The Lebanese Civil War broke loose forty years ago this month. A cold war fuelled, by aggregating hostility between the Palestinian refugee community, a militarized state within a state, and their reluctant Lebanese hosts, became hot with deadly clashes between Palestinian and Maronite militias. Sects, clans, families, and the political parties and militias that gathered about them, went for their guns, the hounds of hell were loosed, and the massacres began.
In a Levantine echo of the Thirty Years War that raged through Western Europe from 1618, cities were destroyed and the countryside ravaged as armies, militias and gangsters fought over the fallen body of a divided and devastated land. Muslims fought Christians, Sunni fought Shi’a, Maronites fought Orthodox, Druze fought Muslims and Christians, communists fought nationalists, and Palestinians, at one time or other, fought everyone, including other Palestinians. And all changed partners and enemies in a bloody danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery.
This Hobbesian “war of all against all” drew in outsiders. Syrians, who during the course of their intervention, changed allies and adversaries as their political and strategic aims and interests mutated, and ruled the country until, implicated in the assassination of popular former prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, beat an undignified retreat (whilst never quite relinquishing the levers of power). Israelis, threatened by guerrilla attacks in the Fatah land of southern Lebanon, ostensibly invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian military machine, and as the midwife in the birth of the Shi’a Hezbollah, waded with eyes wide shut into a quagmire that many have viewed as their Vietnam. Americans and French, who intervened with the aim of separating the warring sides and pushing them towards a ceasefire, departed in the aftershock of Hezbollah bombs that killed hundreds of their servicemen. And United Nations Blue Berets who serve and die still in the hostile borderlands.
The war raged for the next fifteen years, staggering to an end in 1990 after claiming over 150,000 lives and destroying the lives of tens of thousands of others, including over 100,000 permanently handicapped. Nearly a million souls fled their homes, and some 76, 000 remain displaced to this day, now forgotten in the midst of the new and greater Syrian diaspora, whilst tens of thousands emigrated permanently. There are still some 17,000 “disappeared” who may be either still in Syrian or Lebanese jails, or more likely, in one of hundreds of unmarked graves scattered across this tiny country.
There are no memorials, no cenotaphs, no national commission to trace the missing, and no Madiba to gather and reconcile the sundered tribes. Just memories of what those who endured call “the events”, and for some, a selective amnesia. A harrowing half-life endures, sleeping embers constantly being fanned to life by the ill winds that blow across the porous frontier with Syria and the iron curtain that separates Hezbollah from Israel. It said that old wars beget future wars. And in no land can this be more of a self-fulfilling prophecy if the Gods Of War have their way.
As well they might as the legacy lives on in the rise and rise of Hezbollah, a non-state that is stronger than the state. In the use of car bombs, suicide bombers, foreign hostages, and human shields as canny weapons in what we now call asymmetrical urban warfare. In the destruction of the Palestinians’ once formidable military muscle, now quarantined in the Gaza ghetto and the impotent Palestinian Authority. In remembrance of the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla that still haunt Israeli and Palestinian dreams, when Yasser Arafat decamped for Libya with his army and left his people at the mercy of the Phalange militia. The Palestinians are still in Lebanon, still yearning for their terra irredenta in the south.
And in Lebanon redux, some say the old hatreds linger still and could rekindle the fires of war. Others hope that a younger generation do not take the road to perdition travelled by their elders. Armed young men in Sunni Tripoli and in Beirut’s Shi’a suburbs, and fighting in Syria may disagree. Calmer countries chart their fortunes with the rise and fall of their financial indices, whilst Lebanese can check the political weather by watching the market price of hand-guns and Kalashnikovs. They may have buried the hatchets, but many know where they are buried.
The roots and fruits of the Lebanese civil war are myriad and complex. The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk unravels them best in his tombstone of book, Pity The Nation. Read it and weep. For it is a bloody saga of trial and treachery, of enmity and endurance, of courage and cravenness, but most of all, of infinite sadness. And none more so than when he writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortal flesh.
The title of Fisk’s book is that of a poem written in 1931 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”.
Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.
Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking
Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.
Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.
Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.
Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)
© Paul Hemphill 2015. All rights reserved.