Lebanese civil war still raging in the hearts and minds of the people

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A woman cries in front of a protest banner that reads "No reconciliation without accountability" in regards to the amnesty delivered to the perpetrators of the Lebanese civil war. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The civil war was not a fleeting moment in the lives of the Lebanese people. Whether they have lived it or not, its repercussions continue to impact every aspect of their existence. It remains a major issue and is always mentioned when describing the events taking place today. In this context, the International Center for Transitional Justice conducted a study titled, “How People Talk About the Lebanon Wars.”

The Lebanese civil war did not end in 1990. Although the general amnesty and the Taif Accord may have put an end to the armed conflict between leaders, the door remained opened to war on the societal level amid the lack of a serious dialogue that established who was responsible, and the lack of a clear mechanism for transitional justice that would correct the wrongdoings. The leaders – the war criminals – are afraid of the dissemination of information, especially when it correlates with justice since this knowledge can then become criminal evidence.

On Monday, October 20, the International Center for Transitional Justice, in coordination with the European Union and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, published a study titled, “How People Talk About the Lebanon Wars: A Study of the Perceptions and Expectations of Residents in Greater Beirut” along with a series of recommendations titled, “Confronting the Legacy of the Past: An Agenda for Change.”

Between 1975 and 1990, over 700,000 people in Lebanon were displaced and many massacres were committed by the various conflicting militias, including the Karantina massacre of 1976, the Christian massacre in Damour, and the Tel al-Zaatar massacre.

The civil war had a dramatic impact on the Lebanese population. According to available statistics, about 2.7 percent of the Lebanese population was killed during the fighting, 4 percent were injured, and about a third of the population was displaced.

Researchers, professors and all those studying the war as a science seek figures and statistics, they search for stories to document the violations committed against conventional laws. But very few have asked how regular people talk about the war, how those who have lived the tragedy recount their everyday struggles, and how the war is still raging in the hearts of the parents of the forcibly disappeared, 20 years after the fighting ended.

Also, very few have listened to the generation born during the war, and up until today, we still do not want the generation born after it to learn what happened.

These people speak in a different manner; they do not resort to figures, eloquent language or carefully selected words. For example, Ahmed from Chiyah talked about the hardship of displacement, saying, “Displacement was the most difficult experience. Our house was right at the frontline on the old Saida road. We couldn’t live there for more than 15 years. The feeling that you can’t go back to your own house.”

Maha, an elderly Palestinian woman from Burj al-Barajneh Camp recounts, “The war of the camps hurt us the most, even more than the Sabra and Chatila massacre. They did not show any mercy to any child, woman, or man, they even burnt down the trees.”

For her part, Rose, an Ashrafieh native said, “The war between the Lebanese Forces and the Lebanese army was the worst. Brothers killed each other!” Meanwhile, Nader from Hamra said, “You are a man with your family, and then they bring you down from the car and they humiliate you, someone hurts your father or mother, you will carry this with you forever.”

People’s memories work in different ways, they reduce the war to individual events that took place on the familial level or within their surrounding without going any deeper. This memory will continue to be passed throughout generations as it is, regardless of its integrity, until the day comes when they will have to face the war’s legacy and everything becomes clearer.

The study launched yesterday documents how people from all segments of Lebanese society speak of issues related to the truth, memory, justice, accountability, reconciliation, and their expectations about the best way to deal with the legacy of political violence.

Although Lebanon has a relatively small population, the country is plagued by many disputes and sectarian and demographic conflicts.

“The war did not end yet, but the country entered a new phase of the conflict,” participants in the research agreed. In the past few years, violence escalated not only on the physical and security levels, but also within the economic and social spheres, suggesting that Lebanon is far from being in a real transitional period that would take the country from political violence to a lasting peace.

State initiatives have so far adopted a widespread amnesia induced policy, and reconciliation efforts have not included people from outside the political elite. The study also reveals some disparities among participants which vary according to generation, gender, and the amount of violence they were subjected to.

Interestingly, “people born after 1990 were most supportive of an unfettered large-scale truth-telling process,” however, older participants were worried about the large-scale processes that would deepen sectarian divisions.

The prevailing idea of justice was not restricted to criminal accountability, but also focused on equality before the law. The older participants called to hold political leaders exclusively accountable, while the younger generation advocated for broad accountability measures that target both leaders and combatants.

According to the report, “Victims of direct violence rejected outright the possibility of repairing and healing their losses; indirect victims instead advocated for an intergenerational approach to social reconciliation.” However, they all agreed about a lack of confidence in the country’s political leadership and the government mechanisms involved in consolidating transitional justice.

In virtue of the 1991 general amnesty, the leaders forgave each other for the crimes and massacres they committed, and they reconciled, but “the people” did not forgive nor did they reconcile. Those were the ones who bore the losses, who lost loved ones, property, and their future, while the leaders lost nothing; on the contrary, they further tightened their grip on power.

People remained trapped in the time of war because transitional justice did not run its course. No one asked the victims what they wanted and no one gave an accurate portrayal of the events.

The ICTJ listed a number of recommendations, mainly calling to solve the issue of the missing and forcibly disappeared persons by forming an independent commission that would conduct inclusive investigations and meet the needs of the victims of political violence.

On the legal level, it called to amend paragraph 9 of Article 53 in the constitution by adding a sentence stipulating that genocides, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are not covered by amnesty. The ICTJ also called to activate the constitutional council, establish a higher court to prosecute presidents and ministers, insure equality before the law, and to approve the Rome Statute.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Shias are the majority of the Lebanese population. By the pseudo-legal Taif Accord, all Muslims together in the population may only have fifty percent of Parliament.
The essay says the worst fighting was between a Christian militia and the state forces. Has anything changed?
In particular, are people afraid to tell their stories because they know that the Christian minority has the backing of the "great powers" and so cannot be touched, even noticed, in its elite privileges?
And if you suppose that the king, so-called, of Saudi Arabia secures the rights of the Lebanese Sunni minority with his money, I suggest that the evidence rather supports the claim that this "king" is on the side of the Christian minority and its privileges.
"Privilege" means, literally, "private law". There is no law in Lebanon. If you want law, work for justice.

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