Overcoming fear and mistrust

Processing Lebanon's long legacy of collective trauma

In Lebanon, collective trauma is obvious. The explosions in Beirut on 4 August will have triggered memories of the civil war in many people. By understanding how individual and social identities are influenced by the past, peace work can help contribute to the healing process. By Miriam Modalal and Dalilah Reuben-Shemia

The Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, left many wounds unresolved and resulted in a fragmented society with deep sectarian divides. The end of the civil war was followed by a collective suppression of memories about the past three decades. The state promoted this process with the hopes of creating a sense of normality. This may have primarily numbed the pain, yet it failed to deal with the deep wounds of loss, shame and despair.

Collective narratives of victimhood were passed on within fragmented communities. The past remains taboo for school history books and open public discourse has been silenced. Instead, migrants and refugees, not to mention foreign powers, are scapegoated as being the overriding threat to security and the reason for social and political misery. A language of fear and mistrust has given political parties a platform to manipulate the collective need for safety and security.

Recent events of a massive nationwide uprising, which started in October 2019 and is known as the October Revolution, called these realities and heteronomous identities into question. Following a government announcement to tax Internet voice calls, protesters all across the country rose up, demanding an end to corruption, clientelism and the lack of accountability.

The October Revolution led to a collapse of the government, while the country has suffered several months at the brink of financial bankruptcy. A divided society – where many had remained silent for so long – was unified in calling for a root-and-branch transformation of the social and political make-up of Lebanon. It was the end of a prolonged period of collective paralysis.

 

Peace work that responds to trauma

Entire communities can be traumatised by violent conflicts and the traumas can be passed on from one generation to the next. In Lebanon, collective trauma­ is obvious. With its projects on "Dealing with the Past", forumZFD, a German peace organisation working within the Civil Peace Service programme, uses multi-perspectivity – the idea that history is interpretational and subjective – to engage people in conversations about the past. It thus contributes to a healing process of collective trauma through understanding how individual and collective identities are influenced by the past.

During its "Memory of War" training series, peace activists from various conflicted communities reflected on collective narratives of identity and mind-sets influenced by the consequences of the civil war. In light of events surrounding the October Revolution, the activists explored the importance of a healthy mourning process.

This is prerequisite for breaking the deadlock of mind and body that exists when trauma – resulting in collective emotions of fear and despair – remains unresolved. The activists were encouraged to look at current conflicts in their communities through a multi-perspective lens and acquired techniques to address the past in the present.

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