Fear grips Lebanon and the Lebanese people
Dressed in a black T-shirt and trousers, a woman runs away from something. Together with others in a still picture from Beirut, she escapes being shot on the street. The touchingly frightened face of this grieving woman tells millions of stories. She must be in her fifties, her sober clothes and her face without makeup bear witness to a recent death, almost certainly from a close family member. No wonder she’s scared. Her left forearm is holding a small water bottle tightly against her chest. Her right arm is outstretched behind a young woman whose shocked face resembles her mother’s, I imagine. She would have been a child when, in 1975, war with street fighting broke out in the Lebanese capital, not far from where she is now hiding. She clasps life in both hands – in one her daughter and in the other what they need to survive a warm Mediterranean day in search of protection. The alleged mother appears to be escaping death, but death still surrounds her. After decades of war, ongoing life-destroying economic hardship and the loss of the family, death insists on following it.
Videos and pictures of the armed clashes abound in international news agencies. Despite much coverage after last Thursday in Beirut, there was little coherent account of the events. Nothing new, one could say. Lebanon has still had a significant amount of combat weapons that have gone missing since the early 1990s when active fighting ceased. The government, local communities and international actors have worked hard for decades to convince civilians to hand over their weapons to the Lebanese army. Peace building initiatives have also advocated goodwill practices that have been more effective in other countries, especially when handovers have been promoted through material compensation. Not in Lebanon. Until well into the 2000s, stubborn militiamen traveled around with a full arsenal in their trunk.
Mistrust runs deep in a country where generation-old rifts are being cut even deeper, especially along the inherited sect-like fault lines. Lebanon has not gone through any process of intermunicipal reconciliation after the ceasefire agreement, and in recent years the fault lines along political lines have been confirmed. The fatal events of the past week are a sign that the cure has yet to be made. If they revealed a seldom recognized feeling in Lebanon’s post-war memory, it is unprocessed grief.
The people of Lebanon, already vulnerable to a devastated economy, are now afraid. This is not only the case on the streets of Badaro and Tayyouneh, but also in homes, schools and hospitals in the embattled capital and across the country. Reports from professional journalists cannot hide trembling voices, an eerie reminder of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York City two decades ago. This is not a good sign. When trade reporters don’t know what to think of an event, you know that something important is happening; and the outlook is seldom positive.
Protesters in the street say they were shot at by snipers from residential buildings. While none of the main opponents took responsibility for the bloody clashes, their leaders denied the ability to exchange heavy shots. Regardless of who shot first, civilians were in the thick of it. Video footage showed men, women and children running across the streets to seek shelter behind something. Some put their arms around more vulnerable companions, others covered the forehead of a loved one with their hand. Instinctive gestures of protection, though they might do little in the face of bullets.
When trade reporters don’t know what to think of an event, you know that something important is happening; and the outlook is seldom positive.
Through pictures of children barricading themselves behind cars on a street or crouching under classroom desks, a friend complained that young children, including her own, were forced to experience the daily traumas they suffered during their childhood, exclusively was experienced during the war. We now know that trauma is repetitive for both individuals and generations, and that is bad enough. But in Lebanon today, the sophisticated functions of the human nervous system and genetic system are not needed for this task. Traumatic war experiences insist that they inevitably repeat themselves.
No matter how hard a parent tries to protect their offspring, fresh traumatic experiences are not in short supply. Unless a radical way to stop them is agreed and implemented in this volatile environment, trauma will continue to be imprinted on the memories of every generation in Lebanon. With this repetition seen today in Beirut, unfortunately, similar risks are all too real for countries across the region.
- Tala Jarjour is the author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo”. She is a visiting scholar at King’s College London and an Associate Fellow at Yale College.
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