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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Lebanese war series - Day #5


The Lebanese have spent the past 15 years in a political coma, refusing to acknowledge their violent past lest the ghosts arise from their mass graves and return to stir the embers of sectarianism and mutual suffering. "Whatever you do, don't mention the war" had a special place in a country whose people stubbornly refused to learn the lessons of their fratricidal slaughter.

For almost 10 years, my own book on the civil war was banned by Lebanon's censors. Even Hariri himself told me he was powerless to put it back into the shops - ironically, it was a pro-Syrian security official whose resignation the Lebanese opposition is now demanding who lifted the ban last year - and none of Lebanon's television stations would touch the war. It remained the unspoken cancer in Lebanese society, the malaise which all feared might return to poison their lives.

There clearly was a need to understand how the conflict destroyed the old Lebanon. When al-Jazeera broadcast from Qatar a 12-part documentary about the war, the seaside Corniche outside my home in Beirut would empty of strollers every Thursday night; restaurants would close their doors. Everyone wanted to watch their own torment. So, I suppose, did I.


The original 13 April - in 1975 - marked the day when Phalangist gunmen ambushed a busload of Palestinians in Beirut. The bus still exists, the bullet holes still punctured through its rusting skin, but it will be left to rot in the field outside Nabatea where it lies to this day. The only bullet holes visible to the crowds next week will be the ones deliberately preserved in the statue of Lebanon's 1915 independence leaders, who were hanged in Martyrs Square, where a "garden of forgiveness" connects a church and a mosque and where Hariri's body now rests, along with his murdered bodyguards. The square itself was the front line for the entire war. Who knows how many ghosts still haunt its hundreds of square metres?

Not far to the east is the infamous "Ring" highway where Muslim and Christian gunmen stopped all traffic in 1975 and walked down the rows of stalled cars with knives, calmly slitting the throats of families of the wrong religion. Eight Christians had been found murdered outside the electricity headquarters and Bashir Gemayel directed that 80 Muslims must pay with their lives. The militias kept on multiplying the figures. When you are in a war, you feel it will never end. I felt like that, gradually coming to believe - like the Lebanese - that war was somehow a natural state of affairs.


That the conflict was really between Christian Maronites and the rest somehow disappeared from the narrative. It was everyone else's fault. Not the Lebanese. Never the Lebanese. For years, they called the war hawadess, the "events". The conflict was then called the "War of the Other" - of the foreigners, not of the Lebanese who were actually doing the killing.

A taxi driver who gave me a lift several years ago turned to me as we were driving through the streets and said: "Mr Robert, you are very lucky." And he meant that I - like him - had survived the war. I remember the last day. The Syrians had bombed General Michel Aoun out of his palace at Baabda - in those days, the Americans were keen on Syrian domination of Lebanon because they wanted the soldiers of Damascus to face off Saddam's army of occupation in Kuwait - and I was walking behind tanks towards the Christian hills.

Shells came crashing down around us and my companion shouted that we were going to die. And I shouted back to her that we mustn't die, that this was the last day of the war, that it would really now end. And when we got to Baabda, there were corpses and many people lying with terrible wounds, many in tears. And I remember how we, too, broke down and cried with the immense relief of living through the day and knowing that we would live tomorrow and the day after that and next week and next year.


And so I think the Lebanese are right to confront their demons next week. Let them celebrate. To hell with the ghosts.

Robert Fisk, The Independent, April 9, 2005

i hope fisk is right that the Lebanese will not tolerate another civil war but sectarianism is still prevalent.
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