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Beirut clashes revive chilling civil war memories in Lebanon

Beirut clashes revive chilling memories of civil war for Lebanese
6 min read
15 October, 2021
Armed clashes between militias in Lebanon's capital brought back traumatic memories for many, from a conflict which for many remains unresolved.
Many Lebanese compared Thursday's scenes to the country's civil war [Getty]

Scenes of fighting in Beirut on Thursday brought back chilling memories of Lebanon's devastating civil war, which ended in 1990 but saw the militias involved retain their arms until today.

Lebanese still haunted by the dark years between 1975 and 1990 were reminded of the terrors as bullets rang through neighbourhoods which sit between administrative Beirut and its mixed Shia and Christian suburbs. The clashes left buildings riddled with bullets, and businesses and cars damaged.

It was around this area specifically, in Ain El Remmeneh, where the war ignited on 13 April, 1975, when Christian gunmen shot a bus carrying Palestinian passengers, in apparent retaliation to previous attacks and rising tensions which preceded.

The rest is history, and the whys and hows are still a point of great contention between the Lebanese.

No proper national reconciliation ever took place, and while some warlords were imprisoned or exiled, others became politicians managing the country’s affairs.

"Pictures of people running out in the streets escaping their homes reminded me of the war. Those were the worst days, its terrifying," a Lebanese woman who emigrated to London in the early 1980s told The New Arab.

She speaks of the traumas, shared by nearly everyone who was in the country at the time.

The woman, now in her late 50s, remembers escaping death by inches after a bullet landed in the car door next to her. She recollects memories of having to drive past bodies on her way to Syria from where she left to the UK with another family.

"This is ignorance what’s happening, these young men are ignorant."

Aside from the unresolved disputes and deep division which still plague Lebanon till this day, Thursday’s violence – the worst since armed clashes in May 2008 – came as a result of disagreements over the inquiry into the massive Beirut port explosion last summer.

It was one of the largest explosions in the world, with some arguing that it was worse than anything they’d ever seen during the civil war years.

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A protest organised by the two Shia parties - Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Amal Movement - called for the removal of investigating Judge Tarek Bitar, who their leaders accuse of being biased.

Some of the ministers Bitar has called for questioning belong to Amal, while unconfirmed reports say the judge was planning to also include Hezbollah officials in the investigation.

Videos that went viral during Thursday’s demonstration showed supporters of the Shia groups chanting sectarian slogans and entering Ain El Remmeneh, a Christian area and stronghold of the Lebanese Forces.

They could be seen and heard shouting "Shia Shia," a phrase not unusual for the Lebanese, and which Amal and Hezbollah supporters have proudly used for the past two years whenever they come face to face with another group of protesters.

Videos and images later showed them spread out across the Tayyouneh roundabout, an intersection linking inner Beirut to its outskirts.

Both the Shia and Christian parties have traded blame, accusing the other of firing the first shot and acting provocatively at a time the country reels under a multitude of crises.

On social media, the divisive effects of Thursday's clashes were apparent. "Hezbollah are terrorists", "Lebanese Forces Ambush", were some of the Arabic-language hashtags that were trending until Friday.

Whatever the reasons, six Hezbollah and Amal fighters were killed, while a seventh woman was shot inside her apartment in the adjacent Shia area of Chiyah. The reasons for her death have also become a reason to trade blame.

Maryam was the mother of five children who were at school at the time.

Distressing images of children hiding in their classrooms and the hallways of their schools close to the site of the shootout also reminded the older generation of the times they’d hide in shelters from bullets, artillery and bombs.

Images of children sticking their fingers in their ears and crying further reinstated the idea, to so many people, that Lebanon was doomed to be a nation torn apart by sectarian strife forever.

"Our children are going through what we went through. Why do they have to live like this? Why does every generation in this country have to experience violence? Enough is enough," angry parents told local Lebanese media.

A father who collected his children from school was lost for words.

"What can I say? Just look…" as he pointed to his children before walking away.

Lebanon’s civil war was multi-faceted. It involved armed groups from different religious denominations and saw wide regional and international intervention. Even militias of the same sect went head-to-head.

It followed an Israeli occupation of its south that ended in 2000, and a Syrian occupation which ended in 2005. The paramilitary Hezbollah group was the only one to hold onto its entire arsenal, and claims it now has tens of thousands of rockets from Iran.

Since then, moments of total calm and stability have been rare in the small Mediterranean nation.

A war with Israel, bombings, battles between the Lebanese army and Islamist militant groups, the port explosion and armed clashes between local factions have obstructed any chances for the people to overcome their traumas.

Some of the warlords who came to power in a 1990 "peace agreement" have made this harder. People ask how they can find closure and move on if many of the same faces are still governing them.

Many are now betting on the parliamentary elections next year, which they hope can at least bring about some change with a ruling class they blame for keeping the country stuck in a vicious cycle for decades.

But some are cynical.

"How can you hold elections when these militias still exist?" a university student asked when speaking to The New Arab.

He, like many of Lebanon’s youth, don’t want to relive the experiences of their parents. They are more enthusiastic about change, even though a mass exodus of college graduates and professionals in the past two years has left a brain drain.

"Even those abroad can vote and contribute to change. The same (ruling) class, the same warlords and sectarian leaders are playing the same games."