When the War is Over Can Syria be Repaired?

After its titanic civil war, can Syria remain a united state? And if it does – if Syria can be put back together again – how do you repair its people?

These are not idle words when, across the border, the people of Lebanon have again been marking the mournful anniversary of the start of their own civil war in 1975. The dead of Lebanon, like the dead of Syria, have been buried and resurrected by journalists and politicians. At the end of the Lebanese Civil War we reckoned 150,000 had died. Two months ago, a young Beirut activist suddenly came up with a figure of 200,000. What happened to the extra 50,000? And then last month, the figure rose again in a local newspaper to 250,000. What happened to the extra 100,000?

It’s worth remembering these disturbing changes. Syria’s dead simply cannot be calculated. When the UN figure reached 400,000, most of the media went along with it.

But just over a week ago, BBC World Television carried a report which downgraded Syria’s dead to 300,000. Who resurrected 100,000 from their graves? Are such figures, statistics – numbers that cannot ever be known for certain – really the only way of memorialising the dead of these useless conflicts?

Lebanon’s dark past was concluded with an amnesty that effectively ruled all killers innocent and left the families of the dead with neither justice nor comfort. There are – speak it not in Beirut – believed to be around 20 mass graves still untouched in Lebanon. Some of their locations are widely known; the mass grave of Palestinians seized in the Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982, for example, which lies close to a church near the Maronite Patriarchate above Jounieh. They were murdered by their Christian Phalangist captors when their captors could not arrange a prisoner swap. Another is widely believed to be close to the old golf course near Beirut airport. People fear to open these dreadful places because, I suppose (in the words of an old Serb lady to me when the Croats started opening mass graves from the Second World War): “They might want to pour more blood into them.”

Wadih el-Asmar, the president of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, has spoken of the need for a real work of memory and reconciliation in which the dead could be lifted from the earth in which they had been flung or bulldozed during the war and carefully identified. This, he warned, must not be an excuse for believing that all the “missing” of the war are dead. At least 100 men were taken to Syria and their families still occasionally receive proof of life.

Waddad Halawani, who runs the Committee of Families of the Disappeared and of People Kidnapped in Lebanon, argues that “we want only to know their fate and to offer them a burial place to receive them”. But as el-Asmar points out, the debate about the mass graves “quickly reveals the demons of the past, because to admit their existence is to accept the fact that the war was not an accident but truly a succession of organised and planned crimes”.

And there, as they say, is the rub. If there are crimes, there must be criminals. But the criminals have been saved by the national amnesty.


A fine new book by Sami Hermez, an anthropology teacher in Qatar, titled War is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon, notes that the amnesty law encouraged the Lebanese to forget their crimes but since perpetrators of supposed crimes “did not face trial, were not found guilty, and did not have to admit or confess to their crimes. What were people being called on to forget?” Political leaders could be prosecuted at a later date but a violation against innocent civilians was, through an act of pardon, “silenced and its status as crime left ambiguous and open to interpretation”.

El-Asmar insists that the charnel places of Lebanon should be opened with great care and dignity, and each body preserved in the earth should be carefully identified using DNA from their families – as are the mass grave victims of the Cypriot coup and the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island. In this way, thousands of families would be able to “turn the page” on the Lebanese Civil War.

Unless, of course, the exhumations restarted the conflict. Carmen Hassoun Abou Jaoude, a Lebanese researcher, has noted that the Lebanese commemorate the start of their civil war in 1975 but never its end in 1990, which in theory constitutes the beginning of peace. The problem, of course – and surely this will occur in Syria after its own calvary has finished – is that insecurity, bombings, murders and disappearances continued after the Lebanese Civil War, and still do today. As the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt stated at the height of the war in 1986, “the enemy is now inside each of us”. Is it still there?


Professor Fawwaz Traboulsi, a Lebanese historian, observed how Guernica – and specifically Picasso’s painting of the German Luftwaffe attack on the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War – has been compared by artists to the horrors and violence of Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Professor Traboulsi does not regard the Lebanese Civil War as necessarily confessional – nor is Syria’s war (since its army is largely Sunni Muslim, fighting Sunni opponents) – but was also caused by poverty and bad economic management.

The same might again also be said of Syria, where the Assad government’s economic policies sent a ribbon of newly displaced agricultural populations into the slums of the great cities before the war began.

Christina Foerch Saab, a German citizen and Lebanese resident filmmaker, is not the only one to notice how German history classes involved high school visits to museums and former concentration camps “in order not to repeat what happened. Then I came [to Beirut] and I saw that nothing like that was happening”. The memory of war is still clear in the minds of those who witnessed it.

Aline Manoukian, a photo editor and photographer, recalled for L’Orient Le Jour, a French language Lebanese newspaper, the saddest day in her career: “The burial of a little girl killed in a car bomb explosion in part of the southern suburbs of Beirut. My tears stopped me seeing through the [camera] viewfinder. Men carried the body of the little girl, wrapped in a shroud. They went into the cemetery in silence. A sheikh said a prayer and then the man carrying the body lifted it towards the sky. It was probably the father. He then placed the small body in the grave. After closing it, they left in the same dignified and silent way as they came. Neither tears nor cries, just a heavy sadness, which made the scene even more unbearable.”

But for families of those who have no known grave, there is no such compassion. Each week, L’Orient carries an article about the missing of the Lebanese Civil War, each story “written” by the missing – presumably dead – victim. “We disappeared a few days before my wedding” in June 1982, Chahine Imad, ‘writes’, mentioning the militia checkpoint where he was stopped near the town of Bhamdoun – and never seen again. “Don’t let our story end here.” Each article by the ‘dead’ ends with these same words. Raya Daouari, a 30-year-old widow, was taking her two children to their school enrolment when she was stopped at another militia checkpoint near the Beirut museum. She was never seen again. “Don’t,” she writes, “let my story end here.”

A project to memorialise all the disappeared of the Lebanon war is funded by the International Red Cross, the EU and two NGOs. But Syria’s war will end with many more casualties and many more missing than Lebanon’s. Its conflict is on a far larger scale, with vast areas of towns and cities razed to the ground – a fate which really only struck the centre of Beirut.

Even during the Syrian war today, there are reconciliation committees. But how can its people be repaired? Be sure, for many tens of thousands of Syrians, the war is already inside them; and will continue in their hearts – if Lebanon is anything to go by – long after the bloodshed ends.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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