Looking back at Lebanon’s civil war
Beirut - Four decades after the start of Lebanon’s civil war, which the Lebanese commemorated on April 13th, there seems little to add to a conflict that was once regarded as the personification of sectarian animosity.
However, with the Middle East having dissolved into generalised conflict, it merits looking back on the years of Lebanon’s war. I remember a monumental event that helped shape who I would become. Since it is difficult to recall events that played a central role in one’s life with antipathy, I often rediscover a nostalgia for the war years. Not nostalgia for violence, but for a time when every new facet of the war brought a sense of novelty, both terrible and exhilarating.
To me, the war had, broadly, four phases, with the Lebanese experiencing the conflict differently depending where they lived and what they had witnessed.
The first was the period of 1975 and 1976, known commonly as the “two-year war”. This was marked by an endless succession of “rounds” of fighting, interrupted by fragile ceasefires. Not yet a teenager, I remember this period as one of fascination with weapons when I began collecting bullets and shrapnel. This passion led me and my friends to the burned out and crumbling Holiday Inn hotel on the interface between Christian and Muslim Beirut during a lull, and to my irresponsible digging up of an unexploded mortar shell.
That sense of irresponsibility very much defined my general frame of mind at the time. Too young to appreciate the meaning of the breakdown of the state, of death, myself and those of my generation regarded the early years of the war as an adventure. That I was not in a neighbourhood directly affected by the fighting surely made a difference. Others were less lucky.
This period ended with the entry of the Syrian army into Beirut, as part of an Arab Deterrent Force. I recall watching a convoy of Syrian tanks from my balcony after a night of bombardment that broke a window in my room. A Syrian soldier waved at me and I waved back, not sure what it all meant.
The second phase of the war came in 1978. That was a year marked by the Syrian bombardment of Christian quarters of Beirut. Though we suffered in no way, the presence of a Syrian cannon near our building was a constant reminder that others were suffering. The barbarism of the war was getting nearer, and with it the realisation that there was a stalwartness to the Lebanese that I was only beginning to appreciate.
The third phase of the war had the most impact on me. It was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, which led to the siege of West Beirut, through which I lived. It is then that the war arrived on our doorstep, entered our homes and made us wonder for the first time whether we would survive. It ended with an illusory sense that the conflict was over, thanks to the international military presence deployed in the country.
Within less than two years the foreign armies had left and Lebanon would return to a state of nature. Militias ruled the streets — mad, untamed gangs whose principal pastime was fighting with other gangs. These were the years 1984-86, when the situation would so deteriorate in West Beirut that Sunni politicians would be pleased to see the Syrians return.
At the end of the summer of 1985, I left Lebanon to pursue my studies. Arriving in the normalcy of the United States, all I could think of was compatriots back home, the contempt they provoked in a Western world devoted to rationalism. I saw things differently. Lebanon had endured far more than most Westerners could. The Lebanese were not innocent when it came to their dire situation, but scorn was the last thing they merited.
It was during those years that I switched on the television to hear of the assassination of the president-elect, Rene Moawad, only to see my mother, injured, on the television screen. It had been weeks since we spoke because telephone lines were down but by some miracle I managed to get through to her. She was shaken but above all was lucky. Only minutes before the blast, she had been standing where the explosion took place. A Syrian soldier had checked her bag and she had said there was a bomb inside. Both had laughed.
Such violence has become commonplace to the region. To many Westerners, Arabs are best abandoned to their destructive impulses.
Forty years after the start of the Lebanese war, this indifference still provokes resentment in me. Countries that demand solidarity whenever their own citizens are targeted should be prepared to offer the same. But as Lebanon taught me, those most in need of assistance often prompt deep coldness. At no time has that been truer than today.