Tag Archives: Lebanese civil war

The writing is on the wall for Lebanon’s government

13 Apr

Lebanon may have escaped the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring, but the country’s ruling classes seem illiterate to its main message: that conceited rulers who do little to assist ordinary people in their daily quest for dignity will one day face their wrath.  

Compared to elsewhere in the region, things look calm in tiny Lebanon. But underneath the photo-shopped veneer promoted by the Ministry of Tourism lies a steadily boiling pot of despair and ruin.

Today marks the 37th anniversary of the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war. In 15 years of horrific violence, up to 300,000 people were killed and 17,000 are still considered missing. Lebanon never had a truth and justice commission and ignored its international obligations to investigate the whereabouts of the missing. Instead, it introduced a sweeping amnesty law in 1990, which allowed many militia leaders to return to Lebanese politics as ministers. Their sectarian grievances now mostly play out in Parliament, but followers of their personality cults occasionally still fight it out on the streets or on television. Because of the constant political bickering, issues of critical importance to the nation are being left to rot, quite literally.

An on-going scandal has exposed a number of factories selling meat products years past their sell-by dates to the country’s supermarkets and restaurants. Only a few arrests have been made, however, and commentators are pessimistic that government pledges for a full investigation will translate to meaningful action.

In January, a residential building in Beirut collapsed suddenly, killing 27 people. This was followed by several other collapses, including a school wall, which crushed three pupils to death. But despite the urgency for new building regulations, the government is doing little to prevent further similar catastrophes, choosing only to demolish one bridge experts have been warning might buckle for years.

The country’s list of woes goes on and on. Migrant workers not protected by Lebanon’s labour law are committing suicide at startling rates and Lebanese women continue to struggle against institutionalised discrimination and misogyny. Lebanon’s overcrowded prisons have been described as tinderboxes teetering ever closer to disaster, as have the country’s landfills. The worst one, in the Southern city of Sidon, regularly collapses, dumping tonnes of hospital and chemical waste into the Mediterranean Sea. Gas and food prices have steadily increased over the last few months, making it virtually impossible for Lebanese living on the minimum wage (around £280) to make ends meet. To add insult to injury, Lebanon endures mandatory daily electricity cuts, ranging from three hours in the capital to around 12 hours daily in rural areas.

If this Sisyphean list of problems isn’t enough to stir the Lebanese leadership to action, one might think the crisis in Syria, which is slowing seeping its way across the border, would. Earlier this week Lebanese cameraman Ali Shaaban was shot dead, allegedly by Syrian soldiers, while on assignment near the border. There is frequent sectarian fighting between pro- and anti-Assad supporters in North Lebanon and the number of Syrians (mostly women now since Syria has placed a ban on all men between 18-40 years leaving the country) seeking refuge in Lebanon from the violence is growing steadily.

And yet, with all this trouble mounting, what does the Lebanese government choose to focus on? It is currently prosecuting a graffiti artist by the name of Semaan Khawwam, for  “disturbing the peace” after he was caught spray-painting figures holding big guns.

Use of graffiti is widespread in the Lebanese capital. In the absence of a coherent protest movement, street art is increasingly being used to convey people’s grievances with the state, whether it be over the lack of a marital rape clause in the criminal code, widespread corruption, drink-driving, or high unemployment.

Khawwam’s soldier-like figure doesn’t clearly attack any person or institution, so it remains a mystery to many why his case is being pursued out of many thousand possibilities. More importantly, graffiti art is not actually illegal under Lebanese law. Yet he faces a fine and possibly three months in prison if convicted. His lawyer, Adel Houmani, made an important point when he questioned the legitimacy of the case: “If this artistic work is vandalism,” he told Al Akhbar newspaper, “then what do we say about the photos of leaders that are posted everywhere, in addition to all the random posters and ads?”

The case against Khawwam shows just how muddled the logic of Lebanon’s leadership is. This is a country where politicians struggle to identify the country’s most basic priorities, mainly because their priorities are to stay in power, leading luxurious lifestyles deeply out of touch with most of their constituents.

The writing, it would seem, is on the wall. It’s not only Lebanon’s meat, fish and poultry that is way past its expiry date- its leaders are too.

NOTE: The travel ban on Syrian men has now been rescinded.
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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.”

Something amiss? Lebanon’s amnesia for those missing since the civil war

2 May
Dalila Mahdawi
BBC News, Lebanon

The people who went missing during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s and 80s are in danger of being forgotten as their parents and siblings grow older. One mother I knew died without ever discovering what happened to her children.

Audette Salem was just one woman whose loved ones disappeared in Lebanon’s civil war.

