Lebanon looks back to the `events' it can't forget

Civil war/ the bloody past that refuses to die

LIKE all civil wars, the beginning was messy. Did it start with the bloody suppression of a fisherman's strike in Sidon when Sunni Muslims were gunned down by a Christian-led army? Or was the match struck in the Beirut suburb of Galerie Semaan two months later, when Christian Phalangist militiamen ambushed a bus load of Palestinian guerrillas in Beirut on 13 April, 1976? Because the Christians and the Palestinians became the chief protagonists in a war that killed 150,000 people, the Lebanese prefer the latter.

Last week, a local television station marked the 20th anniversary by tracking down the bus and its driver, the former a bullet-riddled iron carcass in a car dump, the latter blind in one eye and crippled from his wounds, complaining all the while that the government never bothered to compensate him for his limp or his semi-blindness. Could there have been a more fitting symbol of a war that nobody won?

Almost five years after the conflict ended, the Lebanese have resorted to their old habits; of insisting that only foreigners were to blame; of calling the war "the events"; of believing that the "old" Lebanon of tolerance and self-respect between religious communities has returned. "Lebanon has risen from the ashes" is the stuff of a hundred headlines here. As if no one has noticed the thousands of Syrian soldiers in the country, the hundreds of acres of ruins, the emigration of half a million Lebanese, many of them Christians. For the Christians lost the war. So did the 350,000 Palestinian refugees from what was once Palestine, who still rot in their camps across Lebanon, watching the collapsing "peace process" destroy their hopes of ever returning "home".

The Lebanon war humiliated all who fought in it: Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader who was driven into exile and, later, into possible extinction in the slums of Gaza; Menachim Begin, the Israeli prime minister who died haunted by Israel's losses in the war he launched into Lebanon; Ariel Sharon whose soldiers watched the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila; Alexander Haig who gave the "green light" to the same invasion; Ronald Reagan, whose marines were slaughtered here in 1983; and Oliver North and Terry Waite and rebel general Michel Aoun who fled his palace in pyjamas in 1990.

The outcome, of course, is not all bad. Walid Jumblatt, once a ferocious militia leader, is still returning Christian families to the homes from which they were "ethnically cleansed" by his own Druze people two decades ago. Jean Chamoun and Mai Musri, two of the finest Lebanese film-makers, are trying to discover the roots of hatred in a new film about the war, an Arab version of Andrej Wajda's post-Second World War Ashes and Diamonds, in which Palestinians and Muslims and Christians re-enact their mutual love and suspicion. And in the old city centre, the Lebanese are laying the infrastructure of a new world, digging up their Roman, Byzantine and Islamic past before the construction companies plaster over the ancient soil with concrete for a new capitalist megalopolis, a Jeddah-on-the- Mediterranean which will, in the eyes of its critics, make the rich more respect-able and the poor more despised.

Perhaps this is unfair. Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's billionaire prime minister, has invested millions in the country's reconstruction. Beirut, with its new takeaways, banks, boutiques and hotels, enjoys the unique status of being one of the safest cities of the Middle East. Not so the south of Lebanon where the war between the pro-Iranian Hizballah - created by Israel's 1982 invasion - and the Israeli soldiers who still occupy the far south of the country, grows ever more ferocious. Perhaps the world has forgotten that while Unprofor continues to humiliate itself in Bosnia, the 6,000- strong Unifil (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) remains on the front line between Arabs and Jews east of Tyre.

Of course, the geography remains the same: the cedars of Lebanon, the Roman ruins of Baalbek. But it is those other ruins in which the ghosts still walk: in the destroyed villages of the Chouf and the sepulchral Dresden-like apartment blocks of old Beirut in which the poor still squat amid sewage and overgrown basements. Five years ago, the Taif peace conference was supposed to have closed down the war forever; a modern and non-confessional Lebanon was to emerge from these ruins, in which the president and the prime minister and the army chief of staff and the parliamentary speaker would no longer be chosen according to their religion. There was some tinkering with the old sectarianism. The Muslim prime minister was given more power, the Christian president less. But precious little else.

Even the dead do not all remain in their graves. Each winter, the rains reveal more corpses, beneath weed-matted sandbags, in the coils of tree roots high in the mountains. There is said to be a mass grave of Palestinians - the undiscovered dead of Sabra and Chatila - beneath the city's golf course. Only this month did the Lebanese government put forward a bill that will allow the relatives of Lebanon's 17,000 missing kidnap victims to regard their loved ones as dead, to permit wives and husbands to claim inheritance and bank accounts, to remarry and live their lives again.

Many of those who fought in the war are still here: 20,000 Syrian troops, at least 2,500 Israeli troops, thousands of Hizballah guerrillas, 55,000 Lebanese troops, 6,000 UN troops, thousands of armed Palestinians. But, of course, the Syrians who came here in 1976 are middle-aged now, many of the Israeli invaders of 1982 are retired. The Palestinian leadership of the Lebanese civil war are in their graves or gone to seed. Some say it will be 75 years before Beirut is totally rebuilt. But it will take more than a generation for the mental wounds to heal, let alone the blindness of a lame old bus driver from Galerie Semaan.

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