grant Livingstone. Trying to infuse their tiny organization with new meaning, they toured Lebanon for two weeks. According to the indictment, Balfour spent longer in the area. "We tried to get into southern Lebanon," says Livingstone, "but the Lebanese army wouldn't let us. We got as close as we could and while we were on a mountain not far from southern Lebanon, God reminded Bruce and me of the importance of the cedars of Lebanon as a monument to that country." Livingstone lives on the other side of the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border. He asked that the name of his town not be published because "Hezbollah is also looking for me."
When the cedars grow again in Lebanon and Israel, it will be a sign of the return of the Messiah, says a group member, Larry Heather, by telephone from his home in Calgary. "The cedars of Lebanon were used to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We removed the verses of the Bible that deal with the cedars of Lebanon from our Web site after we were told that they could harm Bruce, but we want it to be understood that he is receiving instructions from the Holy Scriptures and not from members of the Israeli Mossad."
When they returned from Lebanon, Balfour and Livingstone tried to raise money for the reforestation of Lebanon's mountains. Balfour made contact with a group of Lebanese who obtained thousands of seeds. For three months, the Livingstones traveled throughout Canada but were unable to raise funds. Balfour decided to go to the United States to do some fund-raising, but he too came back empty-handed.
When he realized that his dream was not to be realized, Balfour began filming the bald mountaintops with a video camera in order to show the films to potential donors. Barbara Livingstone says she tried to convince him not to return to Lebanon: "I told him that if he managed to raise some money in the States, he ought to send it to his friends in Lebanon, but that he shouldn't go there himself," she recalls. "We told him it was dangerous to go to Lebanon. Even his friend in Lebanon told him not to come. The authorities had already investigated his friend because of his connections with Bruce. It was clear they were after him. But Bruce decided not to give in." Why did he decide to go to Lebanon despite everything? "Because he's Bruce. It was very important to him to save the mountains. He thought that without that nothing would happen. He is built like a bear, he is used to pushing, to doing everything alone and succeeding, but he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time."
All the decisions about Balfour's trip were made together with Livingstone in dozens of transatlantic telephone calls between Canada, the United States and Israel. Rev. John Lucas, president of Cedars of Lebanon, is the one who calls the shots. "I don't understand why they arrested him. Really, I have no idea what happened to him," says Lucas on the telephone from his home in Calgary. "Our goal now is to collect money to get him released."
Bruce Balfour, 51, was born in New Westminster, British Columbia. His eldest brother died in the 1970s at the age of 29. In his unpublished book, "Rivers of Mercy," which his friends are sending out by e-mail, Balfour writes that he experienced a divine revelation after returning from his brother's funeral in Vancouver. Their car almost rolled off a cliff, but stopped just in time. For him, that was a sign to set out on his spiritual journey.
Balfour came from a devout Catholic family. To his good friend Fred van Vliet he confided that he had grown close to God in his youth. "He was on the shores of an exquisite lake and felt that such a beautiful lake must have been created by a divine power acting in harmony," says van Vliet on the telephone from Calgary. "He decided to devote his life to the One that created such beauty, and he was only 16 at the time."
Bruce developed a fervent love of nature, which he viewed as evidence of God's creation of the world. Says his sister, Laura Mackenzie, from the hotel she manages in Clearwater, British Columbia: "My brother has a very strong faith. He believes very strongly and fights for what he believes with all his being." She says that his imprisonment took her completely by surprise and she finds it difficult to deal with the situation. "I don't understand anything about politics; I am not a political person. To me it seems that Lebanon is trying to pay Canada back by means of my brother." She does not know how to help him. "I don't have money. I run a small hotel. My husband is a bus driver and I don't have any influential friends. All I can do is to bring the story to the attention of as many people as possible."
Voice of hope
After finishing school, Bruce Balfour worked as a real estate and remodeling contractor. In 1981, he decided to come to Israel. In his book, he writes that he realized the Christians owe the Jews an honest apology for everything done to the Jews in Jesus' name. In the third chapter, under the title, "Traveling to Zion," he describes his experiences in Israel. On the plane before landing, the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, was played; the passengers applauded and Balfour says he felt like someone coming home after a long absence. He served as a volunteer on Kibbutz Nir Am and visited Yamit and Nuweiba in the Sinai and the Old City of Jerusalem. On his second visit to Israel, when he was living and working on Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, Balfour made friends with Christians who were running the Voice of Hope, the Christian radio station that served the residents of southern Lebanon, and helped them operate the station.