Some 17,000 people vanished during the bloody conflict, most – it is thought – abducted and killed by militias. But some believe a few hundred may still be alive in Syrian jails.

Audette outside the tent in Beirut she lived for five years
Audette with photographs of those who disappeared, displayed on her tent

I first met Audette in a tent outside the United Nations headquarters in Beirut.

She, along with other families of the missing, had set up home there to demand an investigation into their disappearance.

A 77-year-old woman with a small frame and a resigned look on her face, Audette quietly told me about the day her son and daughter disappeared.

‘Stop looking’

It was 1985, and 19-year-old Marie-Christine and 22-year-old Richard were driving home for lunch with their elderly uncle George.

Somewhere along the way they were kidnapped.

At home, Audette waited for them to arrive – for hours – anxiously looking out of the window for signs of their orange Volkswagen.

When it dawned on her what might have happened, she went to the militia leaders, risking her own life to glean what information she could.

Invariably, Audette told me, the men would tell her they didn’t know anything.

She never saw or heard from her family again.

Audette would tidy her children’s bedrooms as though they might reappear that very evening

Five years later, when the war ended, Audette again visited the militia leaders, who had, by then, become government officials.

She said they cold-heartedly told her to stop looking and move on.

With the passing of time, the chances that Richard, Marie-Christine and George were still alive diminished.

Yet Audette refused to give up hope – it was all she had left.

She would tidy her children’s bedrooms as though they might reappear that very evening.

She rearranged Richard’s guitars, cigarettes and razors, and dusted Marie-Christine’s bed and make-up.

War amnesia

Audette was interviewed three times by a commission established by the government to look into the disappearances.

But she felt the commission let her down – it never published its findings and did little, she claimed, to investigate the hundreds of mass graves dotted around the country.

Shortly after the war ended, the Lebanese government passed an amnesty law protecting militia members from being prosecuted for war crimes. It also effectively snuffed out any hopes of a real debate about the bloodshed.

Indeed, it seems the war amnesia is no accident. Since I first came to Lebanon 10 years ago, I’ve seen traces of the conflict almost completely wiped away.

Back then, I was stunned by all the bullet-riddled buildings. Now, I’m shocked by how few of those buildings are left to remind people of the war.

West Beirut's Manara seafront promenade
Beirut’s Manara seafront is a holiday destination once again

It is almost as if it never happened.

There are no official war memorials or commemoration dates, and up until a few years ago, the site of an infamous massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps was a rubbish dump.

Because of the reluctance to stir up memories of the war, little has been done by the government to investigate the whereabouts of the missing.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has said he will bring up the issue of the disappeared in talks with the Syrians, whose military were present in Lebanon soon after the start of the civil war and until just five years ago.

But many are sceptical anything significant will come out of it.

“Why,” people ask, “should the Lebanese expect the Syrians to tell them where their missing are, if the Lebanese themselves seem unable to answer that question?”

Too late

As some of my Lebanese friends tell me, the war may be over on paper, but in people’s minds it rages silently on.

Sectarian tensions, mostly between rival Christian and Muslim groups, are still very much a part of Lebanon’s social fabric.

Without a proper discussion of why the war happened and what occurred during the conflict, many believe Lebanon’s troubles will never truly go away.

Photos of Audette attached to the side of the protest tent outside the UN building
A memorial to Audette was attached to her protest tent shortly after her death

For people like Audette, any truth which is uncovered about the war will have come too late.

She lived in her protest tent for 1,495 days, giving up the comforts of a real home to brave hot summers and blustery winters in the company of others who had lost relatives.

But last May she was killed by a speeding car as she crossed the road near her tent.

At her funeral, held at the tent, more than 100 friends gathered to pay their last respects.

They also came to deliver a message to the government: Audette spent the last 25 years searching for news of her children and died no closer to finding it.

This spring, those friends are no doubt hoping Audette’s prayers will one day be answered.

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As the 33rd Anniversary of the Start of the Lebanese Civil War passes, many, although not the government, are still asking: where are the ‘disappeared’?

13 Apr

(By Dalila Mahdawi, Published in the Middle East Reporter)

 

April 13, the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating Lebanese 1975-1990 civil war, came and went quietly and perhaps even unnoticed for many in the capital city Beirut.

 

For many families, however, the anniversary was a painful reminder that the war and all of its consequences still haven’t been properly addressed. Even on the symbolic level, there is no official day to commemorate the war, nor any monument or memorial to honor the dead.

