Lebanon: The long civil war is over, but religious and ethnic divisions remain amid a peculiar official amnesia.
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Growing up in the middle of a civil war, with his city turned into a battlefield, bullets flying, neighbors disappearing, Yaser Abun-Nasr made sense of it as well as a 10-year-old boy could.
He collected bullets. Hundreds of bullets. Probably a thousand before he tired of it.
He learned the rhythm of war, how the shelling would start in the evening when the fighters got home from work, how that was the time for children to stop playing and go home and take cover. He grew up knowing children should not have to live like that.
Abun-Nasr is 37 now, an architect married to a teacher, and the two are trying to help the next generation of children make sense of their country’s history so they are not forced to repeat it – if there is sense to be made of a civil war that set Christian against Muslim and tore the country apart from 1975 to 1990.
First, they discovered, children have to be told what happened.
“In Lebanese schools,” says Maria Abun-Nasr, a high school history teacher, “the history books get up to 1975, and they stop.”
That means, she says, that most of today’s children might not know exactly what happened to their country. They don’t know that on April 13, 1975, Christian Phalangist militiamen seeking revenge for an attack on one of their own ambushed a bus carrying a group of Palestinians. Twenty-six people were killed, setting off a civil war that eventually swept in waves across nearly every part of the country.
An imaginary Green Line cut Beirut apart, a barricaded boundary that separated largely Christian East Beirut from largely Muslim West Beirut. Over the years of war, people adapted. Christians left the West and moved East, as Muslims did the opposite. Some government offices opened branches on both sides of the line. Schools moved.
Many people left.
“In 1984, when the Americans left,” says Maria Abun-Nasr, “my dad said, `Let’s go.’ We were evacuated to Cyprus.”
Today she finds that many of her students live in neighborhoods where they never cross paths with people of another faith, and where the lessons of the past have been forgotten rather than learned.
Lebanon had an unhappy reminder of the violence Thursday, when demonstrators in a poor, Shiite Muslim suburb of Beirut protested high gasoline prices. They reportedly threw stones at soldiers, who fired on them. Five people were killed, and a larger number were wounded, including 13 soldiers.
Such violence would be a chilling flashback for adults who lived through the war, but it would offer no such resonance for the young.
In an attempt to widen the context of their lives, Maria Abun-Nasr decided to embark on a project to teach her students about the past, as seen through the Green Line. First, she had her students interview adults they knew about how they lived through that time and how they remembered the Green Line. Then, she took the students on a tour of the Green Line, showing them photos of what had been, and had them reflect on what they saw. Now, she and her husband are planning to organize regular tours as a way to raise the nation’s consciousness about the past.
“I was born Christian,” Yaser Abun-Nasr says, “but I was brought up not to be partisan. You still have people today who believe something is wrong with people who live in another neighborhood. This demarcation line is up here,” he says, pointing to his head. “And it’s still there. The main issue has never been resolved. There has been no reconciliation.”
On a recent Saturday morning, the Abun-Nasrs take a small group of Americans to the intersection of Rue 86 and Rue 89 in a Christian neighborhood where the Palestinian bus was attacked and some of the buildings still bear bullet holes.
There’s a small wooden snack stand there now, in front of a parking lot. The owner, standing behind a counter displaying a bowl of bright pink pickled turnips, gives his name only as Michel and says adults don’t like to talk about the civil war.
They’re living in the present, he says, and they have children to worry about. There’s no need to bring up the past.
At first, Yaser Abun-Nasr says, the fighting was Christian against Muslim. Later, people went on to resolve other kinds of grievances with their bullets: “The Green Line split the city in half. It went through buildings.”
Driving along a boulevard near the National Museum, his wife offers a photo taken along the Green Line in 1989. Wrecked buildings line the street. Two shipping containers block the road, a checkpoint where opposing militias would stop people trying to cross.
“Sometimes they let people pass,” Yaser Abun-Nasr says. “Sometimes they were looking for a particular family name, for revenge, and if it wasn’t your name, you could pass. Sometimes they just wanted to shoot someone.”
Other photos show people hurrying to work, carrying some belongings in case they can’t get back. A bride and groom in wedding clothes pick their way through the bombed-out rubble of Damascus Road in 1977. A casket sits at the side of the road in 1976, awaiting a moment when the funeral can proceed.
“It was always incidents and retaliation,” Maria Abun-Nasr says, “without any resolution.”
One of her students interviewed a 40-year-old teacher, Ghada Chebaro, who gave this account of the war:
“They built a sand barrier right next to my house, right outside my balcony, as a barrier against gunfire. When they built this sand hill, I knew it was too dangerous to be living there, and I moved to the West. I soon left the country, after two bombs were dropped in the parking lot of my building.”
That teacher also told her student interviewer:
“I do think the Green Line still exists, and most people would agree with me. The Green Line exists in our mentality and our behavior.”
When the war finally ended, Lebanon took up its confessional politics, a system of getting along that requires the president to be a Maronite Christian. Sunni Muslims are assigned the job of prime minister. The president of the National Assembly must be a Shiite Muslim.
Bullet holes still pockmark many buildings, but much of the city has been reconstructed. All but 5 percent of the damage to Beirut’s buildings has been repaired, Yaser Abun-Nasr says.
Now, there are plans to build a Garden of Forgiveness in downtown Beirut where so many shells and bullets once flew. “You have to remember,” he says, “before you can forget.”