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Cluster Bombs: The weapon that keeps on killing

12 Sep

By Dalila Mahdawi

A deminer with MAG searches for buried cluster munitions in Kfar Joz village in South Lebanon. Credit: Dalila Mahdawi/IPS.

KFAR JOZ, South Lebanon, Sep 12, 2011 (IPS) – Even in the summer heat, the hills of South Lebanon are an impressive sight – a patchwork of green, brown and red fields interrupted only by sleepy villages, rock formations and dirt tracks.

Most residents here have traditionally depended on agriculture to provide for their families. But instead of sowing crops or herding their flocks through the grassy terrain, for the last five years locals have viewed the surrounding hills with caution. Lurking in these fields are hundreds of thousands of cluster munitions, silently waiting to claim their next victim.

“Every day we find cluster bombs in between the houses and in the fields,” says Ali Shuaib, community liaison manager at the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental organisation clearing landmines and other remnants of war in Lebanon. “There are tens of villages like this all over the South.”

Although Lebanon has been plagued by landmines since its 1975-1990 civil war and subsequent Israeli occupation, it faced unprecedented contamination levels from cluster munitions after Israel launched a 34-day war in July 2006. According to Human Rights Watch, Israel’s use of the weapons was the most extensive anywhere in the world since the 1991 Gulf War.

In the last 72 hours of fighting, at a time when the United Nations Security Council had adopted Resolution 1701 calling for an immediate halt to hostilities, Israel dropped more than four million cluster bombs over South Lebanon. Of those, at least forty percent failed to explode upon impact, according to the UN, becoming de facto landmines across Lebanon’s agricultural heartland.

These are the most indiscriminate weapons of modern warfare; 95 percent of all victims of cluster munitions are civilians, according to the NGO Handicap International. Since the cessation of hostilities five years ago, 408 Lebanese civilians have been killed or injured by cluster munitions, 115 of them under 18 years old. Unless properly disposed of, the weapons keep killing and maiming for decades.

Cluster munitions continue to wreak havoc on the Lebanese economy, too. With an estimated 36 percent of contaminated land being used for agricultural purposes, the already deprived South Lebanon has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in income, says Major Pierre Bou Maroun, chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ Regional Mine Action Centre in Nabatieh, which oversees all demining operations in the country. In 2007 alone, Lebanon lost an estimated 126.8 million dollars in agricultural revenue because of cluster munitions.

Israel’s use of the weapon in Lebanon helped galvanise an international ban in May 2007, when 107 countries voted for the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions. The convention prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of all forms of cluster munitions. It also requires countries to clear contaminated areas within 10 years, destroy supplies within eight years and provide assistance to victims.

Lebanon was among the first countries to sign the convention in December 2008 and although it only entered into force in May this year, officials have been keen to take an international leadership role on its implementation. This week Beirut hosts the second international meeting of states parties to the Convention. Delegates from over 110 governments, UN and other international organisations will attend the week-long conference along with survivors of cluster munitions to discuss how to further advance the Convention’s obligations.

The meeting “is a golden opportunity for Lebanon,” says Haboubba Aoun, one of Lebanon’s representative members of the Cluster Munition Coalition and International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and a member of Lebanon’s National Committees on Risk Education and Victim Assistance. “We hope the people of the world will take a closer look at the cluster bomb problem in Lebanon and decide to continue supporting clearance activities and victim assistance activities.”

Clearance teams have made formidable progress in Lebanon despite almost continuous funding concerns. “We have 2,259 well-known minefields” in addition to thousands of other contaminated areas, says Bou Maroun. Some 1,578 minefields have been now been cleared and returned to residents, but 22 million square metres of contaminated land remains. This figure does not include heavily contaminated areas along the so-called Blue Line border area between Lebanon and Israel, whose clearance has been left to the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL.

“Our vision is a Lebanon free from cluster bombs, land mines and explosive remnants of war,” Bou Maroun tells IPS. With sufficient funding and support, he says Lebanon could be cleared of cluster munitions by 2016. Following international pressure, Israel provided the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with maps showing the areas it targeted with cluster munitions. But, says Bou Maroun, as these maps do not show the coordinates of those targets, they are merely “papers for the trash”.

