“You cannot erase everything and start again … We need to continue (…). Suffering is everywhere here, there, everywhere. Life is everywhere here, there, everywhere. Ignorance kills it (…). We must not drown. Dig in and come out alive. Write while I am still alive”.[i]
The war in Lebanon, especially since the 1970s, had – and still has – an impact on individuals and communities. It inflicted psychological and physical harm, and undermined social relationships, as well as individuals’ sense of belonging to society. How can the endless stays in shelters, the infernal noise of the bombing, the demarcation lines, the snipers, the forced migration (exile), the black markets to buy bread and kerosene at exorbitant prices, the power and water outages , the war games reproducing struggles of adults, the ‘holiday homework’s’ when schools were closed, the destruction of houses and public infrastructure, the dreadful and only news on the radio and television counting the dead, disappeared and wounded, all be forgotten…?
Some Lebanese chose to forget. They turned the page, and many fled to other countries. They even changed their names and chose not to teach their children their mother language. Perpetrators (ex-militiamen for example) did so because they feared vengeance; while victims chose to forget because they preferred leaving the experienced horrors behind. Still, the vast majority of Lebanese living in Lebanon are struggling with a continuous dilemma, in spite of the 1989 Taif Agreement, the 1991 Amnesty Law,[ii] and the famous Tabula Rasa applied by all Lebanese governments and major political parties for the last two decades.
The Taif Agreement (October 1989) or The National Accord Document as it came to be known, constituted the outcome of a process of a certain political compromise among Lebanese militia leaders and deputies, with the support of Syrians, Arabs and the International Community. It tackled many essential points pertaining to the structure of the political system and to the sovereignty of the Lebanese state. It was the right formula to end the war internally; however, it required the acceptance of incomplete sovereignty over a considerable period of time. The Taif Agreement constitutes a step forward, but does not provide the basis for a more stable and democratic system in Lebanon.
Lebanon has passed a General Amnesty Law in March 1991- by a parliament closely allied to the various warring militias. It gave amnesty to all politically-motivated war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 1970s and 1980s with a few exceptions. This has effectively allowed most warlords to escape prosecution and hold high posts in later governments until present day. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that neither the Israeli nor Syrian authorities have satisfactorily investigated any cases in which their forces were alleged to have been responsible for gross violations of international human rights or humanitarian law and that the international community has shown no interest in opening inquiries at a global level. Also, with regard to enforced disappearances, the fate of thousands of Lebanese and other nationals who have been abducted in Lebanon since 1975 remains unknown, despite years of campaigning by families of victims and non-governmental organizations.
To forget or to remember? This is a sensitive question that many Lebanese, especially those who were born and raised during the 1970s and 1980s, have tried to dismiss at some point in their lives, often times without any success.[iii] No matter how hard people may try, the horrors they have experienced cannot be eradicated from their minds. This dilemma sums up the tragedy and suffering of hundreds of thousands caught between amnesia, hypomnesia – abnormally poor memory of the past – and hypermnesia – abnormally strong memory of the past. Some may believe that forgetting will help them build a better future. Others think that remembering only the past glories in our history, the golden times of the Phoenicians, the Byzantine Empire, and the Arab caliphates will comfort the present of torn-spirits. However, without a critical remembrance of the more recent past, atrocities will continue to be perpetrated, and the culture of violence will prevail.
In this sense, it becomes urgent to work on the transformation of society and of social conditions, as much as it is urgent to help victims, survivors, and their descendants to deal with the impact of conflicts on them. In the absence of national memory building and of a common national history book taught in schools and universities[iv], one major goal should be to initiate the needed memorialization process. It becomes more urgent in a context where the culture of silence is pervasive in many families and where intergenerational dialogue is lacking. “It is quite common that members of the generation immediately succeeding the one that endured periods of extreme violence have trouble making sense of entire segments of their lives, not to mention their identity, as a result of the silence maintained by their parents, and, more generally, by the adults of the community.”[v]
Based on my previous studies, I found out that many of the reasons why a process of memorialization thus critical reflection is absent in the new generation may lie in the Lebanese education system and in the absence of dialogic peace education. This generation – born during the 1990s – needs to receive specific attention as it is the generation that inherits the experience of violence as still living memory, and “which molds and converts this remembrance into some form of collective memory or historical knowledge. It is in this crucial interval that the past can be frozen into fixed mythology, or comprehended in its historical complexity; and in which the cycles of revenge can be perpetuated or interrupted. The moment of transmission is important to dwell on, because it is a moment of real danger; but also of genuine hope and possibility”.[vi]
[vi] Hoffman, Eva. 2003. The Balm of Recognition: Rectifying Wrong through the Generations. In Human Rights, Human Wrongs ed. Nicholas Owen, pp. 29. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.