Putting Lebanon’s civil war 'amnesia' on the map

Putting Lebanon’s civil war 'amnesia' on the map
Anaysis: An ambitious mapping project in Lebanon pulls together more than 150 initiatives dedicated to addressing the country's past, reports Joey Ayoub.
5 min read
25 October, 2018
The wealthy and powerful have benefited from the silence over the postwar years [Getty]
Launched under the #CounteringAmnesia hashtag, the "mapping of initiatives addressing the past in Lebanon" by Lebanon Support and forumZFD documents more than 150 initiatives in the country attempting to address its past between the end of the civil war in 1990 and 2017.

When the civil war officially ended in Lebanon, the subsequent government, under the first Assad regime's "tutelage" from Syria, passed a law exhonerating crimes committed during the war, with the notorious exception of "crimes against religious leaders and government officials and other politicians".

With the underlying issues left without solutions, many warlords would end up in power, including several high-ranking politicians today, from the president to the speaker of parliament, several MPs and sectarian party members.

In addition to causing untold pain and suffering to survivors and the families of those still "missing" to this day, what this status quo has done is implement a de-facto amnesia on the war throughout Lebanon.

This "amnesia thesis" - so widely discussed in Lebanese studies - has defined post-war life and politics in Lebanon to the extent that the postwar generation has grown up with no available social tools to tackle the war's many legacies.

This generation has inherited empty frameworks they say do little to truly understand what the war years meant, what lessons, if any, could come from them, and what should be done to make sure that not only are they not repeated, but that it becomes impossible for them to be repeated.

The past became a black hole from which nothing could escape long enough to be exposed and examined

Many Lebanese compensated by developing a resilience to learning about our own history. 

The past became a black hole from which nothing could escape long enough to be exposed and examined. Others continued to adopt sectarian narratives passed down by the previous generation and/or developed in the postwar era.

The resulting effect was to allow for the growth of contradicting narratives.

Nearly three decades later, the sectarian system of governance remains virtually the same. Politics in Lebanon is still in the hands of these relics and the business owners who made a fortune out of the postwar "reconstruction" of Beirut and Lebanon as a whole.

As has been written elsewhere, the agents of war became the de facto agents of peace, and have seemingly struggled to play that role.

Lebanon's story is not unique, despite everything many Lebanese like to tell ourselves. The tendency to view the war as some foreign imposition - "a war for the others", as Ghassan Tueni notably stated - or worse still, through simplistic sectarian narratives which benefit certain parties - such as Hizballah, the Lebanese Forces or the rest of the sectarian parties - has long paralised progressive voices.

In recent years however, the situation has started to shift again in Lebanon. Although their impact is still fragile, the significance of movements such as "You Stink" in 2015, Beirut Madinati in 2016 and the various independent campaigns in the 2018 elections should not be underestimated.

As the warlords get older, these movements represent the inevitable weakening of the "pro-amnesia" politics that many long thought too risky to tackle.

In this context, what the #CounteringAmnesia campaign contributes to is nothing less than providing progressive voices with readily available tools to counter this status quo.

As organisers explain on the website: "Each initiative was mapped and categorised according to its objective, approach, type of activity, target group, launch year, and geographic target, among other variables."

Unsurprisingly, a majority focus on the war and its aftermath.

In 2015, the American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute commemorated the 40th anniversary of the start of the civil war by hosting representatives of research centres and NGOs to discuss whether Lebanon has, nearly three decades after the end of the war, turned a new page. The answer was a resounding "not really".

Another example, and arguably the most well-known, is the work of UMAM Documentation and Research (UMAM D&R). Their archival practices have paved the way for serious and much-needed discussions over Lebanon's apparent refusal to deal with its own past in a meaningful way.

A final example is the heart-wrenching work of the Committee of the Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon. This women-led initiative has been struggling since 1990 to document and advocate for those 17,415 still officially missing from the war, those who make up the "the unfinished story of a finished war". The committee's founder, Wadad Halwani, has remained without news of her husband, Adnan, since his enforced disappearance on September 24, 1982.

The work of UMAM D&R, the Committee of the Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared and others disprove the tendency of many scholars to argue that the "amnesia thesis" was fuelled by the widespread complicity of Lebanese civil society.

That being said, the battle is far from over, and there is no indication that the situation in Lebanon cannot get worse. Indeed, the signs point to the ever-present risks of further conflict, worsened in recent years by Hizballah's role in neighboring Syria, and with civil society groups still barely managing to maintain enough momentum to provoke change. 

If the various politicians and commentators routinely scapegoating Syrian and Palestinian refugees tell us anything, it's that it is still all-too-easy to distract attention from Lebanon's plethora of ills. Even as the economic situation worsens for many, it is still possible for those in power to divert attention towards those who are even more vulnerable.

This mapping, its creators say, has the potential to help community organisers challenge these existing narratives trapped in an endless cycle of violence.

Joey Ayoub is the MENA editor at Global Voices as well as a Lebanese researcher from Beirut currently living in London. He is the founder of Hummus For Thought and mostly writes on Syria, Israel-Palestine and Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @joeyayoub