20.11.07

Painful Lebanese Memories:Part One

I am not posting on Lebanon these days. That's because I have been immersed for the last two weeks in my memories from the civil war while answering my son's questions for a college work he is doing for his French professor on Lebanon.

This is the first time I share the painful memories of the civil war years in Lebanon with my family in such vivid details. My son wanted me to tell him the war from my perspective and intimate experience. While doing so, he and I came to realise that my first intimate experience of the Lebanese civil war was in fact the result of a little war inside my own diverse Christian community. I discovered through the process that the 1975-1990 civil war was in fact an ensemble of small wars conducted at a small and therefore much horrible, because much closer, scale, inside communities, to erase diversity and differences within the community and to radicalise positions. For the people like me, who were against the war and lived it as a terror imposed upon them by extremists from both sides, it was these little wars, all embedded in the big official war, that mattered most. I came to realise this when my son started to ask questions about the 'other war', the war he read about in the books, the war between Muslism and Christians, because my narrative was that of a war inside a small Christian community in north Lebanon.

1975. I was seventeen when the war started in my little village, I had just graduated from college and was looking forward to start university. A small detachment of the presidential guard, as many others from the Lebanese army, was released from its official duty. The president felt at the time that he would be better protected by his own militia. The head of the presidential guard came to the village with some of the guards, their weapons and tanks. They quickly allied with the local Phalanges - executioners with Sharon of the sabra and Chatila massacres, part of present day Lebanese Forces, Israel's long time friends, and March 14th main allies - who were ill equipped locally at the time, in order to fight, not Muslims, no, but progressists and pro-Palestinian forces, mainly Greek orthodox Christians, in the nearby village. The first move was a public display of the weapons in the main place in my village, and a clear message of hostility toward the neighbouring community traditionally allied to Palestinians and the Syrian Progressist Nationalist Party. The main road to our village crosses the other one. So the first effect of such hostilities was a self imposed blockade. My mother and other women in the village started to make their own bread and there was even a time when flour was scarce in the village. The community was cut from the outside world and the militia reigned in. They ruled by terrorising and killing non compliant people, unlawfully imprisoning and torturing, until they got a total control on the village occupying the houses of the people who left, enrolling young people without proper training, and imposing a local tax on villagers.

I told my son that before this there was political and ideological diversity in my village, even sometimes in the same family. After the milita took over, nobody would dare express a different political opinion. The main thinking was that Muslims fighting with Palestinians and Palestinians and their sympathisers were subhumans and deserved just to be killed. I guess it must have been the same thinking on the other side of the larger divide. My father imposed a curfew in our own house. He was afraid that my two young brothers would be enrolled in the militia. He told us not to open the door to anybody when he wasn't in the house. He made me burn my books, some of them, he suspected, could be used against him and my brothers, who were younger than me, for expressing dissenting political opinions. He told me that if there was retaliation against us, who were known as, at best, neutral, at worst, sympathisers of political progress and against the civil war, it will be against the men of the family. 'Women for them', my father told me, 'are not a worthy target'.
Because at the beginning of the war, and especially in small places in Lebanon, the weaponry used was the looted old weaponry of the Lebanese army, the first impact of the war on my village was a bomb from a small caliber canon making a lot of noise and a hole in one of the village's roads. I remember the night the first bomb fell on the village. I was reading, at three O'clock in the morning, a book found in my father's library, which was probably forbidden for me, 'Lady Chatterley', in its French translation. It was quite a strong escape from the anxieties of the looming war for the seventeen year old I was. I remember my mother waking up screaming, rushing us to the bathroom to hide us there. Retrospectively, this was a dangerous place to hide in but there was nowhere we could hide. The village's houses were mostly made of one floor, no upper floor and no basement to protect from falling bombs. We would later find a safe place in my grand'parents ancestral and Ottoman era house with its meter thick walls and upper floor adorned with Qanatir. We stayed there for a while until my father decided that things were getting very ugly between people inside the village. We were to leave the village for a more civilised place. This is when my father sent us, me with my mother and my brothers, to another war area, Jounieh, to my aunt's house there. He said that we wouldn't be safe from bombs but at least, as nobody knows us there, we would be safe from psychological terror. He stayed behind in the village, to guard the house and to 'offer his services to the militia', as he said, as they have asked each family to contribute with human resources to the war effort. My father told us not to be afraid, he said that if my brothers could escape forced enrolement at their young age he was saving their souls. As for him, he was old enough not to be fooled by the ideology of terror. I remember that we stayed three months at my aunt's. My father came to visit once. We missed him.

As the Phalanges took over the village and the nearby village, tensions eased inside our village. But there was fear and mourning. Many people had left. Many wouldn't speak to each other. Many were denounced by their long time neigbours and friends. Many were killed in personal vendetta, and some disappeared without explanation (I suspect they were killed and their bodies hidden from their families somewhere).

We returned from Jounieh. I remember this precise day. I was eager to see my village again but as we crossed the nearby village that was conquered, I saw desolation, empty roads and half bodies burning on the sides. My mother had to put her hands before my eyes. There weren't many material casualties in my own village, but the damage was elsewhere. It was inside the hearts and the minds. And it was there to stay forever. I knew inside that our future and my brothers' future wasn't going to be in this country.

I think the only movie that describes best my war experience in lebanon is 'Les petites guerres' of the late Lebanese filmmaker Maroun Baghdadi. I saw the movie when it was released in France after I left Lebanon. But my own experience was much worse. This was a civil war that happened inside a small isolated community. This experience was to define me for life.

9 comments:

Jeb Koogler said...

Dear Sophia - I don't know how best to respond to this post other than to thank you for writing it. It was extremely moving, and I can imagine how difficult it was to recount to your son.

Wolfie said...

Thank you for sharing these difficult memories with us Sophia. Interestingly your account is remarkably similar to that of a long-time Lebanese colleague of mine, he is a modern Muslim with almost no interest in religion and considerable Christian sympathies, but the feelings are very similar.

Sophia said...

Jeb,

There was a time when these memories couldn't even come to me in such a precise way. They were foggy. They came back only I guess when I must have felt safe enough not to be threatened by them.

Sophia said...

Wolfie,

Terror has only one way. I am sure it must have been the same thing on the other side for your friend.

homeyra said...

Dear Sophia
Thanks you for this moving post. We have witnessed in a way or another our countries being kidnapped in front of our eyes, in broad daylight.
What a waste.

Sophia said...

Homeyra,

The point is whenever there are extremists, they have to hijack the sytem in order to succeed because most people don't follow them in the beginning, most people only follow this way when they are forced to do so. You are right, extremists set the agenda and they force the rest to follow through chaos, wars, and psychological terror.

Elizabeth said...

Interesting and disturbing post.

Sophia said...

Elizabeth,

This is why I returned only 23 years later, after I left Lebanon. And even there I didn't spend much time in the village. It was in 2005, I returned because I knew that the country was going to enter a new round of instability. During our stay we were constantly on the move, we changed place every two days. This way of traveling in my country prevented me from focusing on my painful memories.

Ibn Bint Jbeil said...

wow, most excellent narrative.

not to pressure you into delving into your painful memories, but they are important. i look forward to reading latter installments.

 
Since March 29th 2006