issue 258 - August 1994
Selling the peace
The gunmen may have gone, but all is not yet well.
Nikki van der Gaag revisits a legendary scene of destruction.
The plane circles the airport waiting for permission to land. As we finally come in, wingtips almost touching the roofs of the houses beneath us, I feel a sudden lurch of fear. I’ve read in the newspapers that there have been two mortar-bomb attacks on the airport in the last few days. No-one has been killed or even injured but I am relieved when we land safely at Heathrow Airport, London in April 1994.
Ten years ago I experienced the same fear while flying in the other direction: to Beirut. The images of Beirut that I had in my mind were those projected by the mainstream media: of bullet-riddled buildings and weeping women, of hostages and kidnapping, of bullets and bombs. I already knew that this was not the whole story. What I didn’t know was how much of this I would experience. We hear of countries under occupation, of towns under siege, of cities divided by war. What I learnt in Lebanon affected my view of Sarajevo, of Rwanda, of Somaliland and also of wars in the past; from my own father’s stories of hiding in a secret cupboard in Holland during the Second World War, to the horrors of Pol Pot in Cambodia.
But it is now 1994 and I am returning to a Lebanon where, by all accounts, there is peace. There has been little news; peace is not as newsworthy as war. What I have heard from friends makes me hope that things have improved but fear that they have not. I peer out of the window of the plane. Suddenly the mountains come into view, appearing out of the clouds as if by magic, glowing snow-white in the bright sunshine. Below them lies Beirut, compact on the coastline. But in between is a dark pall, as if the same magician who caused the mountain to appear has now cast an evil spell over the city.
The plane dives into the dark cloud, and the shapes of buildings emerge, hazy at first but then quite distinct. Even at this distance I can see many new high-rise buildings amid the old familiar ones.
‘The main difference between war and the end of war,’ says a friend as we take a taxi through the streets of downtown Hamra, ‘is that there is less rubbish in the streets.’
I note a spot in the centre of Beirut where in 1985 I had ducked down as a group of young men in a truck suddenly began to fire off their automatic rifles, spraying bullets into the air and at anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way.
For the 90 per cent of Lebanese people not involved in the war, daily life then was hazardous, unpredictable and frightening.
So what has changed? The fighting has stopped. There are also fewer men with guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other armoury. The militias have been largely disarmed and disbanded. The ‘Green Line’ dividing the city has been dismantled. New and expensive private buildings are going up. But much is still the same.
Before the war started in 1975, Lebanon was a place where the moneyed and the leisured could ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon, a paradise for those who put their faith in market forces and their money in banks and real estate. Margaret Thatcher would have loved it.
But there were no bus services. At least half of the education system had been privatized. Social services were non-existent. Those who might otherwise have expected to depend on the State – the poor and the marginalized – had to fall back on their own resources. Beirut was no paradise for those with no money.
Theodor Hanf, who has written a complex study of Lebanon, compared it to France: ‘De Gaulle found a country with 360 types of cheese difficult to govern – but what of a country with as many varieties of olive as there are villages?’1
During the sixteenth century, in Ottoman times, a person would describe themselves as belonging first to the Ottoman state, then to the area in which they lived and finally to their religion. Since the war began, religious – or ‘confessional’ – allegiance has become increasingly important.
The First Republic, set up in 1943, built in a system of power-sharing between the Lebanese. Government posts were divided between representatives of the main ‘confessions’. So the President was always a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and so on. The largest confession was to have the greater number of posts. This was fine in theory, but what it meant in practice was that confessionalism became institutionalized. The domination of the Christians was enshrined in the National Pact – an unwritten agreement on power-sharing. This led to much bitterness, particularly on the part of the marginalized but fast-growing numbers of Shi’a Muslims.
The Christians in Lebanon are mainly Maronites, an offshoot of the Catholic Church. They have lived in Lebanon since the fifth century and are dominant in north of the country and the East side of Beirut. Some wanted their own Christian statelet if their problems in a multi-confessional state could not be resolved. This went hand-in-hand with more sinister political leanings – Christian President Pierre Gemayel had visited Germany in the 1930s and set up his own militia whose organization – though not its ideology – was modelled on Hitler’s ‘brownshirts’. There was tension between the Christians and the Palestinians, who had lived in Lebanon since 1948 when they had been forced to leave Palestine on the creation of the State of Israel. They had become a powerful force, influential in the south of the country and West Beirut.
