The Lebanese Civil War
Reviving Memories

In 1975, the Lebanese civil war began. Thirty years later, the Lebanese organization "Umam D&R" has marked this anniversary with a youth project focusing on collective memories. Bernhard Hillenkamp spoke with participants and organizers.

photo: Bernhard Hillenkamp
Collecting and addressing war-era memories - participants of the "Umam" workshop in southern Beirut

​​On the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon, an organization called "Umam D&R" has initiated a project dedicated to preserving the country's collective memories. "Umam" means "nations" in Arabic, D stands for documentation, and R for research.

In keeping with the spirit of its name, "Umam" invited 25 young people to document and exchange recollections on the Lebanese civil war. The workshops, which were held in Hrat Hraik, a suburb south of Beirut, received support from the Beirut Goethe Institute as well as the Frankfurt organization "MEDICO International".

Hrat Hraik used to be off limits, not only to Western foreigners, but also to Lebanese from opposing camps. Hezbollah rules this suburb, an area where a number of foreigners were held captive during the 16-year war. Just as in other parts of Lebanon, people from the other side – in this case the Christians – were forced to leave.

Fifteen years later, a great deal has changed. Nonetheless, on April 13, the anniversary of the start of the civil war, it was the very first time that some of the young participants had ever set foot in the southern suburb. They met on four Sundays and exchanged experiences. The topic of discussion was the war and the viewpoints of the opposing sides.

No one won and no one was defeated

Contact between members of the different communities remains limited. Before the war, people all lived together in the multi-confessional state. War and sectarian cleansing have resulted in the formation of closed settlement areas with a homogenous population. The formula for co-existence in Lebanon after the civil war is that "no one won and no one was defeated."

Unlike post-war Germany, epithets such as "the good" and "the evil" could not be so easily applied in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war. There are many problems associated with this approach to history, however.

Truth is often the first casualty. Everyone has their own version of events in the civil war. The contentious parts of history are taboo subjects in public. Former adversaries often do not even know each other's perspectives of events.

The journalist Phillip Abresch, invited by the Goethe Institute and Lebanese hosts to conduct the workshops, provided participants with disposable cameras and tape recorders and gave them the task of getting to the bottom of this situation. They were told to document what went on in their families and in their district on the day that the civil war erupted.

The resultant short interviews with neighbors and family members were then presented during the workshops. Phillip Abresch already led a similar project in Iraq with children and American soldiers using disposable cameras.

Dealing with the past of civil violence

This time, the subject of investigation deals not the present, but rather the past. "The young people, equipped with disposable cameras and tape recorders, are encouraged to set out on a search for traces of the past and to investigate within their own families," explained Albresch.

The interviews and images were extremely diverse, and, in the end, were of secondary interest. Instead of the war, what the pictures and recordings really highlight are the identities of the young people themselves.

The participants from Ein al-Rumaneh photographed a striking number of Christian symbols. The Palestinians portrayed the poverty of the refugee camp. According to one of the project coordinators, "participants were all wearing masks, especially on the first two days of the workshop."

On the third day, a noticeable degree of sensitivity set in. The masks came off, slowly but surely. At first the language was aggressive, with terms like "us" and "them" dividing participants, a reflection of Lebanese society that only began to be questioned after a cooperative effort.

It wasn't sympathy, but rather a measure of empathy that gradually developed. The young people posed questions to each other as well as themselves, not only about the war and its causes, but also about the "other side".

"We have gotten used to each other and can talk normally, although we hate each other on account of our history," said one participant. "We got together and honestly exchanged views. That is already a lot," said Kamal Shayya, one of the coordinators.

The majority of the young people involved feel that the process "has to continue." Mohammed, for example, wants Bashir to teach him break dancing. "Sure, I'll teach you," said Bashir, smiling at the end of the workshop.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the teenager from Beirut's Christian quarter will really go to see his new acquaintance in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp.

There are many barriers to dialogue. The workshop participants talked about the controversial topic of war and, in particular, about their identity – a rare occurrence in Lebanon even day.

Bernhard Hillenkamp

© 2005

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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