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Let Us Now Praise Murderous Men; Lebanese Presidential Candidates, Considered

[Left to Right: Gemayel, Geagea, Maronite Patriarch Rai, Michel Aoun, Suleiman Frangieh. Image from marada.com] [Left to Right: Gemayel, Geagea, Maronite Patriarch Rai, Michel Aoun, Suleiman Frangieh. Image from marada.com]

Lebanon is slated to hold presidential elections next week, despite the fact that the parliamentary elections have yet to be held and it is the Lebanese parliament that elects the Lebanese President. Last year elections were postponed for the first time in the state’s history, and parliament illegitimately extended its own term in the absence of elections. This further throws into doubt the legitimacy of the looming presidential contest.

Thus far, several potential presidential candidates have expressed their interest in running, all Maronite Christians as per Lebanon’s constitutional system of power sharing between sects. Three of the most prominent potential candidates are notorious for their involvement in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990: Samir Geagea, Michel Aoun, and Amin Gemeyyel.  Everyone and anyone who was residing in Lebanon during that war have stories and memories of these men and their wartime exploits/crimes.

However, civil war is also a war for memory, and while for many (myself included) these men are murderous criminals, for others they were and continue to be protectors and legitimate political leaders. There has never been a frank and popular discussion of the ways that the memoryscape of the Lebanese Civil War is as fractured and polarized as the war itself was. To use a cliché; during the war one child’s nightmares were populated by other children’s heroes. These patterns did not follow a narrow sectarian formula, as the civil war also featured Muslims killing Muslims and Christians killing Christians over ideology, turf, and the war-time economy. Furthermore, warlords and armed factions proliferated from and towards all sides during the civil war. In fact, it is another warlord and war criminal turned politician, Nabih Berri, who as speaker of Parliament has the duty to call Presidential elections. Three of his wartime fraternity; Geagea, Aoun and Gemeyyel, might be running for President. 

I was one of those children with nightmares, living in West Beirut with my family first in Tariq al-Jadidah, then in Wata al-Mseitbé, and finally in the Salim Salam area, where my family still lives. Memory is never scientific, and memories of childhood are always a jagged mosaic of the senses and the surreal. Perhaps they are more truthful that way. By the time I was eleven, all of the apartment buildings in which we had lived had been shelled and fired upon. The Lebanese army (under Gemeyyel) shelled Tariq al-Jadidah and with it our building, the façade of our building in Wata al-Mseitbé featured complex patterns of machine gun fire, and the apartment directly above ours in Salim Salam was shelled and burnt by the Lebanese army under Michel Aoun. These memories always seem to occur in candlelight, flickering experiences hardly uncommon for residents of Beirut at the time. In fact my (nuclear) family was exceedingly lucky: everyone survived. No one was permanently disabled. We never left Lebanon and we never lost our homes. 

Reading and watching Geagea give press statements on his candidacy, I remember the space of terror he used to occupy for myself and my friends in Tariq al-Jadidah. I remember watching mortars explode from a window with a view of the northern coast with my grade school classmates during the Aoun-Geagea war. I remember a year spent in a mountainous Beirut suburb, away from school and from an apartment untenably close to “the Green Line.” Today, I try to imagine what a Palestinian in Lebanon thinks when she sees Geagea on TV confidently lay out why he should be president. Does her heartbreak as one by one, journalists fail to ask Geagea about his involvement in war time massacres? Has her heart been broken too many times in Lebanon, and does she simply change the channel? No one asks Geagea, or his rival Gemeyyel, about their wartime alliances with Israel, or their complicity in the siege of West Beirut, or their wars with rival Maronite leaders that left thousands dead and maimed.

I remember listening to the news with my family on the way to school the day that Gemeyyel left Beirut for Paris—It was a happy day. Years earlier, my five-year-old self had found an unexploded ordinance on our balcony in Tariq al-Jadidah. Amin Gemeyyel was President and he had ordered the army to shell the area. Many refused the order and deserted. I like to think that the unexploded ordinance on our balcony was the result of a soldier consciously removing explosive materials from mortal shells, knowing that his act would save the lives of residents. In reality, however, we have no idea why that shell did not explode. We were just lucky.

We were lucky again when the Lebanese army shelled our neighborhood during Aoun’s “War of Liberation” against the Syrian army, a war which apparently required the Lebanese army to shell heavily congested civilian areas in West Beirut. One particularly terrifying night, as my family was clustered in our foyer where we had been sleeping for days, my mother spread her arms across a wall and kissed it. This is the first memory I have of my parents as ordinary people; fragile, afraid, vulnerable. I have never been as prfoundly shaken in my life as I was in that moment, watching my mother hug a concrete wall during a night of heavy shelling.

The legacies of Aoun, Geagea and Gemeyyel are the hundreds of thousands of killed and wounded during the Lebanese civil war. Their legacies are massacres and sieges and mortars and snipers and kidnapping and millions of dollars stolen and embezzled from citizens and the treasury. They are not alone with this legacy: leaders of rival political units and “different sides” should also be defined by their wartime crimes.

In the absence of any formal reckoning with the legacies of the civil war, public memory and narration grow increasingly important. This is particularly true when there is no agreed upon narrative of the past, a condition of building a political community oriented towards a common future. Lebanon is a long way from this, but only when the fractured memoryscape is actually mapped out in all its registers will it be possible for these memories to inspire new futures. We should recognize the traumas that we experienced and inflicted upon each other during the war, and the traumas that we continue to experience through the imposed silence of the “post civil war” era. This seems particularly important given that Lebanon has been dancing, and stumbling, on a blade of violence since 2005.

Memory is a powerful political tool, and it belongs to each one of us.  Our memories of these infamous men are politically valid. Our memories are a tribute to those buried under rubble, shot in the street by snipers, exploded into pieces by a car bomb, massacred in a refugee camp or a mountain village. Their lives and deaths are not found in history books, there are no public and national memorials to them, and their killers and their killers’ allies continue to occupy all echelons of the government. In many ways, our memories are the only tribute that the dead have left—a trace of their life and unnecessary death that remains.  To remember and dwell on the civil war, particularly when confronted by many of its macabre stars, now clothed in business suits and the language of elections, is not to be sectarian. To remember these men’s crimes does mean being mired in the past, or self-involved, or unfocused on the current political, economic, and social crises in Lebanon. To remember, and to insist on letting our memories speak, is to be human.

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