09 April 2005
How on earth do you celebrate a civil war? This is no idle question because in Beirut, the Lebanese - with remarkable candour but not a little trepidation - are preparing to remember that most terrible of conflicts in their lives, one which killed 150,000 and whose commemoration next week was originally in the hands of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri - who was himself assassinated on 14 February. Is this something which should be contemplated? Is this the moment - when all Lebanon waits for a Syrian military withdrawal and when the Hizbollah militia, itself a creature of that war, is being ordered to disarm by the United Nations - to remember the tide of blood which drowned so many innocents between 1975 and 1990?
On reflection, I think it probably is. The Lebanese have spent the past 15 years in a political coma, refusing to acknowledge their violent past lest the ghosts arise from their mass graves and return to stir the embers of sectarianism and mutual suffering. "Whatever you do, don't mention the war" had a special place in a country whose people stubbornly refused to learn the lessons of their fratricidal slaughter.
For almost 10 years, my own book on the civil war was banned by Lebanon's censors. Even Hariri himself told me he was powerless to put it back into the shops - ironically, it was a pro-Syrian security official whose resignation the Lebanese opposition is now demanding who lifted the ban last year - and none of Lebanon's television stations would touch the war. It remained the unspoken cancer in Lebanese society, the malaise which all feared might return to poison their lives.
There clearly was a need to understand how the conflict destroyed the old Lebanon. When al-Jazeera broadcast from Qatar a 12-part documentary about the war, the seaside Corniche outside my home in Beirut would empty of strollers every Thursday night; restaurants would close their doors. Everyone wanted to watch their own torment. So, I suppose, did I.
Everyone I knew lost friends in those awful 15 years - I lost some very dear friends of my own. One was blown up in the US embassy on his first day of work in 1983; another was murdered with an ice-pick. One, a young woman, was killed by a shell in a shopping street. The brother of a colleague - a young man who helped to maintain my telex lines during the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut - was shot in the head when he accidentally drove past a gun battle. He died a few days later.
And so this 13 April, the centre of Beirut is to be filled with tens of thousands of Lebanese for a day of "unity and memory". There will be art exhibitions, concerts, photo exhibitions, a running and cycling marathon. Hariri's sister Bahia will be staging the events which her murdered brother had planned. Nora Jumblatt, the glorious wife of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt - one of the warlords of those ghastly days - will be organising the musical concerts.
The original 13 April - in 1975 - marked the day when Phalangist gunmen ambushed a busload of Palestinians in Beirut. The bus still exists, the bullet holes still punctured through its rusting skin, but it will be left to rot in the field outside Nabatea where it lies to this day. The only bullet holes visible to the crowds next week will be the ones deliberately preserved in the statue of Lebanon's 1915 independence leaders, who were hanged in Martyrs Square, where a "garden of forgiveness" connects a church and a mosque and where Hariri's body now rests, along with his murdered bodyguards. The square itself was the front line for the entire war. Who knows how many ghosts still haunt its hundreds of square metres?
Not far to the east is the infamous "Ring" highway where Muslim and Christian gunmen stopped all traffic in 1975 and walked down the rows of stalled cars with knives, calmly slitting the throats of families of the wrong religion. Eight Christians had been found murdered outside the electricity headquarters and Bashir Gemayel directed that 80 Muslims must pay with their lives. The militias kept on multiplying the figures. When you are in a war, you feel it will never end. I felt like that, gradually coming to believe - like the Lebanese - that war was somehow a natural state of affairs.
And, like all wars, it acquired a kind of momentum de la folie. The Israelis invaded, twice; the American Marines came and were suicide-bombed in their base at the airport. So were the French. The United Nations arrived in 1978 with Dutch soldiers and more French soldiers and Irish soldiers and Norwegian soldiers and Fijians and Nepalese and Ghanaians and Finns. Everyone, it seemed, washed up in Lebanon to be bombed and sniped at. The Palestinians were slowly drawn into the war and suffered massacre after massacre at the hands of their enemies (who often turned out to be just about everybody).
That the conflict was really between Christian Maronites and the rest somehow disappeared from the narrative. It was everyone else's fault. Not the Lebanese. Never the Lebanese. For years, they called the war hawadess, the "events". The conflict was then called the "War of the Other" - of the foreigners, not of the Lebanese who were actually doing the killing.
A taxi driver who gave me a lift several years ago turned to me as we were driving through the streets and said: "Mr Robert, you are very lucky." And he meant that I - like him - had survived the war. I remember the last day. The Syrians had bombed General Michel Aoun out of his palace at Baabda - in those days, the Americans were keen on Syrian domination of Lebanon because they wanted the soldiers of Damascus to face off Saddam's army of occupation in Kuwait - and I was walking behind tanks towards the Christian hills.
Shells came crashing down around us and my companion shouted that we were going to die. And I shouted back to her that we mustn't die, that this was the last day of the war, that it would really now end. And when we got to Baabda, there were corpses and many people lying with terrible wounds, many in tears. And I remember how we, too, broke down and cried with the immense relief of living through the day and knowing that we would live tomorrow and the day after that and next week and next year.
But the silences remained, the constant fear that it could all reignite. No one would open the mass graves in case more blood was poured into them. It was in this sombre, ruined land that Hariri started to rebuild Beirut. It will be his new Beirut which will host next week's brave festivities, its smart shops and stores and restaurants and bars - despite Hariri's murder and the continuing crisis and the dark bombers who are still trying to re-provoke the civil war.
That Lebanon's war did not restart with Hariri's murder is a sign of the people's maturity and of their wisdom, especially the vast sea of young Lebanese who were educated abroad during the conflict and who do not - and, I suspect, will not - tolerate another civil war. And so I think the Lebanese are right to confront their demons next week. Let them celebrate. To hell with the ghosts.