I must have missed something – or else the world has gone mad. More specifically Lebanon has gone mad. The same faces are back. Older, greyer and more wrinkled. But definitely the same ones who haunted us for 16 years of war, ordered the death of thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and destroyed the country.
Once the civil war ended in 1991, we didn’t really think about the militia leaders any more. We had other things to do: construction tycoon-turned-politician, Rafic Hariri, was rebuilding the country and pushing us all into creating a new Lebanon. The country had come alive again and we buried the past.
In early May, a week after the Syrians left, ending their 29-year occupation, Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s most prominent anti-Syrian politician, returned from 14 years’ exile in France. His first public utterance on landing at Beirut International Airport was to tell the throngs of journalists recording his arrival to ‘shut up’. Not a promising start. There are calls for the release of Samir Geagea, who has been in prison since 1994. He’s the only militia leader to serve several life sentences for crimes committed during the war. His Lebanese Forces militia and Aoun’s faction of the Lebanese Army fought each other ferociously in 1990.
Other former militia leaders are already in prominent positions. Nabih Berri, for example, the head of Amal, one of the two main movements representing the Shi’a community, is currently the parliamentary speaker. Walid Jumblatt, meanwhile, is still chief of the Druze community and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, which fielded the largest militia during the war.
Most of the above fought each other at some point during the war. By its end an estimated 120,000 Lebanese were dead, 17,000 missing and hundreds of thousands displaced. The economy was devastated and the infrastructure in ruins. And now some of those responsible are back and running for election.
‘I am having déjà vu,’ said my friend, Samia. I think all the Lebanese are. ‘So the same ones who started the war are now the ones to lead the country?’
An American friend pointed out to me that this is democracy. I suppose it is.
‘It’s like somebody took out a game that we shelved a long time ago and rolled the dice,’ said another friend. ‘The game is about to begin again.’
We comfort ourselves by telling each other that they will stick to a war of words. Still, we keep a nervous eye on developments.
Former enemies are uniting, former friends splitting, all for the sake of forging alliances to ensure they are re-elected at the polls being held as I write in June. It’s rather odd to vote for running mates who only a few years ago were intent on killing each other.
Aoun, for one, started making electoral alliances with pro-Syrian politicians and cozying up to Emile Lahoud, the ultra pro-Syrian President. Yet the Christians, who were at the forefront of opposition to the Syrian presence, love Aoun. They say he is a man of the people and they have taken to heart his stated goal of fighting corruption. Aoun swept the Christian heartland in the 12 June round of elections, defeating several moderate Christians who had been quietly opposing Syrian hegemony in the Lebanese Parliament during the 1990s when Aoun was in exile in a chateau outside Paris.
The few new faces are sons of the old faces. So we have Saad Hariri, son of Rafic Hariri, who has risen from obscurity (although he ran the Hariri financial empire for 11 years) to become a leading contender for the premiership. Then there is Suleiman Frangieh, whose father Tony was murdered by Samir Geagea in 1978 and whose grandfather, also Suleiman, was President of Lebanon at the beginning of the civil war.
Each has his own supporters. For weeks I watched people emerge from their homes and join rallies, waving flags of particular parties and chanting slogans. Interested, I approached one of the groups. The eldest couldn’t have been more than 18. Some were 13 or 14 years of age – not even born when the war ended. ‘But you don’t even know who these people are or what they did,’ I blurted out.
They looked at me quizzically. They repeated their well-memorized slogans to me – the same ones their parents had chanted more than 20 years ago. And the same ones I heard growing up amid the sounds of war.