"He loved the Lebanese just as he loved the Israelis," says John Bliley, a member of Balfour's Calgary group. He told Fred van Vliet that Jesus also visited southern Lebanon, and in order to draw closer to the Messiah, he had to travel there, too. Balfour met Grant Livingstone with a group of tourists from Canada who had come to visit the Good Fence on the Israel-Lebanon border.
Livingstone came to Jerusalem in 1976 from Vancouver. "God sent me to Israel," he says. For a year before his arrival, he traveled throughout Canada with his wife in an attempt to convince people of the importance of the State of Israel. "And then the Lord told us - Come with that message to Israel," he says. The Livingstones lived in Jerusalem and Metula, where they rented an apartment, and tried to improve relations between the Christians in Lebanon and the Israelis.
What exactly did he do in Lebanon? Uri Lubrani, former coordinator of Israeli activities in Lebanon, says of Livingstone: "I didn't have much to do with him." Alon Liel, on the other hand, who was deputy director of the Middle East department in the Foreign Ministry from 1983-86, remembers Livingstone as "one of the managers of the Voice of Hope. He was one of those Christians who love the State of Israel more than we do. He worked hard in the philanthropic organizations in the United States and managed to recruit all kinds of organizations to help the Lebanese. Even prison convicts helped the Christians in southern Lebanon. They tried to do good both for Israel and Lebanon." Liel is not surprised that Livingstone and Balfour are accused of spying for Israel. "It wouldn't surprise me in particular," he says. "Apparently today, with Hezbollah controling southern Lebanon, activities that in the 1980s were supported by Israel are perceived as pro-Israeli. The Lebanese don't like that."
Food train to southern Lebanon
Livingstone and his wife enthusiastically recall their activities in the region in the 1980s together with Bruce Balfour. "Our real work began when Israel withdrew from the village of Aley and left the Christians in the Chouf mountains vulnerable to the terrible slaughter the PLO.
committed. Thousands fled to the village of Dir al-Kamar, and the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt placed them under siege. The Western media ignored them because they did not understand what was happening in the region," says Livingstone.
"Bruce visited our home in Metula and we decided that we had to convene a press conference in Jerusalem in order to give the world the message of the people under siege in Dir al-Kamar. I brought the reporters, Bruce brought survivors of the massacre in South Lebanon. It awakened international attention."
Their greatest achievement was on Christmas Eve, 1983, when they managed to get a convoy of food into southern Lebanon. "I was in charge of passage of the convoy on the Israeli side and Bruce arranged things on the Lebanese side," says Livingstone. "We arrived with four trucks laden with food and we also brought candy for the children and a Christian choir from Jerusalem."
In Metula, the truck ran into a problem. "The Israeli officer with whom Bruce had coordinated the passage had gone away for the weekend. Two of the trucks had a permanent passage permit and they were allowed into Lebanon. The other two had to stay in Israel."
In Dir al-Kamar, the arrival of the small convoy made a huge impression. "In my entire life I have never seen such a great joy as that of the people of the village when they saw us arriving, and I don't think I ever will again," says Livingstone.
Balfour, he recalls, was involved in other activities in southern Lebanon - he organized religious studies for the children of the village, for example. In his book, Balfour writes that the children wanted to learn Hebrew and English and he thought that the Bible would be a perfect textbook for them. He brought toys for the children of the Ain al Hilweh refugee camp. But a short time after the dramatic journey to Dir al-Kamar, Balfour left the Middle East. "He got tired of the lifestyle," says Barbara Livingstone. "He lived on Christian donations and never had any money. It was exhausting."
Eleven days in hell
After spending some time in Europe, Balfour returned to Canada, worked as a hunter in the forests and a tour guide in Alaska. "He tried to bring tourists from Alaska to Israel, but it didn't work out so well for him," recalls Barbara Livingstone. Most of the time, he didn't work, says a good friend of his from Calgary, a Jew who prefers to remain anonymous. Occasionally, he says, Bruce made friends with the members of the Christian community and when he had had enough, he moved to another city or church."
Balfour often found people willing to give him money, feed him or pay his rent. "He slept and ate at my place quite often," says his friend. "He would enter friends' homes, eat everything in the refrigerator and leave. Not pleasant, but that was his lifestyle. Although we were good friends, I didn't like that. We had a lot of arguments. I told him it was too bad that he didn't understand that it is better to work for one's living than to beg for food and money from strangers."