Mine clearance is painstakingly slow and dangerous work. Deminers sent to the field must abide by strict regulations and are flanked by ambulance and medics. “It’s a calculated risk,” says Daniel Redelinghuys, MAG’s Technical Operations Manager. Two MAG deminers have lost their lives and 18 have been injured in the five years since hostilities ceased, he adds. The LAF and other clearance organisations have also experienced considerable losses.

Yet the possibility of an accident doesn’t deter Hussein Tabaja, a mine clearance site supervisor with MAG. “You’re working for your country,” he says with a shrug. “When you see the faces of people after you have cleared their land, you see how many people you have helped, who can go back and use their fields again, it makes you happy. Sometimes during the holidays I actually miss coming to work.”

While there is growing international support for a universal ban, there remains staunch opposition from the world’s biggest producers, traders or users of cluster munitions, such as Israel, China and the U.S., who have not signed the Convention. As recently as late August, Handicap International censured Israel for laying fresh landmines along the border of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

And for many, any international ban will come too late. “I wish I could change my leg and get a new one,” says 12-year-old Mohammad Abd al-Aal, who has been left with a prosthetic leg after stepping on a cluster bomblet while herding his family’s goats. (END)

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Women Prisoners Play the Liberation Role

19 Aug

Women in Baabda prison attending one of Daccache's workshops (CREDIT: CATHARSIS)

By Dalila Mahdawi

BAABDA WOMEN’S PRISON, Lebanon, Aug 18, 2011 (IPS) – To a soundtrack of almost constant pounding of fists against iron doors, drama therapist Zeina Daccache is trying to capture the attention of a group of women prisoners. Many of the 45 women are suffering from drug withdrawal and alternately appear agitated, upset, energised and detached. Others chat loudly, take long puffs off cigarettes, or pace the room.

But it doesn’t take long for Daccache, who is also a well-regarded comedian on Lebanese television, to bring calm to the chaotic scene. After a few warm-up games intended to break the ice, she has several of the women relating their life stories and future ambitions, envisioning a world beyond the confines of bolted doors and barred windows.

Daccache has come to Baabda as part of her goal to bring drama therapy inside Lebanese prisons. Her organisation, the Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy (CATHARSIS), is the only one of its kind in the Arab world and one of very few offering rehabilitation services to those behind bars.

Following an adaptation and award-winning documentary of the 1950s U.S. play ‘12 Angry Men’ (renamed ‘12 Angry Lebanese’) with inmates from Lebanon’s high-security Roumieh prison, Daccache decided to expand her drama therapy programme to other prisons in the country. With support from the Drosos Foundation, she is also training dozens more individuals to become drama therapists in the hope of encouraging a new generation of professionals combining theatre with rehabilitation. Although she has only been working in Baabda for a few weeks, Daccache is already seeing some of the prisoners shrug off their initial caution to embrace the therapy.

“I’m very sad because of my situation and I’m sad because my daughter is far away,” says D.W., who is serving time for drug offences. “I have a good heart but I didn’t think of my daughter,” she says, crying quietly. “I didn’t know right from wrong.”

Drama therapy gained popularity in the 1970s and has been used ever since in schools, rehabilitative clinics, bereavement centres and prisons to help individuals overcome personal problems, promote critical thinking, teach teamwork skills and improve self-esteem. Through role-play, group therapy sessions and dramatisation, many of the women in Baabda are gaining greater self-awareness and reflecting on the events that led them into conflict with the law.

“The aim in the end of this current project in Baabda is to have a theatre performance,” Daccache says. Because of the high turnover in prisoners, the group will create a montage of monologues as opposed to a full play, giving newcomers the chance to participate and explore their personal history. “Each one of them is a scene by herself,” says Daccache. “Each one by themselves fills the room.”

N.L., who has been using drugs since she was 15, clutches a sketch of herself on a stage. “My role in the past was addiction, humiliation,” she tells the group. Although she awaits sentencing for drug trafficking charges, she says she’d “like to be a wife, a mother, someone who is respected, happy.”

