Friday, April 13, 2007

Lebanon: Mental Images of the Civil War

If war is Hell, civil war is an unspeakable horror. There is something about the unpredictability and randomness of a civil war that makes it all the more vile and evil. All justifications for such a conflict are quickly forgotten as violence and destruction become ends in themselves. The senseless violence escalates into a self-destructive orgy, consuming everything in its way.

This year, with the specter of renewed civil strife lurking in the background, the April 13th anniversary of the Lebanese civil war is especially poignant. For me, having lived through, and survived, seven of fifteen years of civil war in Beirut, the April 13th anniversary brings back many memories of a personally transformative time. There are memories of friendships and love and overcoming of adversities. But there are also, seared into my memory, dark moments that have forever changed me; they have made me essentially a pacifist. In violence and war, I do not see honor, nor glory, nor patriotism, nor martyrdom, nor any other of the romantic ideals trumped up to convince men of the necessity of war. All I saw were shattered bodies, shattered lives, shattered communities and shattered innocence.

These are the mental image seared into my memory from this time:
  • The endless nights huddled in the stairwell of the apartment building where I lived.
  • My blue VW golf turned into a sieve from the shrapnel of a mortar shell.
  • The smell of blood, sweat and explosives that permeated the AUH emergency room on a bad day.
  • The stunned look of a young girl, not older than six, with a superficial shrapnel wound on her delicate cheek, as I carried her into the emergency room.
  • All the different permutations of militias that at one time or another clashed with each other.
  • The eerie quiet of a bright spring Beirut morning following a night of horrifying bombardment, when all you could hear was the chirping of birds.
  • The nausea I felt at the putrid smell of death coming from the overcrowded hospital morgue.
  • Being turned back by a Kataeb checkpoint as I tried to leave Beirut in the midst of the Israeli blitz of 1982.
  • Fearing that every parked car I walked by in Hamra was about to blow up.
  • Spending nights sleeping uncomfortably on chairs in the hospital conference rooms when it was too dangerous to leave the building.
  • The anger I felt as I peeked out the window and saw an Israeli tank advancing into the neighborhood in 1982 after the PLO evacuated the city.
  • Seeing flares go up across the city and hearing muffled gunfire as, unbeknown to me, the orgy of violence in Sabra and Shatila was taking place.
  • The feeling of rage at having to show deference to the militiamen that controlled the neighborhood, when most were nothing more than mere thugs.
  • Being stopped at the Airport by the Syrian mukhabarat because I should have been helping liberate the Golan Heights.
  • Watching the light fixtures in our classroom suddenly drop down as the shock wave of the bombed American embassy shook the room like an earthquake. Then rushing outside to see the walking wounded, stunned, covered in dust and blood, coming up the street.
  • and .... and...

It is because of these memories that images from Baghdad - and Algiers- leave a knot in the pit of my stomach. I can empathize with ordinary Baghdadis trying to live their lives in the midst of this useless, destructive mayhem. It behoves all Lebanese to remember these images of the civil war, not to point fingers of blame, but to make sure it never happens again.


Fares said...

Abu Kareem,

Your post is very well written, I could not agree with you more.

A lot of my relatives had to live through that Civil war in Beirut and Tripoli as well as Koura. I visited during those times few times with my family since some periods were more peaceful than other...and sometimes clashes erupted out of nowwhere and as my uncle took us in his car to flee a bullet touched his front window so he was driving as fast as he could to save us from this mess that were not used to.

A lot of buildings were ghosts and ridden with bullets, a lot of punks and gangsters were around since there was no authorithies...some arabic worlds that I remember "3el'et", "Malja'a", "7hajez", "Rade3", "Zi3ran"

The worst was no electricity and water many nights, no phone services or mail, not to mention people dumping their trash in the street corner for 10 years but no collection was made so imagine the disgusting smell.

So many bizarre stories including fighting militias getting paid jointly to protect some buildings or businesses (no shelling) it was a profitable business.

I remember also young Lebanese in France and Europe calling Hikamt Wahbe on MonteCarlo on Sundays to relay messages to their families!

The Syrian Brit said...

Akh ya Abu Kareem.. Your account of the mental images of the War brought back so many painful memories..
I do have several mental images of my own for that dark era, but I won't bore you with them.. they do not add much to the picture that you have painted, and they are too painful to recount..
I just hope and pray that we have all learnt something from those tragic years.. otherwise, history is at risk of repeating itself..

KA said...

Good post. Although I never lived through the war my father has often spoken to me about it, with a similar account and the same conclusion. Hopefully it won't happen again.

Philip I said...

Abu Kareem

You have reminded us in very vivid and human terms that in war, man's cruelty to man knows no bounds. But you, as a physician operating at the sharp end, see the horrors close up. Those who cause death drop their lethal bombs from great heights in a clinical and detached way. The purpose of war is to dehumanise the other side and destroy it. There is never a shortage of people who revel in the glory of "victory" or ascend power on the corpses of both sides.

Fares said...

Help Iraqi Christians

From one war to lucky we are, the program is full of action, you chose from the menu: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Morroco, Algeria and many more coming soon so you are not bored...what do you feel like having tonight????