How one mapping project is challenging Lebanon’s ‘amnesia’ towards its own past

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The following was initially published under the title ‘putting Lebanon’s civil war ‘amnesia’ on the map‘ for Al Araby. The following is the original unedited version.


Launched under the #CounteringAmnesia hashtag, the “mapping of initiatives addressing the past in Lebanon” by Lebanon Support and forumZFD documents over 156 initiatives in the country attempting to address its past between the end of the civil war in 1990 and 2017.

When the civil war officialy ended in Lebanon, the subsequent government, under the Assad regime’s ‘tutelage’, passed a law exhonerating crimes committed during the war, with the notorious exception of “crimes against religious leaders and government officials and other politicians”.

With the underlying issues left without solutions, many warlords would end up in power, including several high-ranking politicians today from the president to the speaker of parliament, passing by several MPs and sectarian party members.

In addition to causing untold pain and suffering to survivors and the families of those still ‘missing’ to this day, what this status quo has done is implement a de-facto amnesia on the war throughout Lebanon.

This ‘amnesia thesis’ so widely discussed in Lebanese studies has defined post-war life and politics in Lebanon to the extent that the postwar generation, my generation, grew up with no available social tools to tackle the war’s many consequences. We’ve inherited empty frameworks that do nothing to truly understand what the war years meant, what lessons, if any, could come out of them, and what should be done to make sure that not only are they not repeated, but that it becomes impossible for them to be repeated.

Many Lebanese compensated by developing a resilience to learning about our own history. This was, to a large extent, my experience growing up in Lebanon. The past became a black hole from which nothing could escape long enough to be exposed and examined. Others still adopted sectarian narratives passed down by the previous generation and/or developed in the postwar era. The resulting effect was to allow for the growth of various contradicting narratives within a country already unable to produce a single coherent one.

Nearly three decades later, the sectarian regime remains virtually the same. Politics in Lebanon is still at the hands of these relics of the war and the businessmen who have made a fortune out of the postwar ‘reconstruction’ of Beirut and Lebanon as a whole. As I’ve written elsewhere, the agents of war became the de facto agents of peace, and it goes without saying that they have proven incapable of playing that role.

Lebanon’s story is not unique, despite everything we like to tell ourselves. The tendency to view the war as some foreign imposition  – ‘a war for the others’ as Ghassan Tueni notably stated – or worse still through simplistic sectarian narratives which benefit certain parties – such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces or the rest of the sectarian parties – has long paralised progressive voices.

In recent years however, the situation has started to shift in Lebanon. Although their impact is still fragile, the significance of movements such as ‘You Stink’ in 2015, Beirut Madinati in 2016 and the various independent campaigns in the 2018 elections should not be underestimated. As the warlords get older, these movements represent the inevitable weakening of the ‘pro-amnesia’ politics that many long thought too risky to tackle.

In this context, what the #CounteringAmnesia campaign contributes to is nothing less than providing progressive voices with readily available tools to counter this toxic (an apt description in the aftermath of ‘You Stink’) status quo.

As they explain on the website, “each initiative was mapped and categorised according to its objective, approach, type of activity, target group, launch year, and geographic target, amongst other variables.” Unsurprisingly, given what was mentioned above, a majority of them are on the war and its aftermath.

For example, in 2015 the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute commemorated the 40th anniversary of the start of the civil war by hosting representatives of research centres and NGOs to discuss whether Lebanon has, after nearly three decades of the end of the war, turned a new page. The answer was a resounding ‘not really’.

Another example, and arguably the most well-known one, is the work of UMAM Documentation and Research (UMAM D&R). Their archival practices have paved the way for serious and much-needed discussions over Lebanon’s apparent refusal to deal with its own past in a meaningful way.

A final example is the heart-wrenching work of the Committee of the Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon. This women-led initiative has been struggling since 1990 to document and advocate for those 17,415 still officially missing from the war, those who make up the “the unfinished story of a finished war”. The committee’s founder, Wadad Halwani, has remained without news of her husband Adnan since his enforced disappearance on September 24th, 1982.

The work of UMAM D&R, the Committee of the Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared and others disproved the tendency of many scholars to argue that the answer to the ‘amnesia thesis’ was the widespread complicity of Lebanese civil society. Those arguing for the position that civil society has in fact been challenging the thesis for nearly three decades have, in my view, instead done right by UMAM D&R, the Committee and others.

That being said, the battle is far from over, and there is no indication that the situation in Lebanon cannot get worse. Indeed, the signs point to the ever-present risks of further conflict, worsened in recent years by the most powerful armed militia’s role in neighboring Syria, and with civil society groups still barely managing to maintain enough momentum to provoke change.

If the various politicians and commentators routinely scapegoating Syrian and Palestinian refugees tell us anything, it’s that it is still all-too-easy to distract attention from Lebanon’s plethora of ills. Even as the economic situation worsens for the many, it is still possible for those in power to divert attention towards those who are even more vulnerable.

This is why this mapping has the potential to help us organise to challenge these existing narratives trapped in an endless cycle of violence. They are structurally incapable of dealing with Lebanon’s multiple problems and have only the capacity to contribute to making them worse. Whether or not activists learn to use these and other tools remains to be seen. One thing is certain however, and that is that we do not have much of a choice other than to keep on trying.

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