In 1975 this all came to a head when shots were fired into the congregation where Gemayel was worshipping, killing several people, including his bodyguard. The car was identified as belonging to the Democratic Front, a Palestinian group. A few hours later a bus carrying Palestinian civilians passed through the same area and jumpy Christian militiaman opened fire, killing 27 Palestinians and injuring many more.
This signalled the start of heavy fighting between the Christians and the Palestinians, who were later supported by an alliance of the Lebanese Left.
Early versions of ‘ethnic cleansing’ were perpetrated by all groups during the war. In the first years of the conflict, the Palestinian camps of Karantina and Tel-al-Zaater were razed to the ground and their inhabitants massacred by the right-wing Christian militias. The Palestinians responded by ‘cleansing’ the Christian town of Damour. No group was innocent of the crimes that were committed.
What makes a man join a militia? Economic security, protection, power – upward mobility and status, all have their part to play. Many of the militiamen were fighting for these rather than for a cause, as the questions asked of militiamen fighting on the Green Line in 1985 showed: ‘Who is the President of Lebanon?’ ‘Don’t know,’, most had replied. ‘What does your militia, your party, stand for?’, ‘Don’t know,’ ‘Why are you fighting?’ ‘Don’t know.’
The novelist and writer Jean Makdisi had her own questions to ask of the killings in Beirut: ‘When the Karantina massacre took place, rumours were rife that the young men who had committed it were high on drugs. Perhaps they were. The point is, we couldn’t believe such cruelty to be possible... Such an explanation is harder to believe today. Too many people have done too many unspeakable things. I want to know whether I can escape the apparently inescapable conclusion that I could do it. It is when I look at my own face in the mirror that I am most frightened. Is mine the face of one of the damned?’2
Ordinary people joined the militias and did terrible things to each other. The militias of the different confessional groups had considerable power. They ruled supreme in their fiefdoms. They ran the ports – and benefited from their substantial income. They were in charge of water, electricity, roads and even schools. People had no option but to rely on whoever ran things in their neighbourhood. As a result they became increasingly cut off from anyone in a region controlled by a different group.
I remember having to brave 16 different checkpoints along the 40 miles of coast road from Sidon to Beirut. And I will never forget travelling with a friend – who happened to be a nun – and hearing her tell a different story to each group of militiamen. It was a good thing the people at each checkpoint were mortal enemies and couldn’t verify our stories. We were aid workers, teachers, clerics – whatever would get us through. ‘But isn’t telling lies a sin?’ I asked her. ‘So is getting deliberately shot,’ she replied grimly.
Once the shooting had started, it was difficult to stop. Too many people had an interest in ensuring that it continued. Internally, the leaders of the different groups each had their own agenda. Externally, the Israelis wanted to ‘secure’ their northern border and to fight the Palestinians, the Syrians to consolidate their power in the region and to stop Israeli encroachment, the US to maintain its strategic importance in the area, the French to support the Christians, the Iranians to back the Shi’a Muslims...
The most difficult time for Beirutis was during the Israeli siege in 1982. The Israelis had invaded Lebanon for the second time with the aim of ousting the Palestinian military presence. Short of food and water, living in basements, Beirutis held out for three months. For me, its full horror is encapsulated in Robert Fisk’s interview with Dr Amal Shamaa at the Barbir hospital in Beirut. Shamaa describes two five-day-old babies who had just been phosphorous-bombed: ‘I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour later, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours.’3 The Israeli invasion left 12,000 Lebanese and Palestinians dead, 40,000 wounded, 300,000 homeless, and 100,000 without shelter. Palestinian fighters were evacuated from Beirut; the Israelis still occupy the south of Lebanon. They launched a massive military incursion as recently as July 1993, and have attacked 16 times already this year.
In 1989, the Taif agreement, signed by members of the Lebanese multi-confessional Parliament, heralded the peace. ‘People have had enough of war,’ was the refrain I heard most frequently. The Madrid Agreement between Israel and the PLO also meant that it was in no-one’s interest for the war to continue. The end of the Cold War had changed old alliances. The election of a well-known billionaire, Rafic Hariri, as Prime Minister in 1992 was greeted by many with relief. Perhaps the war had finally ended.
The dismantling of the Green Line which had split Beirut in two brought many curious visitors from both sides. Christians from the East visited the West and Muslims from the West ventured into the East. For younger people it was the first time they had seen the other side. Only then was the extent of the damage revealed and everyone began to realize just how difficult the road to real peace would be. As Jean Makdisi asked: ‘We survived the war, but can we survive the peace?’ 2
Peace in Lebanon today is a peace with provisos: peace with the south still occupied by Israel, the rest effectively occupied by Syria; peace with continued regular incursions by Israel and the possible permanent dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have never known any other home but Lebanon.