Daccache is passionate about the power of drama in rehabilitating prisoners and combating recidivism. At Roumieh prison, “the inmates started working on themselves instead of blaming their situation entirely on society the whole time,” she says. “Depression diminished and the inmates were able to plan a future for themselves outside of prison.” Some of the men became so passionate about theatre that they sought out acting jobs after leaving prison.

The need for such rehabilitative services is especially important given the dismal conditions in Lebanese prisons. Notoriously overcrowded, 19 out of Lebanon’s 20 penitentiaries were not originally built to serve as such, says MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who as head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee recently presented a detailed report on prison reform. “Prison conditions are to be considered in themselves a form of torture, cruel and degrading punishment,” he told IPS. “There is an urgent need to shift prisons from being places of punishment to places of rehabilitation.”

Besides segregated quarters in mixed prisons, Lebanon has four women’s prisons. Women count for only around 300 of Lebanon’s roughly 5,000 prisoners, all of whom are kept in overcrowded penitentiaries that fail to meet the standard minimum treatment recommended by the United Nations.

Poor holding conditions lead to frequent rebellions and riots. In April, Roumieh prison experienced the worst uprising in Lebanese history. Prisoners protesting a lack of access to medical care and poor services broke down doors, started fires and took control of much of the prison in a standoff which resulted in the death of four inmates.

Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the prison “year” from 12 to nine months, prompting three inmates to set fire to themselves, resulting in the death of one, and hundreds of others to initiate hunger strikes. Last weekend, five prisoners from Roumieh managed a jail-break by scaling the prison walls with bed sheets. Experts are now warning that another prison riot there is looming on the horizon.

While in better condition than many of Lebanon’s larger prisons, Baabda offers no exercise facilities, and women only have access to sunlight filtered through a caged-in rooftop. Many prisoners complain of inadequate medical treatment and unhygienic conditions, and have little to no recourse to legal counsel. Frustrations often lead to spats among the inmates.

Amidst such circumstances, the group therapy offered by CATHARSIS takes on additional importance. “The sharing of experiences and the group dynamic helps them find a way to channel their anxieties,” Daccache says. “The new social interaction has given them back a sense of worth and has made them feel as though they are part of a community.”

Perhaps most importantly, says Daccache, drama therapy offers prisoners a sense of hope at a time when many experience an overwhelming sense of despair. “They are learning that there is still a chance to change even while they are still in prison,” she says. (END)

Becoming the world’s first human camera

8 Feb

What a headache: Bilal's camera implant (Image copyright 3rdi)

Dalila Mahdawi

NEW YORK, 7 Feb (IPS) – Wafaa Bilal hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about two months. After becoming the first person to have a camera surgically implanted into the back of his head, the Iraqi- American artist is learning the hard way just how much of a headache modern technology can be.

“It’s still painful,” he tells IPS, pointing to the three titanium bolts that have been inserted into his cranium to hold the camera in place.

Bilal undertook the dramatic operation as part of a year- long project entitled 3rdi. The camera takes photographs every minute of the view behind Bilal’s head. The images, comprising everything from uninspiring shots of his kitchen cupboards to unnerving angles of objects and passers-by, are then uploaded onto the 3rdi website and streamed to Qatar’s newly inaugurated contemporary art museum, Mathaf.

3rdi is, in many ways, a reflection of Bilal’s own traumatic experiences of loss. Having been raised in a conservative family under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule, the soft- spoken artist was forced to flee during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait after publicly rejecting his conscription into the army. He spent two years living in a makeshift refugee camp in the Saudi Arabian desert before being granted asylum in the United States.

“It was one of the toughest experiences of my life,” recalls Bilal, who is also an assistant professor of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts. In the camp, “We were subjected to very harsh treatment by Saudi soldiers and many people lost their lives. Art became a way to remind myself I was still alive.”

With little to remind him of the places and faces he had to abandon so abruptly, 3rdi has become Bilal’s way of recording chaotic, poignant and yet often banal moments of departure. “Individually, they might not look significant,” he says of the images, but when taken together, they form “quite a nice mosaic of someone’s life.”

Since unveiling the project, 3rdi has evolved to speak about many other aspects of modern life, such as government surveillance of its citizens (the camera tracks Bilal’s whereabouts via GPS) and the aggressive intrusion of technology.

