“War doesn’t determine who’s right – only who’s left.” Bertrand Russell
Our Lebanese hell officially opened its doors on a nice spring Sunday afternoon. On a day like today, 37 years ago. The date became a milestone repeated in many a conversation: “before the war”, “after the war”. A Lebanese Anno Domini.
Today I have a flu. My eyes are watery, and now that I started to write this post, they are overflowing with the memories that this day always evokes. My heart is pounding in my ears. BOOM BOOM. Many a BOOM we heard growing up in Lebanon and wished away, longing for morning’s reassuring rays while huddling in a shelter trying to imagine what it felt like to die. The candle flickering nervously by the force of each falling mortar. Everyone looks different in candlelight. Eerie yet serene, almost divine. On many nights we divinely sat on the cold bathroom floor, my mom and dad pretending not to be nervous, like flight attendants in extreme turbulence. We pretended we believed them, and waited for dawn and the sounds of normal village life.
As children, we understood what we chose to understand about what was going on. We invented games of guessing the sounds of machine guns, mortars, 155 or 240 artillery, Russian kalashnikovs, Belgian FALs, or the newly-arrived killing machines on the scene, the American M-16s. There were also the Dushkas, and anti-aircraft guns mounted on jeeps and used to raze people down while they were hanging their washing on balconies. Every time the shelling started, the guessing games would start. We would bet on how close each mortar fell, what size of shell was used, and where it hit. As the war entered its second decade, people would rush to the balconies when the shells started falling, to see what they hit. A morbid spectacle we all grew to accept, and yes, enjoy.
The grim drums of war are starting again around our little land. It is starting to spill over again, and why shouldn’t it? We Lebanese never planned in all our wisdom to fortify ourselves after all the devastation that rendered our country into a pile of ruins. I don’t mean by fortifying ourselves having a huge well-equipped national army (although this might perhaps help), but by talking about our war honestly and openly. Truth and reconciliation were never part of the formula that artificially and partially ended our conflict. Some men with suits (of course only men!) went to the desert, met, and were forced to announce that the war ended. After the famous announcement, we still had checkpoints, guns in every home, on the streets, hate in the hearts, an occupying army, assassinations, but no one seemed to notice. The Taef accord was what ended the war, not us. Not the people who were for years scared of their countrymen and women. The ‘boogie man’ other that they convinced us was embodied by every one of our compatriots who thought and prayed differently. Our enemies were portrayed as our country men and women who wore a different pendant on their chain, who had their holidays on different days of the year, who walked in the streets with or without headscarves, who grew beards or were clean-shaven, who had different stickers on their machine guns, who had recognizable names that defined them and placed them squarely in opposite camps separated by killing fields, and who had their religion portrayed in bold ink on their ID cards, for ease of identification, labeling and at times what they called ‘ID Card executions’. Every man, woman and child in the years that followed that fateful Sunday in April were fair game for fighters of either side if caught in the cross fire, or if they strayed to the other side of the ‘Green Line’ that separated communities, or if their home didn’t have a secure underground shelter to protect them from the falling fire and smoke from the sky, or if the kids went outside to play and mistook the roaring of bombs for approaching thunder, or again if the mothers went on their balconies to hang their washing.
You won’t believe this next statement. No war museum exists in the land of the most infamous war of our days. The politicians in Lebanon must have thought it was unnecessary. “A waste of funds”, “It will open the wounds of the past” are the most common excuses for this serious miscalculation. I certainly do not agree with the skewed reasoning and would insist that the curation of witnesses and proof of our collective madness be a national priority. If the new generations do not see, hear, feel and understand what happened, how are they supposed not to repeat the horrors, the hateful fighting and fatal mistakes of their parents and grandparents?
War games are not games at all. Ask any Syrian or Yemeni fleeing their conflict today, they will tell you. Ask any mother in Lebanon that still sets her loved one’s place at the table, in the hope that they might return, one day. No funeral, no closure, no end to that hopeless hope that resides in the hearts of families of kidnapped sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, grandfathers, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, nephews in the hopes that they will return. Someday.
Remember the war museum that we still don’t have in Beirut? The names of all those kidnapped and those who who disappeared without a trace during the war should forever adorn its walls. Alongside the names of the two hundred thousand who died-senselessly, needlessly, and without having taught those who are left any lessons. Are we capable of honoring them? Of celebrating their martyrdom and mourning our losses? Close to a quarter of a million of humanity feeding a raging conflict with their flesh and blood without having had a chance to live their lives to the fullest.
Are we willing to stop and take heed of the horrors we survived? Are we determined, we who are ‘left’ from the war, to show our children and children’s children what it was really like and what might happen if we collectively refuse to talk, remember, grieve, scream, blame, talk some more, accept, learn. And understand?