And for many people, peace has come hand-in-hand with poverty.
Individual enterprise at the expense of collective action is the key to the new Beirut – in the same way as it was to the old one. Hariri’s Government has prioritized the physical reconstruction of the country. But the main emphasis has been on mega-projects which will enhance the prestige of Beirut and re-establish its importance as a trading city: the reconstruction of the city centre, the rebuilding of the Sports Stadium, the creation of an enormous conference centre. But Hariri’s promises about the things that matter most to the people of Beirut – reliable electricity within a year, a functioning telephone system, rebuilt schools – have not been fulfilled. They have melted like the snow on the mountains above Beirut. Hariri’s popularity in a recent poll dived to seven per cent.
Can you rebuild a country and give it a sense of communal identity by individual enterprise alone?
This is what the Government seems to be trying to do. Collectivism of any kind is being attacked. The democratic freedoms that Beirutis hold dear and which they feel mark them out are under threat. In the last few months the once-powerful unions have been split, the media muzzled, the death penalty re-introduced. In addition, people are concerned about the amount of power still wielded by the Syrians.
The rumours that bubble through the city have it that half the Government is being paid an extra salary by Hariri, effectively stifling any opposition. Raging inflation and rising unemployment have hit everyone except the very rich. The average monthly wage has been raised to 200,000 Lebanese pounds, which sounds a lot but works out at $120. As the electricity supply in Beirut goes off and on at roughly six-hour intervals, those who cannot afford the private generators that pollute the atmosphere use batteries or candles. For people who live in flats this means countless climbs up dark staircases because the elevators don’t work. A friend counted once: 3,000 stairs a day.
The divide between rich and poor is increasing. Education and health are either private and affordable only for the wealthy, or public and in a parlous state financially. The confessional voluntary agencies like Hizbollah, the ‘Party of God’, are stepping in to provide basic services. Other voluntary agencies face increasing demand while the financial tap is being turned off because foreign funding agencies think everything is now OK.
As I left the problems of peaceful Beirut behind me – and wondered about the mortar bombs at London Airport – I reflected on the fact that after so much suffering, peace has not yet fulfilled its promise. A student I met in a school in the suburbs of Beirut put it this way: ‘Families who have lost someone in the war – and there are many of us – will take more than one generation to forget. The war has created hatred between people.’
But what will pull the country through is the spirit of its people and their will to engage with the future. A survey of economically-active people during the 1980s found that 86 per cent believed that ‘co-existence between the communities is still possible’. The Taif Agreement which ended the war set the blueprint once again for a multi-confessional state. For this to be a reality, the Government has to have an agenda for reconciliation as well as reconstruction. It must have a commitment to invest in education and health as well as roads and airports. Reconstructing a city and a country is not just about bricks and mortar. It is about building a democratic consensus which allows people to live together in peace. As Kamal Salibi, the Lebanese historian, pointed out, conflict is more interesting to outsiders than consensus, ‘but consensus has the advantage over conflict as a way of life’.4
1 This and other Hanf quotes are taken from Coexistence in wartime Lebanon (IB Tauris and the Centre for Lebanese Studies 1993)
2 Jean Makdisi Beirut Fragments Persea Books (New York 1990)
3 Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk (Andre Deutsch 1990)
4 From Lebanon: A history of conflict and consensus, edited by Nadim Shehadi and Dana Haffar Mills (IB Tauris and the Centre for Lebanese Studies 1988)
The different religious groups are known as ‘confessions’. Many are ruled by particular families which have their roots in the old feudal system.
The Christian militia is the Lebanese Forces which began as the military wing of the Phalange Party. In 1991 it was disbanded and transformed into a political party, which is now banned.
The Shi’a are the other Muslim group, whose numbers are growing fast. Shi’a’s have two main parties, which are also militias - Amal, and Hizbollah, the Iranian-supported ‘Party of God’ .
The Druze are an offshoot of Islam who have lived developed their own religion, They have lived in the Lebanese mountains since the 11th century. Their party – and their militia – is the Progressive Socialist Party.
Palestinians first arrived in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. More joined them in 1967 after the Arab-Israeli war. Most do not have citizenship and many still live in refugee camps on the outskirts of the main towns.
This special report appeared in the beirut/lebanon: selling the peace issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.