“There is no such thing as a private life anymore,” says Bilal. “Instead of creating something to serve us, these machines have enslaved us.”

Although the camera’s physical presence leaves the artist susceptible to infection and sleepless nights, he insists the pain is an integral part of the 3rdi project. “Performance is about endurance,” he explains. “It’s a physical reminder of what you are doing.”

It’s not the first time Bilal has used his own body as his canvas. Physical intervention has been a central, and often controversial, feature of much of his work.

In 2010, Bilal held a 24-hour performance in which he had the names of Iraqi cities tattooed on his back. More than 100,000 dots marking Iraqi casualties were also tattooed on with invisible ink, symbolising the anonymous victims of a war that most Americans feel so far removed from. Bilal also has plans to tattoo on some 5,000 dots in homage to the U.S. soldiers also killed in the U.S.-led war.

For an earlier project, called “Shoot an Iraqi/Domestic Tension”, Bilal confined himself in a prison-like cell for 30 days and was subjected to the whims of his audience, who could shoot a remote-controlled paintball gun at him from the internet or gallery. Following newspaper articles about the project, hackers infiltrated the software and programmed the gun to shoot at Bilal once every minute.

“The hope is you build a platform not to engage those already engaged in political dialogue,” but to attract those who typically shy away, he says. It seemed he succeeded in that attempt: by the end of the exhibition, over 65,000 people from more than 130 countries had fired at Bilal.

His work became more overtly political following the killing of his younger brother by a U.S. drone missile in Iraq in 2004. Bilal says he wanted to bring people living in “the comfort zone” into the realm of the “conflict zone”, Iraq.

With that goal in mind, the artist has also subjected himself to water boarding, the simulated-drowning torture technique former U.S. president George W. Bush notoriously admitted to using in Iraq.

“My work is driven from within as a concerned person, as someone who has been directly affected by his surroundings,” Bilal says. “My job has to become a mirror to reflect that social condition.”

It may be another 10 months before Bilal can enjoy a proper night’s rest again, but if having eyes at the back of his head has taught the artist anything, it is to savour the present more.

“Most of the time we don’t exist in the present, and I think in the process we fail to exist in the place we are in,” he says. “I think this is a call to slow down, look at these corners of our lives and live in the moment we are in.”

3rdi is online until December 2011.

http://www.3rdi.me/ and http://wafaabilal.com/

Eyes on the back of his head (Image copyright 3rdi)

Posh women’s rights in the Arab World

2 Dec

The New Arab Woman Forum is an elitist club for ladies who lunch. It desperately needs to become more diverse

Dalila Mahdawiguardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 December 2010

Today, hundreds of women will gather in Beirut for the fourth annual New Arab Woman Forum (Nawf).

Bringing together prominent personalities for two days of “analysis of the changing position and role of women in Arab society, politics, and economic life,” Nawf claims to be the region’s “leading and most relevant women’s event”. If that’s true, then the Arab women’s movement is in serious trouble.

When I attended Nawf as a journalist last year, I was given a luxury leather notebook-holder as a welcoming present. Sadly, the notebook-holder was pretty much the only thing of substance to emerge from the proceedings. The file’s fashionable pink and brown colour scheme represents all that is wrong with Nawf, which seems to be more a gruesome parade of plastic surgery operations and couture outfits on the relatives of male political leaders than anything remotely to do with women’s empowerment.

For many involved in the struggle for gender equality, Nawf is as genuine a women’s event as many of the noses of its attendees. Last year’s session on political quotas, arguably one of the most important debates for women in the Arab world, for example, was butchered down to about 20 minutes so as to ensure it didn’t run into the obviously invaluable lunch break.

Besides a struggle with priorities, one of the biggest obstacles to the forum’s legitimacy is its outrageous price tag: it costs $300 (plus 10% VAT – more than £200) a person to attend, with no discounts for non-governmental or other community-based organisations. Why organisers have repeatedly chosen to host the event at the InterContinental Phoenicia hotel, the ultimate symbol of opulent excess, is another mind-boggler.  Perhaps Nawf didn’t get the memo that it is women who make up the bulk of the Arab world’s illiterate and impoverished citizens. If the organisers switched to a free or cheaper venue, it would automatically open up the event to a more diverse community of women.

