“Don’t reach for the gun,” ex-combatants warn Lebanese youths

“Don't reach for the gun,” ex-combatants warn Lebanese youths

Salwa Saad speaks with schoolteachers about ways to reduce sectarianism in the classroom.

(Alicia Medina)

It took Salwa Saad one year to shake hands with Assaad Chaftari. They fought on opposite sides of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Saad for the communists and Chaftari for a right-wing Christian militia. Today, they both work with Fighters for Peace (FFP) – the only organisation in Lebanon that brings together former combatants from both sides – to steer young people away from violence.

When Salwa first joined FFP in late 2015, she was reluctant to approach Assad. In April 2016, she and other ex-combatants travelled to Northern Ireland to talk with former members of the IRA. It was there that she realised she had to make an effort to reach out to her former enemies. On the bus Salwa said to Assaad: “Ok, I am beginning to accept you.” “It’s ok,” he replied, “I hate myself too. Even today there are nights that I can’t sleep.”

The trip to Ireland brought these two former enemies closer together. Together, they have embarked on a journey to warn young people of the dangers of sectarianism, but more importantly, to forgive their former enemies and themselves.

Feeding hatred of ‘the other’

As a teenager, Assad collected newspaper articles about his heroes from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. Salwa used to climb pine trees to catch a glimpse of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation trainings near her village. Her heroes were the female soldiers of the fedayeen. During the Vietnam War, Assad was fascinated by the American army, Salwa by the Vietcong.

As a university student Salwa joined the Communist Party dreaming of changing the political status quo, reducing the gap between rich and poor, and defending the Palestinians. At 20 years old, Salwa had no doubt that she was right. When the war broke out in April 1975, “in a way, we were ready for it,” she says.

Assaad, also 20 at the time, was ready too. As a Christian, he felt that Muslims, Palestinians and leftists were “pushing us out of the country.” He viewed all of them as “evil, dirty, lazy, fanatics and traitors.” Today, he blames ignorance, fear and a feeling of superiority for leading him to hate. “We [Christians] should have treated the Muslims like equals, but we didn’t,” he says. In 1975 Assaad joined the right-wing militia Lebanese Forces and bought his first weapon, a Czech handgun, in Sabra. Six years later, Sabra, along with Shatila, became the infamous site of the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the hands of Lebanese Forces. He would go on to trade his Czech pistol in for a Kalashnikov to “protect our streets,” he says.

Salwa was the first person in her village to carry a gun. “I had status, people looked at me with pride,” she says. She became a regional leader of the Communist Party where she recruited and trained women in the use of weapons. Though she fought several times on the front, she says that she never killed anyone.

Assaad lost count of how many deaths he ordered. He became second-in-command of the intelligence and security unit of Lebanese Forces with thousands of soldiers under his command. He was in charge of interrogations and “everything you see in [the war in] Syria.” His job was to decide on the fate of kidnapped prisoners. The stacks of files on his desk piled so high that his assistant had to summarise them for him. “If a guy was too valuable to be killed, we kept him to extract information,” he explains. Others were sold, exchanged or killed.

For some, he was a hero. “I was one of the protectors of the Christians,” he says. People gave them money and food. A priest once pardoned him in advance for 500 deaths. But the more they shelled, the more they lost their humanity. "When you shell an area, you are shelling numbers,” explains Assaad. Salwa agrees and blames ideology for transforming her enemies into numbers. “From the start you think you have the truth on your side. Doubt is central to learning and ideology doesn’t allow for doubt,” she explains, adding, “I hate ideology.”

Towards the end of the civil war, both were forced out of their ideological bubbles, Salwa in the capitalist country of Canada and Assad in Zahle, Lebanon surrounded by Muslims.

Cracks in the ideological facade

In 1985, internal fighting in Lebanese Forces forced Assaad and his wife to move to Zahle, a city in the interior of the country surrounded by Muslim populations. A group called Moral Rearmament invited his wife to their dialogue sessions with Muslims, Christians, Palestinians and leftists. Two years later, Assaad joined one of the meetings. “This is how I discovered ‘the other,’ the real ‘them.’” It was then that he began the process of “facing myself in the mirror and realising what I had done.”

