The Ghost of Lebanon’s Civil War: Remembering, 30 Years Later

The Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, has become known as one of the deadliest conflicts of the late 20th century. While it concluded almost three decades ago, Lebanon still suffers from its effects politically and psychologically. Lebanon is a multi-sectarian and multiethnic nation state, officially recognizing eighteen religious communities. A key element of the war’s difficult aftermath has been its nature as a primarily sectarian conflict which pitted numerous groups of Lebanese citizens against each other. This landscape, in which multiple sectarian militias each fought to take hold of the nation, is in part what allowed the war to continue for fifteen years.

The civil war finally ended in 1990 with the signing of the Ta’if Agreement. At this point, trust within the nation had been fractured—this was a war in which loyalty to sect was placed above that of nation. The transitional government’s immediate concern was to reunite Lebanon into a cohesive state. To achieve this goal and prevent a cycle of revenge killings for atrocities committed during the war, the signatories of the Ta’if Agreement decided to pursue a policy of state-sponsored amnesia, or what they referred to as la ghalib, la maghlub (no victor, no vanquished). Under this policy, a blanket pardon was placed on all actors involved in the civil war, and all crimes committed during the conflict went unpunished. In this way, they avoided placing responsibility for crimes committed during the war on any particular person or sect. It also allowed militia heads to move directly from the street to state institutions. Some of them, such as Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri and party leaders Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea, remain in government today. Consequently, crimes of the war, such as murders and kidnappings, were unsolved and unpunished. Today, almost thirty years later, this policy has continued to affect the ways that Lebanese remember and interact with the memory of the civil war. The government may have forgotten, but the people have not.

Discussion of the civil war in public settings is considered almost taboo. It is not taught in schools or discussed in detail in academia, media, or politics. As a result, narratives of the war are fractured, and each individual knows only what has been passed down through their community or family. This is primarily a result of state-sponsored amnesia, which disengages from the war completely both in speech and policy. Conspicuously absent from the aftermath of the war were any truth and reconciliation efforts, reparations for victims, or attempts to recover those who were disappeared and kidnapped, many of whom remain missing today. The lack of governmental response to the war has had the ironic effect of allowing sectarian tensions to fester; in the absence of an official narrative, each side may continue to blame the others. Additionally, the lack of reconciliation and state recognition of human rights violations have allowed trauma from the war to carry on to the present day. This becomes especially apparent in the cases of families who are still searching for their kidnapped loved ones, many of whom have formed committees which are still active to this day.

An additional aspect of the war’s salience in the present day is its perceived unfinished nature. Sectarian tensions—the main driving force behind the war—continue to simmer in Lebanese society, with occasional spats of conflict in the decades since the war’s end. Many within society perceive this violence as being a direct continuation of the war. In the absence of government commemoration or reconciliation efforts, there is a perception that the factors which began the conflict were never really resolved.

Nowhere is that illusion more apparent than in the governmental decision to hide the ruins of the war by building on top of them. Immediately after the war, billionaire and future Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri began a reconstruction project to rebuild the parts of Beirut which had been destroyed. Rather than simply repairing that which was already there, Hariri’s vision involved creating a completely new city on top of downtown Beirut. This project quite literally hid the destruction of the civil war under a veneer of capitalist aesthetic. The new downtown Beirut consists of a bustling shopping center and outdoor mall featuring a myriad of designer brands and overpriced restaurants. Hariri’s reconstruction effort—quite like the Ta’if Agreement—intended to cover the effects of the civil war by forcefully and quickly modernizing Lebanon. When observing the new neighborhoods of downtown Beirut, it can appear as if the fifteen years of the civil war were never lost.

In recent years, citizens themselves have been taking up movements to address the legacy of the war, and these projects have been increasingly gaining momentum. In particular, Lebanese artists, both in Lebanon and in the diaspora, have been producing works aimed at addressing their family’s personal history with the war. Journalists, writers, and activists have joined the movement as well, with many articulating their hope that breaking public silence around the war will lead to reconciliation and prevent such conflicts from occurring again in the future. In the past few years alone, artists have opened exhibits dealing with trauma, storytelling events have recreated events from the war, and activists have opened Beirut’s first civil war museum. The museum, called Beit Beirut (House of Beirut), is a former apartment complex built in the 1930s under French colonial rule, which was taken over during the civil war to be used as a sniper’s den.

Today, the house has been converted into a museum in memory of the war and was recently bought by the municipal government. Its exterior, riddled with bullet holes, has been left unrepaired to serve as a reminder. In a sense, Beit Beirut serves as a crossroads between colonial rule, the civil war, and today’s post-war remembrance efforts. Projects of such a nature have raised awareness of the war’s lasting effects in the present day and contributed greatly to lessening the social stigma against its discussion in public. As they gain momentum, the public discourse surrounding the Lebanese Civil War may finally address its memory on a nation-wide scale.

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