Activists have also complained that Nawf denies invitations and speaking opportunities to important grassroots groups in favour of big names. Nawf could learn a lot from those it excludes, including those on its own doorstep in Beirut, such as the feminist collective Nasawiya, who recently invited the prominent gender studies professor Lila Abu-Lughoud to deliver a free public lecture. Instead, Mohammad Rahhal, Lebanon’s male environment minister, is delivering a speech.

The gilded hotel doors are firmly shut on precisely the women who should be listened to but wide open to those who have no real involvement in improving the lives of Arab women.

Another particularly irksome feature of Nawf is that organisers have stubbornly insisted on holding it in Beirut for a third time. The choice of location has repeatedly been justified with the old cliche that Lebanon is the most open society in the Arab world. But just because some women in Lebanon can wear a miniskirt doesn’t mean they enjoy substantive equality. Far from it: the Lebanese government considers women as juveniles in many aspects of the law, forbids them from passing on nationality to their children, and does not protect them from domestic violence, including marital rape. Until recently, Lebanese women were not even permitted to open bank accounts for their children.

Lebanon also has one of the lowest regional figures for women in politics, standing at a mere 3.1%, compared with Iraq’s 25.2%, Tunisia’s 27.6% and Syria’s 12.4%. As recently as 10 November, Lebanon balked at UN recommendations to improve women’s rights. Nawf’s real motivation to host its event in Beirut, therefore, seems to revolve around the idea that the allure of a trip to Beirut, with all its glamorous boutiques and restaurants, will entice more participants to cough up the hefty attendance fee. After all, there’s nothing like a vague two-day conference to take away the guilt of spending thousands of dollars on yourself.

No doubt the organisers had the best intentions when they envisioned Nawf. Any efforts to initiate discussion on the problems facing Arab women are to be commended, but if Nawf wishes to be taken seriously as a platform for all Arab women, it must make immediate and serious changes to become more inclusive of those whom it claims to speak on behalf of. Until then, the conference will remain an elitist club for ladies who lunch and a source of dismay to the real, anonymous women fighting for equality in the region. They might not have designer handbags but surely their ideas and experiences deserve just as much recognition.

Family Violence

26 Nov

I miss writing stories about development issues in Lebanon. But, thankfully, other writers are doing so.

Voice of America, for example, just published a story about family violence. The author talks about the efforts of anti-exploitation NGO KAFA to push through a bill on family violence- currently Lebanon has no legislation protecting women (or men) or children from family-based violence.

The reluctance of the state to get involved in what it sees as a “private” affair effectively gives perpetrators of violence the green light to continue terrorising their families with impunity. KAFA, who works on lobbying and directly with survivors of violence, submitted  a draft bill to Parliament sometime ago which would see domestic and family violence criminalized (including marital rape, which is currently not even recognized), introduce a properly trained police unitcourt system to take charge of family violence cases, and oblige perpetrators to pay all legal and medical costs of those they harm. The bill has been gathering dust at Parliament for over a year now, although legislators have expressed (orally at least, though it remains to be seen whether that translates into action) support for a law.

But while Lebanon’s politicians continue to bicker over sectarian issues, their citizens will continue to fall through the legislative cracks. Words of support won’t protect those suffering from abuse- we need KAFA’s family violence law implemented and we need it implemented now.

If you or someone you know in Lebanon wants to talk about domestic violence, call KAFA’s confidential, round-the-clock helpline on 03 018 019.

Flotilla killings: Enough violence and enough hate

3 Jul

(It’s been about a month now since Israel invaded and attacked a boat full of peace activists bound for Gaza. The issue has pretty much slipped off the media radar and the appalling siege on Gaza and occupation of Palestinian land continue. Here is a piece I wrote at the time, published by Common Ground News Service, where I tried to harness my emotions in a positive way. Decades of hate and violence have got the Palestinians and Israelis absolutely nowhere. I’m sick of it, I’m tired, I want peace and dialogue. And I want it now.)

by Dalila Mahdawi

08 June 2010

Beirut – The tragic bloodshed aboard the MV Mavi Marmara aid ship has, justifiably, provoked criticism about Israel’s use of force against civilian populations. It has also, if somewhat tardily, refocused the international community’s attention on the need for an immediate end to the siege on Gaza.

