Lebanon's Forgotten Civil War

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday , December 20, 1999 ; A24

BEIRUT –– Shortly after she was honored with a UNESCO prize at the Venice Film Festival this fall, Randa Chahal Sabbag sent her movie--a brutal, bloodstained comedy set in wartime Beirut--to be vetted by Lebanon's government censor.

Perhaps, thought Chahal Sabbag, a Lebanese filmmaker who lives in Paris, her countrymen were ready for an unvarnished look at their 1975-90 civil war.

The movie, "A Civilized People," ran one hour, 41 minutes. The censor's verdict was harsh: 50 minutes of it, half the film, would have to go. Chahal Sabbag was disappointed but not entirely surprised; none of her previous films about the war has been screened in Lebanon.

"Everyone said to me, 'Why do you want to talk about the war?' " she said in an interview. "There has been a huge national effort to erase and forget all traces of the war."

Lebanon's civil war began nearly 25 years ago, and next year marks the 10th anniversary of its end. But even though the war left at least 100,000 dead, cities in ruins and much of the population traumatized, there is no plan in Lebanon to commemorate those dates.

The physical detritus of the war is everywhere, in the pocked facades of countless buildings and the graveyards that dot the country. Yet in the view of many analysts, an officially sanctioned amnesia has obscured memories of the war and discouraged the Lebanese from drawing lessons from it.

Although Lebanon is one of the most open Arab societies, talk of the war is regarded as beyond the bounds of polite conversation. In most history courses at the universities, the war goes all but unmentioned, its causes unexamined and its outcome unremarked. This fall, a television talk show that was to discuss the legacy of the war was canceled at the last minute on orders from above.

Even language itself has been massaged to avoid a direct reckoning with the past. When they mention the civil war at all, many Lebanese refer to it as "the events," or, indulging the notion that foreigners were mainly to blame, "the war of the others."

The risk in Lebanon's indifference to its recent history, say observers, is that it may intensify the danger of repeating the past. Sectarian hatreds among rival groups of Muslim and Christian Lebanese, which gave rise to the war and provided much of its fuel, are at least as great now as they were before the war's outbreak in 1975, many analysts said. Those tensions have dissuaded tens of thousands of Lebanese who fled the war and live overseas from returning to their homeland, even as the Lebanese economy struggles to right itself.

"This wound has not healed," said Farid Khazan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. "The idea is that we should forget the war, turn the page and move on. It's a scandal."

In Beirut, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested to raze and rebuild the shell-shattered downtown, there is almost no visible memorial to the war.

Last year, when a group of leftist intellectuals led a march to the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where more than 1,000 people were massacred in 1982 by Christian Phalangist militiamen, they were stunned to find the cemetery had become a garbage dump. Bulldozers had to be called in to remove the trash.

A sweeping amnesty, passed into law shortly after the violence ended, prevents prosecution of ordinary members of the militia and senior politicians alike, and acts as a deterrent to a searching public discussion of the war.

For instance, the commander of the Christian Phalangist militiamen, Elie Hobeika, was a minister in the Lebanese government until last year and remains a member of parliament. But like many others with a checkered past, Hobeika is covered by the amnesty.

The relatives of 17,000 people who disappeared in the war have recently tried to revive interest in tracing their loved ones. But faced with a national power structure whose leaders include former warlords, the relatives' group has met with official indifference.

Hassana Jamal, an activist pressing for an investigation into the fate of the disappeared, described her frustration. "We were talking to a member of parliament," Jamal said. "He said, 'Who remembers who killed whom?' "

"Responsibility, crimes, the disappeared--none of this was dealt with," said Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist, playwright and journalist. "The most tragic thing about the Lebanese civil war is that it is not a tragedy in the consciousness of the Lebanese."

Among intellectuals, there have been attempts to come to grips with the war. Novelists, artists and filmmakers have addressed the war, and scholarly papers are produced about it. At Lebanese American University in Beirut, a graduate-level seminar on the war is being offered this fall for the first time, and about 30 students are enrolled.

The students in the course are Lebanese in their twenties, a generation that as children and teenagers during the war often sat out the fighting in cellars or abroad. Confronted with the silence of their parents, much of this generation is barely conversant with the causes, conduct and effects of the war.

"The new generation wants to know how their parents messed it up," said Fawaz Trabulsi, the political scientist at Lebanese American University who is teaching the course on the war. "If you cannot get the victims back, at least you should leave to the next generation some lessons about the war so we do not repeat it."

The silence that enshrouds memories of the war was in evidence this fall, the 10th anniversary of a 1989 agreement meant to set the political framework for postwar Lebanon. As the October anniversary of the agreement came and went, the date was largely unnoticed.

The agreement, known after the town in Saudi Arabia where it was signed, Taif, set a 50-50 balance between Christians and Muslims in the Lebanese parliament and reordered the powers of the branches of government. But two major features of the Taif accord have not been implemented.

One was a plan to dismantle the sectarian structure of Lebanese politics, which has long been organized around parties beholden to one or another religious faction.

Not only is Lebanese politics still marked by sectarianism, said analysts, but the antagonisms among the various sectarian interests is greater than ever. None of the nation's major politicians is regarded as a truly national figure. Rather, each represents mainly the interests of his own clan--Christian Maronites, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims or Druze.

The Taif agreement also foresaw the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory. But 10 years later, the Syrian troops remain, now complemented by hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers. The Syrian presence has left Lebanon a sovereign state in name only, but it has also kept a lid on disputes among the country's competing sectarian factions.

"The guns have fallen silent. That's all that's happened," said Tewfiq Mishlawi, a political analyst. "Emotions have yet to reconcile. Hatreds have yet to be removed."

The chances for diminished hatreds seem remote to Chahal Sabbag, the filmmaker. She was considering leaving France to live in Lebanon next summer, but the reaction to her film has dissuaded her, she said.

Shortly after the censor saw the film, segments of the screenplay were leaked to Lebanese newspapers, which printed unflattering snippets containing religious and ethnic insults.

Some of the papers called her a friend to the Israelis--the ultimate smear in Lebanon. In the mosques, clerics attacked Chahal Sabbag, a Muslim married to a Christian, by name. Her brother, who played a sniper in her movie, received a death threat. If the movie is screened anywhere in the world, said the caller, he would be killed.

"They didn't just censor me," said Chahal Sabbag. "They decided to kill me off, and to kill off anyone who wants to talk about the war."