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Decades on, Lebanon still struggles to heal war wounds

File - Christian Lebanese young women, members of Kataeb Phalangist party show their skill in handling arms while they train in a village between Christian-controlled eastern port of Jounieh and the Christian village of Zahle in the west Lebanon. (AFP PHOTO/ERICH STERING)

BEIRUT: Almost 40 years after the eruption of the country’s Civil War, many Lebanese are still haunted by the atrocities that were committed during the intense rounds of fighting.

According to experts and civil society members, there is still a lingering danger that a large number of the 15-year-long war’s participants have not learned from their mistakes.Yet despite this, there is a sense of optimism about not only the prevailing anti-war sentiment, but also the younger generation’s ability to steer clear of their elder’s mistakes.

After minor altercations over the decades following independence, Lebanon’s Civil War erupted on April 13, 1975, when Christian gunmen killed 27 Palestinians on a bus in Beirut’s Ain al-Rummaneh suburb. It dragged on until 1990 and killed at least 150,000 people.

“The vast majority of Lebanese people recognize the horrors that the Civil War inflicted, and vivid memories still live with them,” said Imad Salamey, associate professor of political studies at the Lebanese American University.

“Many are still missing, injured and have horrible experiences of being evicted. This is a constant reminder and it prevents people from slipping into Civil War, at least on a public level,” he added.

Although the political elite are extremely aware of the dangers of another conflict, Salamey said, “there cannot be a 100 percent guarantee, especially where external factors are concerned.”

For Assaad Chaftari, an ex-fighter with the Lebanese Forces and a peace activist who often speaks against war, many major factors have not changed since the Civil War began, such as the division between communities – even if organizations go by different names now – racism, the clan spirit and the proliferation of weapons.

“Our critical thinking is inactive, we are not using it,” Chaftari said, adding that individuals tended to listen to one political opinion and immediately assume that all others were wrong.

“Our racist and political revolutions are not healthy,” he added. “Politicians forget about their divisions when they go to their sessions and embrace each other, but their partisans don’t necessarily follow this.”

Lama El Awad, program officer at the Lebanese Center for Civic Education, agreed that sectarianism was still very much existent in the country, perhaps even more than before.

The LCCE this week screened a 23-minute documentary on the Lebanese Civil War with The Forum Civil Peace Service Lebanon program, in addition to releasing a training manual aimed at encouraging discussion about the 15-year conflict, its consequences and how to acquire the skills to deal with the collective memory of war.

“In terms of the country’s situation, of course there is always potential for a civil war [to erupt], because of the vertical divisions between the political parties, and the people are still following the politicians and heeding their every call,” Awad said.

Wadad Halwani, the head of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, said if the Lebanese did not reconcile with the past, they would not be able to live a stable present or build a safer, more prosperous future.

The committee was formed in 1982 by a group of families whose relatives were kidnapped or forcibly disappeared during the Civil War. Halwani’s husband Adnan was one of those kidnapped. Friday witnessed the ninth anniversary of the tent sit-in outside the Gibran Khalil Gibran Garden in Beirut calling for the truth about the whereabouts and conditions of Lebanese detained in Syrian prisons.

“If we don’t learn from our mistakes, they can be repeated in the future,” Change and Reform Bloc MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who was at the sit-in Friday, told The Daily Star.

“[The issue of the kidnapped and disappeared] is a window on the past, and I think that we did not handle the past properly, and it is this issue that can help us redeem ourselves,” he stated.

For Halwani, the war continues to make its presence known every day in Lebanon, and not simply in the form of security breaches, bombs, gunfights and cars rigged with explosives.

“There is also the inflammatory rhetoric that is riling up the people,” Halwani said. “This inflammatory rhetoric is unfortunately affecting many smart minds and souls.”

The younger generation’s involvement in the fighting in neighboring Syria was also dangerous, as it could spark an internal conflict, experts agreed.

The frightening thing, Salamey said, were those men coming back to Lebanon with the idea that sectarian-driven conflict is necessary for the country.

Chaftari echoed Salamey’s concerns, saying that these young fighters were in an environment of violence, killing and death.

“A lot of them return, and there is a fear that they will bring back the mentality of the battlefield to their neighborhoods and towns,” he said.

But regardless of all these issues, there remains an air of optimism in the country.

“I think at least the Lebanese political system learned a lot from the war days, and that’s why there is a determination not to go back to the war,” said Abdallah Bou Habib, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United States.

“Despite the differences, despite the outside pressures, in the end they [politicians] want to get together.”

According to Bou Habib, also director of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon – a Beirut-based think tank, the country has been continuously teetering on the brink ever since the war ended, but has always managed to narrowly avoid another full-blown conflict.

From political assassinations, the 2006 war with Israel, clashes between supporters of Hezbollah and the Future Movement in 2008, and now the conflict in Syria, many events have shaken the country’s stability since 1990.

“As of now, we have been able to handle the regional issues well,” Salamey said. “We were able to form a government, manage serious security breaches and stabilize the security situation.”

For the moment, the general sentiment remains strongly against another civil war, and there have been no real international forces pushing for confrontation in Lebanon, he said.

He was also relatively optimistic about the emerging generation.

“It is much more aware due to intensive and massive experience with the media through social media,” he said. “They [young men] are very capable of simulating experiences the older generation could not. There is a transcendence [of] memory and experiences.”

What is needed is more transparency and less ambiguity when it comes to the reasons and consequences associated with the Civil War, experts agreed.

Unless the horrors are recognized, there is always the possibility of repeating the same mistake.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 12, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

Almost 40 years after the eruption of the country's Civil War, many Lebanese are still haunted by the atrocities that were committed during the intense rounds of fighting.

The LCCE this week screened a 23-minute documentary on the Lebanese Civil War with The Forum Civil Peace Service Lebanon program, in addition to releasing a training manual aimed at encouraging discussion about the 15-year conflict, its consequences and how to acquire the skills to deal with the collective memory of war.

The younger generation's involvement in the fighting in neighboring Syria was also dangerous, as it could spark an internal conflict, experts agreed.

From political assassinations, the 2006 war with Israel, clashes between supporters of Hezbollah and the Future Movement in 2008, and now the conflict in Syria, many events have shaken the country's stability since 1990 .

For the moment, the general sentiment remains strongly against another civil war, and there have been no real international forces pushing for confrontation in Lebanon, he said.


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