Louise Arbor, President of the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, was quoted in The Independent as saying: “It is easy to condemn Israel’s attack on a flotilla of aid bound for Gaza as unnecessary, ill-conceived and disproportionate. What is harder to do – but what must now be done – is understand how this incident is an indictment of a much broader policy toward Gaza for which the wider international community bears responsibility.” Arbor’s argument, however, doesn’t go far enough in recognising that the latest bloodshed is also an indictment of the international community’s failure to prioritise and pursue a just peace process.

Lifting the blockade on Gaza’s 1.8 million residents is a much required step, as is a full and independent investigation into what occurred on the flotilla, but both are only part and parcel of the more urgent need to end a 62-year-old conflict.

What is required now, just when it seems least likely, is the immediate resumption of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Rather than serve as another opportunity to exchange fiery political rhetoric and further entrench divisions between two already polarised communities, let the deaths of those aboard the Mavi Marmara provide the impetus needed to persuade both Palestinians and Israelis to return to the negotiating table once and for all.

Unfortunately, however, reactions to the flotilla killings from international power brokers like the United States, Canada and Great Britain suggest little change to the status quo. Watered-down comments, such as Ottawa and Washington’s expressions of “deep regret”, are counterproductive and suggest an unwillingness to make any definitive statement on moving the peace process forward. Even the United Nations has only condemned in nebulous terms the “acts” aboard the flotilla and urged an investigation “conforming to international standards.”

Few countries have mentioned the need for constructive dialogue and as emotions run high, it is possible indirect peace talks launched just a few weeks ago will stall. But as French President Nicolas Sarkozy noted a few days ago: “Lasting peace and security in the region can be achieved only through peaceful dialogue and not through use of force.”

Western and Arab nations have remained largely silent throughout decades of appalling violence and suffering, but they must now find their voices. They are not only complicit in Monday’s tragedy, but also in the failure to achieve peace. The road towards a lasting and just peace, as countless failed negotiations testify, is one fraught with obstacles. But the difficulties can and must be overcome.

Violence and finger-pointing is unsustainable – only a decisive agreement will protect the rights of the Palestinians and provide assurances to the Israelis. The two sides must accept the inevitability of peace and coexistence, and the international community must help them achieve that.

The United States, Israel’s closest friend, has the biggest role to play in coaxing along negotiations. When US President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim world in Cairo last year and pledged to seek a new era in relations, he was lauded by the Palestinians as setting the tone for a more balanced American policy in the Middle East. Now is the time for him to seize the opportunity and live up to his words.

If anything is to be gained from the flotilla deaths and injuries, it is that they will symbolise a critical moment in reigniting peace-building efforts. If the opportunity for a peace settlement is squandered, it is inevitable that such bloody confrontations will only continue. Let us hope that international outrage at such senseless and avoidable violence will push the world into demanding an end to the bloodshed and hatred that led to it in the first place, working alongside both Palestinians and Israelis for a sustainable, constructive solution.

Combatting a memory for forgetfulness

3 Jun

Sodeco’s war-weary Barakat building to be renovated
Structure to house public memorial to civil conflict
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, June 02, 2010

(NOTE: Pictures of how the building looks now and how it will be transformed will be posted shortly. Sorry for the delay)

BEIRUT: For years, architect Mona Hallak lugged a beautiful antique floor tile around Beirut, eager to show it to anyone who would spare her a few minutes of their time.

She had pinched the tile from a war-ravaged building in Beirut’s Sodeco Square that she’d lost her heart to in the 1990s.

Even in its decrepit state today, it’s not hard to see how it captivated her. The architecture of the Barakat building, an imposing yellow structure straddling Independence Avenue and the Damascus Road, is one of a kind in Lebanon.

Built by two different architects in the 1920s and 1930s, the Barakat building mixes elements of Art Deco with sweeping Islamic arches, stain glass windows and oriental balustrades. Although it is impossible to tell from outside, the four-story building actually consists of two distinct structures unified by freestanding balcony columns. “The building symbolized the whole of Beirut,” says Hallak. “It symbolized how divided the country was and how it was camouflaged as being united.”

