BEIRUT: The sun beat down oppressively on Martyrs Square on Monday, bathing in blinding light a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and to launch the first national memorial for its victims. The event was organized by Memory for the Future, a civil peace association that says it is motivated by the idea that "the past remains present" as a source of division in Lebanese society. The association works toward a "policy of sound memory" in order to reconcile the Lebanese with their history, so that they can begin looking together in solidarity toward a national future.
During the ceremony, which was attended by Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, the organization unveiled a massive sign marking the spot where the memorial would eventually stand. It read: "This war caused more than 200,000 dead, 17,000 missing, and 400,000 wounded. Remember." One minute of silence was observed at midday to honor those victims, a symbolic act that Memory for the Future hopes to see become an annual tradition, along with the designation of April 13 as an official "Remembrance Day" on the national calendar.
Although the association is the first to have the Lebanese government approve a war memorial project, it is one of several organizations advocating real closure to Lebanon's bloody Civil War days. "Each confession and community has mourned alone, but there has been no collective mourning," Alfred Tarazi said. He is one of five artists known as the Feel Collective who have been working on a national memorial project for the last three years. They hope to erect, even if only temporarily, some 200,000 steel poles in Martyrs Square to commemorate those who died or disappeared during the war.
Like the monument planned by Memory for the Future, The Feel Collective project was, in essence, "about raising national awareness" about the Civil War in the hope that its horrors would never again be repeated.
The need for such a memorial was especially urgent today as current events in Lebanon hinted at the possibility of renewed civil violence, Tarazi said. "It's something that needs to be addressed - especially for the young generation of Lebanese who didn't live through the war and all the kidnappings. It's important they know about what the war caused, because they'll be the first ones to take up arms" in the event of a new conflict, he said.
Tarazi's words were echoed by several others attending the ceremony, including Baroud. Melhem Khalaf, co-founder of peace-advocating organization Offre-Joie, similarly told onlookers that Lebanon's "future is in our children ... our unity will be our salvation." The organization also invited hundreds of Lebanese children of all ages and origins to watch the ceremony.
Almost two decades after the war's end, there has been little effort by the Lebanese government to address its recent history. "There is a refusal in Lebanon to deal with the past under the pretext that if you open the files of the past, it will incite new violence. But I believe it is obvious that not dealing with the past has not prevented new violence from happening," said Monika Borgmann of the UMAM Documentation and Research organization, which strives to create debate on national memory through the building of a war archive and related public events. The organization will host a two-day conference later this month to discuss the issue of reparations and restorative justice to victims of the war.
Many activists say that the Lebanese authorities have in fact actively hindered reconciliation efforts. After the 1989 Taif Accord ended the war, the government declared an amnesty law for all crimes perpetrated before March 1991. Two subsequent amnesty laws were also passed. Consequently, the fate of the disappeared has been left unsolved and most perpetrators of violence have not been brought to justice.
"The politicians are not helping us with this issue because they were involved," said Michel Aoun (no relation to the Free Patriotic Movement leader), whose father Najji disappeared in 1985, when he was just three years old. "One politician I spoke to about my father told me, 'Go and pray for your father and forget him - this is what happens in war.' Then this politician lost his son in an assassination and now he's fighting for justice," Aoun said.
Aoun sees only one way to give closure to the families of the missing. "The politicians have to stand up and tell the truth. They have to say honestly who they sent to Syria and who they killed here."
The families would be able to forgive those behind the enforced disappearances of their relatives, he believed. "All these mothers want is to finish with this, but they need to know the truth about what happened."
Assaad Chaftari, a former member of the Christian militia group the Lebanese Forces, is one of few people to have come forward about his role in Lebanon's tumultuous civil conflict. He said he was motivated by personal, not political, reasons to go public about his actions, but some have nevertheless labeled him a traitor. "I did some very wrong things and I don't want my children to make the same mistakes that I made," Chaftari told The Daily Star.
In addition to a truth commission, Chaftari said Lebanon was in dire need of "a government project to deal with the past, to archive it, document it, and to prevent future conflict." The memorial planned by Memory for the Future was part of this process, he said, as "people would remember it is supposed to unite us."
Memory for the Future has not yet decided on a design for it's landmark memorial, but will launch a competition among Lebanese designers in the hope that the contest will jumpstart the process of awakening public consciousness and inspiring constructive dialogue about the Civil War.
As Maha Yahya, a founding member of the organization, said: "It is not so much to unify our memory as it is to open a discussion about that memory, and to honor the victims to mark a progression toward setting the foundation of a sustainable peace."
Positioned slightly behind the ceremonial stage, evidence of another civil society initiative drew the audience's attention. A large map dotted with the identity papers of Lebanese citizens who decided to remove their sect from their national identity card stretched up toward the Martyrs monument. Organized by Students of the Democratic Left Movement, the message of the map was to underline the need for removing sectarian affiliation from the realms of politics and work, and to show support for the formation of a civil society and state.
"Sectarianism has led to many disastrous things, among them the civil war," said movement member Rana Khoury. "We also wanted to publicize that the only thing people need to do to take their sect off of their identity card is to fill out an application, or to write on a piece of paper 'I want to remove my sectarian affiliation from my identity card,' sign it, and submit it to their local municipality office," she added.
In a speech, Memory for the Future president Amal Makarem called on all Lebanese to recognize their commitment to their country not only in name, but in action. She stressed that "we always say Lebanon first, but I say Lebanon second, after the democratic values that it was founded upon."
In a related commemoration of the Lebanese Civil War anniversary on Monday, Offre-Joie broadcast a live television program about "heroes of peace in times of war" from the steps of Beirut's National Museum. During the program, religious and civil society leaders discussed ways to prevent future conflict.