Suddenly you can argue, without deteriorating into civil war
Inter-communal strife in Lebanon erupted 30 years ago into a civil war that went on for 15 years. The current differences between supporters and opponents of Syria show just how far Lebanon has come
"The war killed several of Ahmed's friends, and also the neighbor's daughter, whose body was blown apart in front of our eyes, and also a journalist who wrote a column I once read about bullets that hit a watermelon in his house.
"There, on the other side of my window, I watched dozens of young men with their eyes blindfolded, with a Kalashnikov muzzle stuck in their backs. The fighters holding the Kalashnikovs were children of the war - before the war, they learned in school, worked in factories or sat on chairs in the only cafe and restaurant in the neighborhood."
This painful description of a single street in Beirut during the civil war, as told by Lebanese author Hanan al-Sheikh in her book "Story of Zahara" (Andalus Books, translated into Hebrew by Mohammed Ghanem), could not be written at the time. Lebanon has come a long way since then.
Last week, Lebanon marked the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of its civil war. That war claimed approximately 150,000 lives over 15 years and brought Syria into Lebanon, turning it into a vassal state. But the war mainly tore apart - with inconceivable intensity - the ethnic and religious patchwork that was Lebanon. Although April 13, 1975 is considered the opening date of the war, the ingredients of the eruption dated back much further.
Three days before the war broke out, Lebanese director Maroun Baghdadi's first full-length film, "Beirut, Ya Beirut" opened. Baghdadi had recently returned home from film school in Paris. The film describes Lebanon shortly before the death of then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, five years before the war broke out. It was seen as a precursor of the war, as the first time anyone dared to talk openly about Lebanon's divisions.
What was to become known as the Ayn al-Rumana post office affair happened three days after the film's premiere. That day, the leader of the Christian Phalange, Pierre Gemayel, was going to dedicate a new church in Ayn al-Rumana, a neighborhood of Beirut. Shots from a passing car killed Gemayel's bodyguard, and the vehicle was identified as belonging to the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
A few hours later, a bus transporting Palestinian fighters was making its way from the Sabra refugee camp to Tel al-Zaatar, following a celebration at the camp marking the anniversary of a terror attack on Kiryat Shmona. The bus was preparing to cross the Ayn al-Rumana quarter, but an ambush of Phalangists was waiting for it atop the post office. Twenty-seven of the Palestinian passengers were killed in the attack. It was a seminal event - in a few months there would be all-out war.
All sides meddled in the war, particularly Syria and Israel. Syria was concerned about a partition of Lebanon into a Christian state and a Muslim state, and sent in Palestinian battalions under Syrian command to gain control of the Christian zones. Israel saw the war as an opportunity to realize the dream of a new arrangement with its ally Pierre Gemayel, who signed an agreement with it for arms and military training.
Fifteen years later, after considerable Arab and international pressure, the Lebanese understood that no one power or ethnic group could control the country. Building the ethnic coalition was expressed in the Ta'if agreement, signed in 1989, which came into effect in 1990. There was a reapportionment of the powers between the Christian president and the Sunni prime minister; the Shi'ite speaker of the parliament received important status, and it seemed as if Lebanon might live in peace with this new formula.
But now, 15 years after the Ta'if agreement, the old rumbles of war are still heard. The assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February and the automatic split between supporters and opponents of Syria - which pits Christians against Shi'ites, Druze against some of the Sunnis - stir up the still-fresh memories of belligerence.
In a special edition of the newspaper Al-Hayat, published in London, that was devoted to the 30th anniversary of the war, Lebanese journalist Khazem al-Amin described the feelings in the neighborhood of Ayn al-Rumana, where the war began. "The casual observer can feel the chill that dominates relations between residents of the region, casting its shadow on the streets and intersections, too. In spite of the likeness between the buildings and alleys, there is something in the air that signals to you there are boundaries on movement, boundaries that are clearly drawn between neighbors."
An invisible border runs from Al-Tiuna Square to the Mar Mikha'il intersection in Ayn al-Rumana, which the Shi'ite residents of the neighborhood manage to cross each time a little bit further into the Christian area, while the Christians are unable to prevent this "expansion."
The predominately Christian neighborhood of Ayn al-Rumana is near the Shi'ite Al-Shiah neighborhood. The young people of Ayn al-Rumana post guards at the entrances to buildings and at the intersections every night, while the Shi'ite residents of Al-Shiah "slumber on the bed of their victory from 1990 [the Ta'if agreement, which granted them much political power - Z.B.]." Every evening, the Christian youths of Ayn al-Rumana gather to assign guarding missions at the main crossroads of the neighborhood. Recently, there have been shooting attacks in the quarter, and without an army to safeguard the area, the young are taking the task upon themselves, with the Ayn al-Rumana Municipality providing sandwiches and warm clothes.
`They really kidnap people?'
This is the young generation of Lebanon, most of whom did not take part in the civil war but experienced it at home, in the neighborhood and in school. The young people who filled Freedom Square in Beirut, demanding independence from Syria (backers of Syria gathered at the Riad Solh Square), are producing new leaders who do not come exclusively from the large well-established families or the well-known factions. These are young people who have rediscovered their families, as Fatima al-Rida wrote in Al-Hayat: "Only this year I felt that I was an orphan, after my father was killed in the war 23 years ago." Al-Rida is a Christian woman of 24 ("I was 9 months old when my father was murdered") and only now is she understanding what happened to her. She writes that only this year can she ask her late father to forgive her for having rooted when she was a girl for the faction that was responsible for his murder.
"Do they really kidnap people? Do they check your ID card and on the basis of your religion decide to kill you or release you? Do the young fighters wear uniforms and get orders from their commanders?... How do you know who is a sniper? Is our neighbor George against me? Am I against him?" wrote Hanan al-Sheikh in a book she published three years before the end of the civil war. Similar outpourings from young Lebanese appear on Web sites with questions like "Who is with us and who is against us?" The reference is not to an external enemy, but to neighbors, classmates - or maybe the owner of the local grocery.
Reading the articles being written in Lebanon now, when the outbreak of the civil war is being commemorated, and comparing them with descriptions written during the war can amaze one - the country has traveled a long road in the 15 years since the civil war ended. Inter-communal tension still exists and breaks out almost daily, but the murder of Rafik Hariri did not trigger a new civil war. The old rage is spilling not into the streets but into books and think pieces and nonviolent protests.
The Lebanese satellite television station aired a memorial program in which representatives of most of the 16 best-known communities in Lebanon appeared. Until a few years ago, no one would have even dreamed of such a show. Back then, everyone was busy hiding differences, lest the ethnic genie pop out of the bottle and destroy the country. Everyone wanted to show that everything was fine, that there was one enemy, Israel, or at most there was a second enemy, Syria. Now it is okay in Lebanon to deal with Lebanon, and only Lebanon.