I had envisaged laying down flowers on their graves, saying a small prayer or even introducing myself. But nothing had prepared me for this scene. Instead of the gravestones with loving inscriptions of my grandparents’ names, I stared at skulls and bones strewn around the small cemetery. The marble tombs had been smashed open and the bones and skulls lay scattered carelessly around the overgrown graveyard.
I wasn’t sure which skulls belonged to my grandparents and which to other relatives. It was an ugly scene and one which told the story of the hatred which engulfed these mountain villages during the Lebanese civil war.
I was still a child but I remember well my parents talking about the War of the Mountains. I remember hearing the deafening booms of rockets and artillery shells going over our heads from one village to another whenever we approached the mountains. They were times no child could ever forget. I remember hearing of relatives who were killed in the War of the Mountains. And I distinctly remember my father’s warnings to the family that we should stay away from the mountain villages for the time being.
As Christians, we were no longer welcome. Neighbours and friends had turned against each other. For centuries, Christians and Druze (an offshoot of Islam) had coexisted in the mountains. True, there had been massacres two centuries ago when Lebanon was a hotbed of European political interests, but life had since settled peacefully around the two communities.
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and led the way for its Christian ally militia, the Phalangists, to enter the mountains. One former militiaman later told me: ‘We went to help the Christians in the mountains, but they were not grateful and treated us badly.’
Small wonder. It was this ‘help’ that led to fierce battles in the mountains. Surrounded by Israeli troops, villagers found themselves fighting off the Phalangists. Many atrocities were committed by the Christian militia on Druze villagers. In turn, the Druze fought back and vented their anger on Christian villagers. Suddenly neighbour turned against neighbour. Some Christian villagers joined the Phalangists. To make a long story short, the Phalangists lost and Christian villagers were forced to flee from most of the mountain villages.
That’s how it seems to be in a war. If a Muslim militia attacks you, you begin to hate all Muslims. If a Christian attacks you, then you hate all Christians. Cool heads don’t prevail. Revenge and anger are all one sees.
And it’s obviously all that could be seen by the people who desecrated my grandparents’ grave. Since the war ended in 1991, formal reconciliation – overseen by the country’s president – has taken place in some of the villages and Christians have been allowed to move back.
But this is not the case in my village. The hatred still runs too deep.
My grandparents loved their village. I never met them but I have always heard a lot about them. Countless stories have been told by my older cousins about the pre-war visits to my grandparents’ house in the mountains. My grandmother, Rose, was a good cook and delicious food was always available. My grandfather, Salim, ran a hotel in Jerusalem, Palestine, but returned to his village after Israel was created. They were hard-working village people. Both died before I was born. And according to my cousins, I missed out on meeting two wonderful people.
‘We will never forgive what the Christians did to us, never,’ said one angry shopkeeper as I stopped to buy some refreshment. ‘We don’t want them back.’
Later I met some distant relatives of mine. When prompted to relate the past, their answer was immediate. ‘The Druze attacked us too,’ said one. ‘Let me tell you how.’
But I didn’t want to hear any more. It didn’t really matter. As far as I could see, both groups had committed atrocities. It was time to start anew.
A few weeks later, I met a young Druze man who is from my village of Abey. We have since become good friends. The past didn’t matter to us. He promised that the day will come when I will build a home in Abey and we will become neighbours. Once our elders are gone, he said. I think about my family’s cemetery sometimes. I know I should attempt to collect the skeletons and rebury them with new gravestones. But at the moment the task is too daunting for me.
I haven’t told my father about his parents’ desecrated graves. But somehow I think he knows.