In 1990, a month before the war ended, Salwa fled to Montreal, Canada with her family. She was astonished to discover that a capitalist country could offer free healthcare and education. “I recognised that capitalism could be good in certain ways…I started to think,” she says. She studied for four years and then returned to Lebanon and became the head of a teachers’ union where she had to work alongside former enemies. “We didn’t speak about the past, but we liked each other,” she says. She began to see them as people.

She spent a decade consumed by the stress of working at three schools to support her two children and dealing with a husband who cheated on her. “In the war I was an important woman. In my marriage I was nothing,” she says. After leaving her husband in 2003 she began to re-examine her past. In 2016 a former ‘comrade’ convinced her to join FFP. She took part in a psychotherapy session and gradually began to come to terms with her past. Today she is one of 40 former combatants in FFP who help others like them to break their silence.

They also work to break down taboos surrounding the civil war in Lebanese schoolrooms, where the subject is omitted from history books. When Salwa gives talks at schools, she has a clear message for students: “Look at us, our souls are wounded, we destroyed our country, so many people killed and what did we gain?” Assad urges them to be critical about what their radio station, religious or political leaders say about ‘the enemy’.

On a Saturday afternoon, Assaad Chaftari sits in the audience of an unscripted theatre play. FFP and the NGO March organise Playback Theatre, where the actors improvise a play based on audience members’ stories. On stage are fifteen young people from two neighbourhoods with sectarian tensions, one Sunni majority, the other Shia. One audience member talks about being kidnapped. Another talks about being beaten by his own militia.

The theatre has become a space where young people who are taught to hate one another can learn about the consequences of that hatred and where victims and ex-guerrillas can break their silence – a silence first imposed by the Amnesty Law of 1991, which granted immunity for crimes committed during the war. According to Nour El Bejjani, expert at the International Center of Transitional Justice, this “failure to hold perpetrators accountable” led to a “culture of impunity.” Many former militia leaders now sit in parliament. “You can’t talk about dealing with the past when the people that caused the harm are still in power today,” says El Bejjani. The wounds of the past feed today’s sectarianism. “Young people only hear about the war from their parents,” he explains, adding that many teachers prefer not to talk about war in order to “avoid tensions.”

On a Sunday morning, Salwa attends meeting of 20 high school teachers who share ideas on how to reduce tensions between the religious sects, as well as between Lebanese and Syrians. One teacher explains that one of her Christian students didn’t want to attend the American University of Beirut because of its location in the Muslim part of the city. It comes as no surprise to the others.

Since the end of the conflict, civil society has led reconciliation efforts. The NGO Lebanon Support has identified 156 reconciliation initiatives, of which the Lebanese government has only taken part in eight.

But last November, passage of Law 105 on Missing and Forcibly Disappeared Persons brought some hope to the families of the 17,000 Lebanese people who disappeared during the war. A commission is now being formed to investigate their fate.

With massacres committed by both sides during the 15-year war, it is unlikely that perpetrators will be held criminally accountable. According to El Bejjani, though some victims still seek criminal justice: “Families are mainly interested in locating their disappeared loved ones.” The ICTJ believes that ‘transitional justice,’ which focuses on the preservation of historical memory and recognition of victims’ suffering, can function as reparation.

The only thing that brings comfort to Assaad is knowing that he is helping his “country, young people and other ex-combatants.” His past weighs heavily on him, “and I’m not the only one,” he says. He is, however, the only high-ranking former combatant to publicly apologise.

Salwa and Assaad insist on sharing their wounds and mistakes in the hope that young people will learn from them. They are afraid of today’s sectarianism. Freeing the new generation from the nightmare of war is what allows these two former combatants to sleep soundly at night.

This article has been translated from Spanish.