 

Around 100,000 people were killed in the 15 years of fighting and it is thought that up to 17,000 individuals ‘disappeared’. Many of those were arrested, kidnapped or killed by the Israeli and Syrian armies or by the Palestinian and various sectarian Lebanese militias that were involved in the fighting. Hundreds are thought to still be in Syrian and Israeli prisons. After the 1989 Taif Accord ended the civil war, the government was keen to leave issue of the war behind, and declared an amnesty law for all crimes perpetrated before March 1991. As a result, the fate of most of those who ‘disappeared’ remains largely unaccounted for and ignored to this day.

 

Civil Mobilization

In the face of governmental inaction, it has been left up to civil society in Lebanon to mobilize. There was a surge in activity in the weeks leading up to the April 13 anniversary. Offre Joie, the Lebanese Association for Human Rights and other local NGOs organized a peace march through Beirut that day. On April 10, the NGO Support of the Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE) held a press conference outside the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) building in downtown Beirut, where several families have been holding a sit-in protest for the last three years to demand an investigation into the fate of their loved ones. Speaking to the assembled press, SOLIDE Director Ghazi Aad lamented the failure of the Lebanese government to investigate the ‘disappeared’, saying, “Lebanon is party to this crime in its refusal to take the issue seriously.” Another Lebanese NGO, UMAM- Documentation and Research (UMAM-D&R) organized a talk entitled “What is to be done? Lebanon’s War-loaded Memory”, together with an exhibition of photographs of hundreds of the disappeared, “MISSING”. At the talk was Dr. Alex Boraine, deputy chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and chair of the International Center for Transitional Justice, who stressed that an open and honest assessment of war crimes could help to heal traumatized societies, citing South Africa’s experience as an example.

 

Just days after the anniversary, Lebanese authorities examined what was thought might be a mass grave on the Halat highway, near Byblos in northern Lebanon. Although nothing was found, the investigation testifies to the fact that Lebanon still has a long way to go in addressing its war memories, on both a symbolic and practical level. Further evidence attesting to that fact is the vicious criticism that Michel Aoun, head of the opposition Free Patriotic Movement, received from other MPs after alleging that a mass grave was located at the Halat site. AS SAFIR reported Amin Gemayel, head of the Phalange Party, as accusing Michel Aoun of “digging up the past,”  whilst AN NAHAR reported Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea as criticizing Aoun for “lying”.

 

Amnesty Law

A key factor in the collective amnesia on the issue of the ‘disappeared’ is a 1991 Amnesty Law which absolved all individuals of accountability and prosecution for crimes committed before March 28, 1991. After that, many former militia men shed their combat clothes for expensive suits and took up ministerial positions in government, thus rendering the chance of any governmental probe into the civil war impossible. According to the brochure for UMAM-D&R’s MISSING exhibition, “The Lebanese choice-opting for amnesty and “turning the page of the past” – has clearly been a fiasco… The rationales for the amnesty laws demonstrate the factors that led to the complete absence of serious governmental or civil initiatives to deal with the past.”

 

The current political climate is not helping advance the demands of the families for an investigation into the disappeared, either. Lebanon has been in political deadlock for the last few years- parliament has not convened for the last sixteen months and no President has been elected to replace Emile Lahoud, who ended his tenure in November 2007. A bitter battle between the parliamentary majority and the opposition over the formation of the new government is to blame. The tents of the families camped outside ESCWA are almost invisible amongst those of the opposition, which have brought the area to a complete standstill.

 

In a related development, the Christian Phalange Party and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on April 15 held a conference aimed at reconciling the two parties that were vicious enemies during the war. According to the official Phalange website (www.kataeb.org), Phalange chief Amin Gemayel stated at the conference that “we should – rather than remembering the battles and heroism that occurred between us and the Palestinians – recall the relationship between Lebanon and Palestine before the Naqba [Israeli victory of 1948, resulting in the “Catastrophe” of around 800,000 Palestinians being made refugees] … the social, cultural, and spiritual proximity between our two peoples that made Palestine, of all Arab states, closest to Lebanon.” The conference follows an apology to the Palestinians by 44 Christian figures who participated in the war, which was itself preceded by an apology in January on behalf of the Palestinians to the Christians by PLO representative in Lebanon Zaki Abbas. Although certainly positive steps towards reconciliation, it is to be seen whether these developments will lead to any admissions by either side over the fate of missing persons, or an investigation into their whereabouts.

 

With no end in sight to the political stasis strangling Lebanon, the families of the ‘disappeared’ look set to face more years of inaction. But, as the activities of SOLIDE, UMAM-D&R and other NGOs testify, those families do not appear willing to remain silent about their missing loved ones, even if their politicians do.