When sectarian tensions spilled over into Civil War in 1975, the Barakat building was one of the conflict’s many casualties. It was taken over as a militia headquarters, with snipers taking advantage of commanding views from every room in the building to kill those on the streets below in relative safety.

The fighters added their own layer of architecture to the structure – concrete buttresses to fortify the walls and ceilings, sand bags, and lots of graffiti. Within a few years, the Barakat building, once a sign of liberalism, progressive thinking and cross-cultural dialogue, had been transformed into a pock-marked symbol of bitter hatred, division and ruthless killing.

When the war ended, the Barakat family hoped to cash in on the post-war construction craze and sold the building to a development company. It would have been demolished if one day in 1997, Hallak, who was passing through the area, hadn’t looked up at the building’s façade and noticed the iron railings from the balconies were missing. Hallak rushed inside to find workers preparing for demolition. “The tiles were piled in a corner ready to go and the destruction permit was hanging on the wall,” she recalls. “I never thought this building would go down … I went crazy.”

Slipping one of the tiles into her handbag, Hallak hurried to her office, rallied her colleagues and began a concerted media campaign to preserve the building.

The architect visited officials from the Culture Ministry, the governor of Beirut and foreign ambassadors hoping to find a sympathetic ear. She would pull out the filched tile and tell her audience, “this is the tile- imagine how beautiful the house is!”

After years of tireless campaigning and with the support of the Italian and French embassies, Hallak finally achieved what many had thought was impossible. Beirut Municipality revoked the demolition order and in 2003 expropriated the building.

The war-weary structure is now being renovated and converted into Beit Beirut, a museum of memory, war and contemporary history. Prime Minister Saad Hariri inaugurated the project in early April and actual restoration and construction is due to begin in October at an estimated cost of $10 million.

Its restoration and modernization is being carried out by architect Youssef Haidar, with technical assistance from the Municipality of Paris.

Once opened, Beit Beirut will be the closest thing Lebanon has to a public war memorial. Traces of the war like the fighter-built fortified walls will be preserved and incorporated as part of the museum’s permanent exhibition. “When you are there you feel the futility of war,” says Hallak. “It is exactly what a war memorial should be.”

Although Beit Beirut will chiefly be a museum, it will be “much more” than that, says Haidar. He hopes the building will help the Lebanese confront and reconcile their painful past.

The revamped Barakat building will connect to a new edifice built on an adjacent lot through a large spiral staircase, with both structures boasting state-of-the-art solar power systems. Just as the Lebanese themselves should be, says Haidar, the building will look firmly into the future while paying tribute to its past. “We are dealing with the building as if it is a war wounded that is starting to heal again,” says Haidar. “These traces cannot be erased, they are like scars.”

The museum will have an auditorium for lectures and workshops for young people on issues relating to memory, history and war- issues Haidar says have not been addressed at all in Lebanon.

“We went from amnesty to amnesia,” he says. “It’s important that at Beit Beirut, we can make a start in order to be able to say ‘never again.’”

Hallak envisions Beit Beirut as a living museum where visitors can interact and contribute to building up knowledge about their city. She’s put forth a proposal to have a “Beirut for Everybody” section on the ground floor, where locals can bring in and exhibit anything from their grandmother’s traditional Beiruti recipes to old cinema tickets. “We want to create a relationship between the city and the museum,” she says.

In addition to a permanent installation of personal items collected from the building, Beit Beirut will also host rotating exhibitions by artists, architects and urban planners on themes relating to the war, public space and contemporary history.

“It will be a place that will teach Beirutis to love their city,” says Hallak. “We don’t love our city because we don’t know it.”

Haidar and Hallak also hope the success of the project will encourage municipalities across Lebanon to preserve other traditional buildings as Beit Beiruts.

“There are other buildings that can be worked in this way,” Haidar says. “We don’t want to just reduce the idea to this one building.”

Although pleased with the renovations, Hallak has one minor criticism: she wishes a large ficus tree outside the Barakat building hadn’t been chopped back.

Only a few feet tall when the war broke out in 1975, the tree had grown several stories high by the 1990s.

“The tree was the memory of the war,” says Hallak. “That would have been the most romantic way to remember the war – with life.”