Although the 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, like many other conflicts, the war did not stop when the guns and cannons fell silent. It was a multifaceted war that began with tit-for-tat attacks between Christians and Palestinians in Beirut and then spread all over the country, claiming over 250,000 lives.
For the family members of the 17,000 people who went missing during the war, the excavation of mass graves is the only way to find out the fate of their loved ones. However, despite 26 years of relative peace, Lebanese officials are still reluctant to uncover the mass graves.
In an interview with Equal Times, Assaad Chaftari explains why that is. Chaftari, who was the deputy chief of intelligence in the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, is the only military official who published a letter of public apology to his nation. He also joined an initiative of ex-fighters who have been attempting to lead Lebanon through the reconciliation and peacemaking process.
Why have Lebanese officials not taken any steps to resolve the cases of mass graves since the end of the civil war?
There are several reasons for politicians’ disinterest in discussing and investigating the cases of mass graves. Firstly, Lebanon has never got over the civil war. Even though, the military phase of the civil war ended – to some extent – in 1990, we still live in a deeply divided society. Secondly, as bizarre as it sounds, the same groups who began and fought the war are still present in our daily politics. They have not even changed the name of their parties or factions. And thirdly, I think that the divide between different sects in Lebanon has been increasing during the last decade, since [former prime minister] Rafik Hariri was assassinated.
Do you agree with the social activists who believe that the 1991 amnesty law, for crimes perpetrated during the war, was the main obstacle to post-war reconciliation in Lebanon?
I do agree, although I think that the amnesty law was the way that Lebanon chose to end the war. Each country has its own way of turning the page. Let’s accept Lebanon’s way, since now it is done, but I always say that the amnesty law has fundamental issues. The first problem is that there is no explanation in the amnesty law for the reason why this amnesty was enacted. There was no discussion in the law about what happened during the war.
Moreover, the amnesty was unconditional and no reconciliation process was considered regarding the war crimes. No mechanism was implemented to encourage the fighters to come forward and speak out. Unlike in other countries, in Lebanon the people who had committed crimes didn’t need to appear before a reconciliation tribunal or even tell a committee what they knew about the war.
Another problem is that the amnesty did not clearly state that the law comes into effect only once and not over and over again. It might sound strange, but this ambiguity is why you see no end to the conflicts in Lebanon. Take [Lebanon’s] Tripoli as an example. Between 2012 and 2015, those who fought the 21 rounds of clashes on the streets of Tripoli thought that even if they were arrested there would be another amnesty and the politicians who were supporting them would reach another favourable agreement regarding their fate.
From your experience of the civil war, do you think it will be possible to locate and excavate all the mass graves in Lebanon?
No one knows the sites of all the mass graves in Lebanon. We are not speaking about a few incidents that happened in a short period of time. Most graves that we are talking about are not mass graves but small holes with only a few corpses in them. There are few mass graves, which are related to incidents such as the Karantina, Sabra and Chatila, and Damour massacres. Apart from those massacres, people were killed and buried individually or in small groups in separate incidents. Warring factions dug a hole somewhere and left a body there. The day after that, they left another body in the same hole and maybe a week later, a third body. That’s why it is so difficult to find all those places.
Those were not planned and happened accidentally. They dug somewhere for a construction project and suddenly they found some bodies. Those excavations didn’t intentionally take place to reveal the truth about the civil war.
What about you, do you know about the location of any mass graves?
Even if knew, I would not tell you about it. It is not possible to do that in this situation.
So what should be done to resolve this issue?
It is a collective responsibility. We need to start the process of reconciliation altogether. We should start down the path that makes it possible for the people to come forward and speak about what they know about the incidents of the civil war. I don’t mean just the leaders of the war but also the low ranking soldiers and ordinary people – they should be part of the process. This won’t happen until all Lebanese people decide to resolve this issue. Everyone should make a move to overcome this problem, but unfortunately for many of us it’s shameful to say that we are sorry, to ask for forgiveness. That’s why many prefer to remain silent.