Balfour never married. "He wasn't lonely. He had friends all over the world. He moved from place to place," says his sister, Laura Mackenzie. "He derived a great deal of satisfaction from his life, but you can't have a family with that kind of lifestyle. He never knew where he would be tomorrow."
Balfour decided to return to Lebanon about two years ago. "He couldn't forget the country and kept saying it was a beautiful country with beautiful people," says van Vliet. In his book, he writes that he prayed for many years to return to Lebanon. "Now God has given me a chance. I felt that the time was near." In the first chapter of his book, he writes of the long tour of Lebanon he took in March 2001. He met with dozens of people, including government officials, in an attempt to convince them to replant cedars.
After a few weeks, he left Lebanon by ship on the way to Cyprus. When he returned to Lebanon this summer, he was arrested at the airportin Beirut after a border official noticed an Israeli entry stamp in his passport. For 10 days, no one knew he had been arrested. On July 22, the Canadian Embassy in Beirut received two pages written in Balfour's hand. After 11 days in hell in Lebanese prisons, he wrote, he had finally been allowed to make contact. In his letter, Balfour briefly described how he had been arrested after his previous visit to Israel had been discovered, adding, "My freedom has been taken away and I have been treated horribly. This is against all international law and the moral code of every civilized country in the world. I need to get out of here now, every hour multiplies the possibility of my being moved to another location and disappearing forever."
An embassy representative who was with Balfour at his hearing last week reported to the Cedars of Lebanon organization that at 1 P.M., Balfour was called to the witness stand. The judge asked him in English if he knew Fadi Husseini, an agricultural engineer who lived in Beirut and ran an office in Sidon. Balfour said he did. He was then asked if he knew Ghassen Rahhal, a resident of Jezzine and a member of the Southern Agricultural Association. Balfour confirmed that he knew both men. The judge set an additional hearing in their presence for Wednesday, August 20.
The embassy representative said Balfour was being treated badly in prison, where he is being held with 107 people in a small cell. Balfour said he feared for his life because guards and prisoners abused him. "They believe I spied for Israel," he told the embassy representative.
Last week, Balfour's family published a statement: We believe that Bruce was arrested for political reasons, they stated, and that the Canadian government must relate to the arrest in that way. At the same time, wrote the family, the Canadian administration is unwilling to confront Lebanon.
"It appears the entire Canadian government is on trial in Lebanon, says van Vliet, "and we are very weak and unable to deal with what is happening. If Canada doesn't wake up, it won't be easy for Bruce, but it won't be easy for Canada either."
Says Canadian Member of Parliament Stockwell Day: "After the Saudis kidnapped a Canadian citizen and the Iranians murdered an Iranian photographer carrying a Canadian passport, now the Lebanese have arrested a Canadian citizen.
"His only crime is that he visited Israel. This kind of situation must not occur - that Canadians who have visited in Israel are declared criminals in certain countries." Day, who visited Israel in January, proposed that Canada demand that the Lebanese ambassador in Canada be recalled until Balfour is released. "When a regime violates the most basic human rights, it must be willing to pay a price," he says. "Diplomatic steps will lead to increased international pressure and will expose the fact that Lebanon is no more than a puppet of Syria."
"How can he be accused of spying?" wonders Elias Bejjani of the Canadian Lebanese Federation for Human Rights. "Does Israel, with all the advanced technological means it has at its disposal, need a spy like Bruce? It is revenge, pure and simple, by Syria, after we banned Hezbollah. We former Lebanese are familiar with the Lebanese legal system and know that it is being used as a destructive tool in the hands of Syria."
The court will decide
The media have exaggerated the event, said Lebanese Ambassador to Canada Raymond Baaklini last week in an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, "because the media controlled by certain parties seek to exaggerate every news item pertaining to Israel." Balfour, said the ambassador, was very familiar with the Lebanese law that prohibits entry to Lebanon to any individual who has entered Israel and whose passport still carries an Israeli entry stamp.
Balfour's family is dissatisfied with the official responses. "The Canadian government is not really supporting us. I don't know if it is because of money or politics," says Mackenzie. "Bruce has repeatedly asked us to appeal to government officials," says his brother Ken. "We are doing what we can, but it is apparently dangerous to travel to those countries. Anything goes in that region."
"We understand the frustration of the Balfour family," says Reynald Doiron, Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesman in Ottawa. "Our duty is to make sure that the legal procedure is proper, that the conditions of his imprisonment are appropriate in order to maintain his physical and emotional well-being - and we are doing that. We cannot say if he is guilty or not. The court will decide on his guilt or innocence. We cannot intervene in the judicial process.